I'll never forget a conversation I had with a well-known western bowhunter during a dinner a few years ago. He casually mentioned that he thought whitetail hunting was somewhat of a joke.
When I pressed him to explain he said, "Plant a food plot. Sit over a food plot. Shoot a buck with a name." He is not alone in his impression of midwestern and eastern whitetail hunting.
Anyone who watches outdoor television or reads outdoor magazines sees plenty of whitetail hunting conducted on well-groomed food plots involving bucks with nicknames like Goal Post and Skyscraper. There is nothing wrong with that type of hunting, but for most of us, it's not realistic.
In the interest of full disclosure I should say that I plant a few kill plots each spring and sit over them each fall. This is one of my go-to tactics on small properties because there isn't much else to do on those places. I've killed a few does on the plots and a few small bucks, but that's it. I like food plots and enjoy working on them, but they don't factor into any of my strategies for arrowing mature bucks.
In fact, each fall I spend far more time hunting public land for whitetails than I do sitting on private properties over food plots.
There are a few reasons for this, but the most important to me is that I enjoy the challenge. I love showing up at a piece of public land on which I've never set foot and trying to figure out what the deer are doing and how I'll put myself in a position to fill a tag. In this type of hunting there is no history with the buck, there's no control over the hunting pressure, and there are no food plots.
Back To Basics
There is a misconception out there in the hunting industry that everything we can do to make things easier will in fact, make it easier to kill big bucks. This goes for food plots, but it also goes for trail cameras, calls, and a host of other products we pour money into each year. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don't, and there are a litany of variables out there that can push the results one way or the other.
Lost in those products is the simple fact that the best way to kill more mature bucks is to work at it. Work intelligently at it, anyway. We've strayed away from the importance of reading sign and going to the deer as opposed to trying everything we can to getting the deer to come to us.
To make this work, you've got to scout. I'm not talking hanging a few cameras and waiting to get some pictures, I'm talking spending serious time on the aerial photos and serious time walking your hunting ground. This goes for March, the summer months, and of course, the duration of the season.
"Anyone who watches outdoor television or reads outdoor magazines sees plenty of whitetail hunting conducted on well-groomed food plots involving bucks with nicknames like Goal Post and Skyscraper. There is nothing wrong with that type of hunting, but for most of us, it's not realistic."
That last part is important because we often reason that we don't want to walk through our best stuff in September because we will bump deer and push them nocturnal. If that were the case, those of us who hunt public land would never see a deer on its hooves in daylight. They'd all be vampires, but they aren't.
Take the walk, take several, and figure out the intricacies of the land you hunt.
An awful lot of the deer hunting advice is centered on finding food sources and hunting them (or of course, creating those food sources). I'm not going to minimize that strategy because it is important. But it's also not very hard to figure out what the deer are eating. This is especially true if you hunt in an agriculture-dominated area.
It never ceases to amaze me how many hunters I know set up cameras on the edge of a soybean field to get pictures. I know that's fun, but are you really learning anything? After all, it's a pretty safe bet that the deer are eating soybeans. I'm of the opinion it is far more important to figure out how they get to that particular field and how they leave it - and where they will stage during the season.
How a deer travels through his home is everything, and that goes for anyone hunting anywhere. I spend a fair amount of time tromping through the big woods of northern Wisconsin where fields are few and far between, and the entirety of my strategy involves reading sign and figuring out where the bucks like to walk. This is exactly what I do on my public land hunts as well, and there is an added bonus to this strategy - it keeps you from the other hunters on the property.
Anyone who hunts pressured ground knows the easy spots will get hunted. It's natural, and that means if you really want to kill big bucks, you've got to hunt somewhere else. Travel routes and staging areas are that somewhere else for me. You can find these places with some map and camera work, but you won't understand them fully, or understand where exactly to hang a stand, unless you get in and take a look yourself. Old-fashioned scouting validates everything, and it allows you the chance to pinpoint your exact ambush spots and set up to kill.
Set Up To Move
One of the reasons food plots are so popular is they become THE place to hunt on any property. What I mean by this is that once they are established and the deer use them, a lot of us find reasons to only sit there and nowhere else. Where food plots don't exist, we still do this but maybe don't realize it.
We have our favorite stands and we'll hunt them in the right conditions, but that also means we miss a lot. A lot. For example, last year on a 29-acre property in the Twin Cities I hunted the last few days of the archery season.
Throughout the fall I'd sat only two stands, and while I saw some deer I definitely wasn't in any danger of being overrun with deer action. With nothing to lose and only a doe tag left to fill, I carried a climbing stand out there in the end of December to sit a few new spots.
I didn't kill a deer, but I saw several and they were all moving through that small parcel in ways that surprised me. It would be a mistake to say something like "they weren't following the script" because they were, they just had a different script than I did. In fact, hunting pressure was probably the whole reason why they were using that woods the way they were.
Don't be afraid to hunt new spots, look over new ground, and get in the thick stuff. When we decide to hang new stands, especially while in season, we tend to gravitate toward areas where we can see a long way i.e. field edges, natural clearings, and other openings.
It's oftentimes a better bet to sit in the tight stuff. And if you do witness some type of encouraging deer activity, be ready to move your setup. There is nothing more valuable to a bowhunter than watching a deer do something today because it's entirely possible, that same deer will do that exact same thing tomorrow.
It's also important to note that you can learn a lot by not seeing deer. When most of us sit a stand and we blank, we figure the deer weren't moving. In reality, they probably just didn't pass by where we were sitting. If you're blanking a lot, something is wrong no matter whether it's opening weekend, the heart of the lull, or the first week of November.
Food plots are fun, but they aren't for everyone. If you're out of luck when it comes to planing half of an acre of deer groceries, you're not alone and you can still arrow a mature buck. It'll just take some old-fashioned scouting and a willingness to keep hunting - and looking - until you find a natural travel route that is conducive to a killer ambush setup.