By Tony J. Peterson
Food plots are not your answer to killing more big bucks. I'm just going to throw that out there now, because a lot of hunters seem to believe that to be true. This misperception most likely stems from the media fatigue we have in the outdoors where every other whitetail we watch being shot on television happens to be grazing in a beautiful plot.
The dirty secret is that those properties would harbor better-than-average deer, and better-than-average hunting regardless of food plots. Most of them would, anyway. Emulating that simply by planting some clover is a recipe for disappointment for most of us.
Instead, planting a small plot should be viewed as a labor of love because it will be a lot of work, and if you're like me, you'll love it. You might also turn a good spot into something special a little more special, and find yourself enjoying sitting in the woods a bit more. This is especially true if you happen to hunt small properties where you're limited on ambush sites. I've got a few places in Minnesota and Wisconsin I hunt that fit into that category, and each one has a couple of kill plots that I'm continually tweaking.
But first things first, you need to choose a location.
Location & Soil Quality
My best advice is to choose a food plot location based on how you will be able to hunt it, and how much the deer like the area already. If you can access it, have a few quality stand trees, and it currently draws deer naturally, then you're on to something. You'll have to decide on how big you want your plot to be.
For me, that's usually not very big. I do everything by hand, so carving out two acres in the woods is not an option. I tend to start really small, and over the years work to expand my plots a little bit each year.
Once you've got a spot picked out, it'll be time to cut and clear. I don't know what it is about watching a tree fall down, but I love it. The clearing part is manly work and it feels good to sweat your way through the task and see what you've accomplished. After that, it's a matter of taking a soil test. Don't skip this step. I repeat - don't skip this step.
With the first plots I created in north-central Wisconsin I did a soil test, even though I didn't think I really needed to. I was wrong. What I found out was that I needed a lot of lime and very specific fertilizer. I also found out that while my soil wasn't great, it was fixed pretty well for organic matter. Little victories do matter.
When you get your test results, you'll have plenty of work to do.
Which Seeds Are Best?
Not all food plot seeds are created equal. In fact, it's not even close. The old saw, 'you get what you pay for,' certainly applies to food plot seed. The difference between mediocre seed that will produce mediocre growth and good seed that will produce a much better plot, might be as little as $15 or $20 per bag. I learned the hard way that spending a little extra is always worth it.
I also like to keep things simple. Because of where I live and the limited amount of time I've got to devote to growing deer food, I choose clover and oats almost exclusively. I don't use blends hardly ever, because I can't seem to get them to produce the way I want them to and I'm not as into the shotgun approach to food plotting as I used to be. I like simple precision these days.
Establishing a good clover bed has been the best route for me, and overseeding clover with oats seems to help the whole thing take off better. In fact, while oats aren't the most desirable food choice out there, they are by far the easiest to grow. I think you could toss a handful of oats onto an asphalt road and watch them sprout provided you got a little rain.
Maybe not, but they are easy to grow. Clover is too, but you need to look at it as a process that will take a year to even get started. Clover needs to establish a good root system the first year, so the growth is usually underwhelming. The following year, it'll come back much better and require only a little bit of maintenance.
Now, you might be planning on hunting late season more, so you might have different ideas on what to plant. Or you simply might live in a different climate where other seeds are better options. That's all fine, just do your research and follow the planting instructions as closely as you can.
Keep It Real
The hard part about developing a small plot is that it's easy to believe the deer are going to visit each day like it's their job. They might, or they might not. I've found that I can usually get a few doe groups to swing through on a somewhat regular basis, but the bucks are less predictable. If I don't harass the ladies, however, I'll eventually see them draw in their wandering boyfriends. At the very least, it never hurts to have a few does that are real comfortable hanging around your stands.
Keep your expectations in check and understand that a kill plot is simply an enhancement project that can make a good spot a little better. You'll also have the satisfaction of watching other critters enjoy your plantings, which I think is pretty cool. Every year I have bears, turkeys, and grouse in my plots. That doesn't do anything for my deer hunting, but I don't care because it makes my sits much more enjoyable.
You may, of course, arrow a giant buck in your kill plot too. It's just on the right side of impossible, which makes sitting over a green bed of lush clover a little more enjoyable as well.