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IF YOU PLANT IT, THEY WILL COME.
IF YOU HUNT IT WRONG, THEY WILL LEAVE.
THE MORNING broke calm and clear, and I laughed quietly to myself, thinking the weatherman had finally got it right. I slipped quietly into the creek bottom where I was confident plenty of sign would be evident in the half-frozen clay and on the trunks and branches of the willows and pin oaks that choked the area.
Dawn had come and gone, and the growing light revealed the deer runway that paralleled the creek and several subtle off-ramps tracing up and through the brush. The rising sun was also starting to stir the air. I could feel the cool, westerly breeze trying to warm itself as it swirled around me.
The oak-laden hardwoods that rose above me on the surrounding hillside were broken up by a narrow bench stretching from west to east. The 100-foot gap it created sat 60 feet up the hill and nearly 20 feet below the crest of the hill where the oaks gave way to a small, open plateau that I had earmarked as a possible location to accessorize with some added greens from Whitetail Institute.
I knelt down and lit the fuse of the smoke bomb, a remnant of last year’s Fourth of July. I took careful note of how the wind and smoke interacted as they filtered through the bottom, gradually pinballing their way toward the bench.
And, sure enough, when the fluorescent smoke found the open air of the narrow clearing, it turned almost 180 degrees and seemed to retreat against the western breeze before disappearing into the February morning sky. Before stopping to pick up the shell of the smoke bomb, I quickly made up my mind that the next time my local weatherman predicted an easterly morning breeze, I would need to see how a second smoke bomb would react in the promising location. After that, I was sure a specific course of action would reveal itself as to what kind of food plot I should establish on the plateau and begin narrowing my options for stand placement.
Everywhere you look, the evolution of food plots and deer-management programs have changed the face of white-tailed deer hunting. In fact, these concepts are no longer foreign to even the one-day wonders who are able to gird up their loins enough to hunt once a year on opening morning of gun season. However, without question, a vast majority of hunters make a number of elementary mistakes when planting hunting food plots and agricultural resources that either diminish or completely wipe out their chances of slapping their John Hancock on a mature buck’s tag.
The first mistake many hunters make occurs when choosing the location of their food plots. Simply stated, if it looks too good to be true, then it probably is. Beware of breaking ground in an easy-to-access area that simply looks like it has food plot written all over it. Looks, after all, aren’t everything.
When choosing food plots for Scent Blocker’s Just Hunt TV show, I use a strategy similar to one of the most effective ways a pitcher can go after a clutch hitter in baseball. Generally speaking, pitching backward means throwing a pitch in a count or situation that the hitter least expects. It goes against conventional wisdom, but when executed properly, pitching backward can be a pitcher’s best friend.
In the scenario I outlined above, I picked a day in February that had comparable conditions to a typical fall day during a Midwestern deer season — temperature, wind direction, no leaves on the trees, photoperiod, etc. I had located a couple areas for potential food plots on a farm we have permission to hunt, but before deciding final food-plot placement, I opted to use a popular children’s firework to help me determine how the air flowed through the areas deer traveled to access potential food sources.
Instead of choosing a location first, I weigh all of the options I can possibly think of that contribute to an area’s potential and then, based on how these factors add up, make a decision as to where to set up shop. It’s a lot like pitching backward in that the final location of your food plot at first appears to be rather unconventional, but hindsight will clearly let you see you made the right pitch.
Instead of trying to manipulate every possible scenario to accommodate your selection in an after-the-fact matter, let all the factors — property, the lay of the land, potential trees for stands, how the wind flows through the terrain, existing food sources and deer sign, such as scrape and rub lines, bedding areas and travel corridors — do the work for you by paring down your options. Ultimately, the areas best suited to match your needs will unfold right before your eyes.
COMMON FOOD-PLOT FAUX PAS
Although food plots are now widely used in the whitetail hunting world, confusion remains regarding their true purpose, which is to provide a haven of sorts that will attract and hold deer on the property you have permission to hunt. Many hunters operate under the false pretense that because they’ve got a shiny, new food plot to work with, that’s the one and only location they are willing to hunt, period. As a result, they almost seal their own frustrating fate before the first stalk of chicory has had a chance to peak at the sun. Food plots are indeed a great resource, but they are far from a cure-all solution to increasing your chances.
Understanding a food plot’s greatest potential rests squarely in its ability to enhance the existing deer population and its potential to keep deer around for longer periods of time than the land is naturally capable of on its own. That said, I rarely hunt from stands that sit right on top of a food source. Rather, experience has taught me to focus more effort on ambush sites surrounding and leading to and from the food source. I admit that a properly placed stand overlooking a field of greens can, at times, be a great option. But all too often I have seen and heard stories of hunters making the biggest food-plot mistake of all by simply over-hunting the food plot itself and, therefore, negating its intensive purpose.
There are two principle rules of thumb to remember at all times when considering hunting a food plot. They cannot be changed, bent, or worse, ignored. First, any stand overlooking a food plot or agricultural source should only be hunted if the wind is right. Not kind of right, possibly right or we’ll-just-take-our-chances right, but a perfectly tailored wind that is 100 percent in your favor.
Second, try to avoid hunting these areas, especially if they are on a considerably smaller tract of land, in the mornings unless it’s your one and only possible option. Common sense should prevail here and tell you the chances of your ability to slip in to your stand location without being detected by the deer already browsing in your food plot are slim to none. I know I’ve bumped, shook and spooked more than my fair share of deer by trying to slither my way into position before the sunrise. I also know that, through the years, I’ve killed more high-quality bucks in the afternoons or during evening’s golden hour when bucks cruise the neighborhood’s bedding areas checking for does or when they actually leave the food source, nose to the ground.
Do yourself a favor and follow these two simple rules, even if the area in question you need to avoid is your honey hole. I can guarantee you the honey will be even sweeter if you turn your attention toward the second half of the day, and only when the prevailing wind will carry any foreign scent to a specific area where you’re confident the deer won’t go.
Further, don’t get sucked into the temptation of hunting a low-lying area such as the creek bottom where I set off the smoke bomb. Although it was clearly evident the areas down by the creek saw heavy deer traffic, the obvious haze of leftover smoke seemed to soak into the deer trails crisscrossing the bottom. Just imagine that smoke as your scent, and however tempting it might be given the veritable deer highway that runs through a low area, always remember that your scent will hover in and around these areas. My best advice is to simply stay away.
Growing up in northeastern Missouri, I learned early the havoc that wind and other weather nuances can create when you’re on stand. Because Mother Nature’s arbitrary and oftentimes bipolar disposition isn’t confined to any one state or region, it’s imperative that every whitetail hunter, regardless of the terrain involved, have a set of defined contingency plans in place and ready for use. These alternate plans need to allow you to be as versatile as possible when hunting food plots or other concentrated food sources.
It simply amazes me that hunters will spend an entire paycheck on the latest clothing, the newest bow or the best glass available on the market, but at the same time, they place their pocketbook under lock and key when it comes to tree stands. I’m not advocating you buy a dozen tree stands and hang them on every possible tree surrounding a food plot, but having a couple well-placed stands in strategic locations for varying wind and weather conditions is an absolute must if you want to increase your chances of taking a mature buck.
This has been especially true the past couple of years in the Midwest, where the safest bet has historically been to hunt from stands set up for some type of western wind. However, we’ve seen a jump in the number of slow-approaching fronts that produce a wrap-around effect, resulting in more days of the season where the prevailing wind is from the east.
Also, remember that wind direction is relative, meaning that every twig in the surrounding area can be bent in one direction, but the way the air moves around your stand location can be entirely different. I offered a prime example of how the wind can backtrack or swirl in the smoke-bomb scenario at the onset of this article. Though the wind was markedly from the west, the only thing consistent about the path of the smoke in that creek bottom was the fact it was inconsistent.
However, by paying close attention to the movements of the smoke, I was able to lock in on two or three trees that would keep a west wind in my corner. Discovering how wind from other directions mingles with the trees and narrow bench on that hillside is my next assignment, and from there I can effectively and efficiently hang stands — yes, more than one — that will give me several prime set-up options in an ideal bench location nestled between the deer highway in the creek bottom below and the future location of a food plot above.
Another simple rule to abide by concerning weather is that when the temperature dips and the barometer starts to fall, your scent will follow suit. ScentBlocker clothing and its partner in crime, Ti4 Titanium scent-elimination spray, are incredibly efficient at controlling your scent, but you need to understand there is not one scent-elimination combination that will keep you 100 percent scent-free.
It’s true that a competent scent-elimination system is irreplaceable in the woods, but if the wind shifts or the bottom drops out of the weather, having easily accessible contingency plans will inevitably enable you to change your strategy on the spot and allow you to stay in the woods for additional and precious amounts of time.
Hunting food plots requires much more than simply dropping some seed in a pretty spot. Because they are a destination resource, it’s beyond important to let the situation and lay of the land help you make a mature and educated decision as to where to plant a food plot and how to hunt the pathways that lead to and from it. And remember instead of trying to hit the proverbial curveball, mix in one or two of your own to take advantage of what the land is offering.
After you’ve put in the work and have seen the possibilities open up to your advantage, resist the urge to become overzealous and make the plot your second home. In order to help yourself avoid the temptation, make the investment in time and equipment that will allow you to add contingency plans and alternate stand locations to your repertoire.
These basic principles are in play whether you’re blessed with the opportunity to hunt sprawling tracts of land in multiple locations or you’re relegated to one 40-acre patch of ground your Uncle Bob owns. No matter the size or number of different opportunities, the same rules apply. And after you’ve got these rules under your belt and have surrendered yourself to doing the necessary work each and every time to avoid common mistakes, you’re well on your way to actualizing the potential food plots are intended to provide.
Larry Woodward is a co-host on ScentBlocker’s Just Hunt TV show.
Reprinted with thanks from Whitetails Close Enough to Kill – FW Media