Hunting Plot Success
By Bob Coine
I absolutely love planting food plots, watching them grow and keeping an eye on which critters are utilizing them. I dutifully strive to produce as much high quality food as is required to carry all the critters through both the summer and winter stress periods. However for me, the rubber meets the road on my hunting plots. This is where I have the opportunity to get creative, and make my fall hunting much more productive.
Hunting plots offer me quality opportunities to observe deer in a relaxed environment. I can observe deer interaction, accumulating knowledge that will help me make good decisions picking and choosing individual animals for harvest.
Aside from planting success, the real key to a successful hunting plot is governed by three things. Location, location and location. I can't stress this enough, the location will foster a feeling of security by the deer. This is where your creativity can really shine. You can learn by what others have been successful with. But you also can experiment and develop so many different aspects of a hunting plot that in the end you may end up with a unique combination. A (fill in your name) hunting plot.
I implement a variety of styles, all of which (just like my deer stands) carry a moniker, some unique and some just basically descriptive of their shape. My favorite hunting plot is an example of pure luck, rather than careful initial planning bringing about success. An unrelated chain of events brought about arguably one of the finest hunting plots I have ever seen.
Back in 1996 we thinned a 100-acre section of timber. The softwood portion of the prescribed thinning was a mixture of white, red and scotch pines. Originally the scotch pines were planted in a one-acre teardrop within a much larger planting of white and red pine trees. In the ensuing forty years or so, the pines grew to rather substantial size, and were sorely in need of some space. Well, as part of this pine thinning our State Forester recommended clear cutting all scotch pine from a section of forest.
This clear-cut grew into an absolute jungle, full of poke, briars and young saplings. The thinned areas around the clear-cut also became densely populated with these same plants. In other words, ideal security cover.
The serendipity I mentioned involved of all things a pond project. I had a pond that had silted in over the years, and I was bound and determined to reclaim it, and in the process once and for all solve this problem through the use of sediment collection ponds. This massive undertaking would necessitate a huge volume of material be moved from the site, not just graded around it. This material would be saturated, with the consistency being much like a mud/quicksand combination. The silt would need to be spread out in order to dry, and the scotch pine clear-cut happened to be in relatively close proximity, saving time and expensive hauling time.
After the muck was piled in the clear-cut, and allowed to dry over the summer, the fertile soil was graded by a bulldozer, then seeded down with a combination of fast growing oats and ladino clover. PH just happened to be right at about 6.5 so there was no need for a lime or sulfur adjustment to the soil. Fertility was not an issue either. You do not need nitrogen (N) for legumes as they actually affix nitrogen back into the soil, and this will provide "fuel" for competitive grasses. However a soil test is in order to typically address P and K.
The area we utilized would be considered highly erodable land (HEL) and needed a top cover quickly in order to prevent further siltation in the watershed.
I figured we could establish a turkey nesting area and deer feeding area and end up doing right by the animals. Little did I know what was in store. That first fall I was shocked and amazed by what I saw. Does and fawns in family groups utilizing the succulent growth like clockwork in the afternoon. I mean casually grazing like fenced livestock, seemingly without a worry in the world!
The illusion created by the surrounding thickets under the remaining thinned pine stand, was that of a zoo. I began calling it just that until a friend happened to hunt it one evening, and came back to the house with a thoroughly amazed look on his face. He too experienced this hunting plot in all it's glory. As we bantered back and forth, a consensus was arrived at, and forever more this special place would be called the Petting Zoo. To see animals such as the ultra wary whitetail, totally relaxed, in numbers and in broad daylight was beyond belief. These were not "city" deer, but finely tuned survival machines in a heavily hunted area. The petting zoo analogy was a natural.
The set-up itself was awesome, but I foresaw several key aspects that needed to be addressed in order to enable consistent hunting, without burning out this potential hot spot. An entry and exit route would need to be installed, enabling a hunter access to a prime stand location without being seen, smelled or heard.
The stand location I settled on could only be hunted with one general wind direction, thereby allowing entry to the stand with the wind in your face. The same trail would serve as an exit route as well. The path would be cleared by a six foot rotary mower in a serpentine fashion, allowing constant cover on approach and exit. All deadfalls would be cleared by hand if necessary to allow passage of the small tractor and mower. Further, all twigs would need to be removed thereby allowing silent footsteps in pine needles and an unheard approach.
This stand is now in it's 8th year and is as good today as it was in it's first year. This set-up is a quality deer manager's dream. Selective harvest of deer is a snap. Initially dominant matriarchal does were targeted, removing experienced leaders and enabling a productive turnover of older does. Occasionally tender young venison is acquired through the harvest of early season doe fawns. In the north, early season buck fawns have less of a chance of misidentification, as they might in late season as their heavy winter coat may prevent buttons (developing antlers) from being noticeable. Head shape also offers clues here as doe fawns do have a more rounded appearance, and buck fawns have a flatter forehead. But again, a winter coat makes this more difficult to see.
All good hunting plots will share some common traits, such as proximity to security cover. Does that mean that only plots surrounded by security cover will work? Absolutely not, they can and do work adjacent to security cover as well. Once you begin thinking about attempting hunting plots, certain terrain features will jump out at you, literally screaming for attention. Cul de sacs, natural or cleared work well. Long narrow strips within timber, which I call bowling lanes can be great too. Timber edges, away from roads and non-selective neighbors can be dynamite. Creating a staging area, or a transition area next to timber cover in close proximity to food plots just may be the ticket. Just remember those three key elements, location, location, location.
Now what about that empty space on the wall, just waiting for a mature whitetail buck? Can he be found in a hunting plot? You bet, anywhere you will hold relaxed does in daylight during the pre-breeding portion of the rut, will attract bucks as well, checking on the ladies. Scraping and rubbing activity can be very pronounced in these areas. Rattling and grunt calls can be just the ticket to call out a mature buck at the proper time.
This past year in fact I was able to arrow a magnificent piebald buck I named Palamino on a hunting plot. Early season found Palamino in a very defined area as witnessed by trail cameras and visual sightings. However just prior to breeding, he set up shop around a hunting plot, about a half-mile away.
One day I rattled him up out of the thick stuff, and he made a scrape in broad daylight in the plot so as to show the "other" bucks whose area this really was. And I caught the whole episode on video! The next wind that would allow me to hunt that spot came several days later. At first light there was Palamino making another scrape, before disappearing into the timber. A series of grunts lured a doe and fawn into the open, and guess who was following them in. To make a long story short, this beautiful main frame 8 pointer, (plus a split G-1) grossed in the low 150's and will provide lasting memories, and a great looking mount for the wall.
Some things to keep in mind when creating a hunting plot are size, shape and establishment timing. The size should be intimate and permit close range viewing of animals. The shape should maximize edge as much as possible. Remember although nutrition will be available, this is not a food plot per se. It is an attraction plot, which happens to have desirable food and browse available. Establishment may be best left for the late summer early fall time period as unwanted warm season vegetative competition will be lessened.
If you have low growing vegetation such as grasses mow the area following nesting season, typically after August 1st. Let it green up and chemically burn it down with a non-selective herbicide such as Round Up. Once the area is completely dead, disk the plot and broadcast your selected seed, let the rain bury your seed, or drag or even cultipack your soil. Keep an eye on grass germination as this can crowd out your legumes, reducing the attractiveness to the deer. Herbicide control may be necessary in this regard, consult your seed seller or a local biologist for recommendations.
What to seed you ask? I say anything that the deer love to eat, is relatively easy to grow and will last for several seasons with a minimum of maintenance. If clover or alfalfa do as well in your area as they do in mine, they are hard to beat. I broadcast in the fall at about 15 lbs./acre, and no-till drill if possible at about the same rate. Designer mixes intended for your area can also be outstanding. Be creative and attempt different plantings should you desire, the proof will be in the pudding, so to speak. But definitely follow the seed rate chart for whatever you plant for optimum results.
If you have carefully chosen the location, put your best effort into it's establishment, picked the proper stand location and allow for undetected entry to and departure from your set-up, you should see results your first fall. Remember to use scent free rubber boots, and don't touch overhanging vegetation, as any residual human scent can nix a prime spot very quickly.
Good luck with your own version of the Whitetail Paradise hunting plots! And think creatively!