By the fall of 2014, hunter Chad McKibben had a detailed understanding of the feeding and movement patterns of a buck he’d been chasing that he called “King.”
The massive whitetail used the same trails and the same bedding areas for most of the year, and even in the winter, when the deer shed his antlers, McKibben could identify him by an obvious notch cut in the buck’s left ear. But killing the deer had proven quite difficult, in part because King’s movements and patterns became harder to pinpoint as the rut heated up.
Finally, on the evening of November 6 2014, just before sunset, King leapt from a stand of ash trees into a food plot where a single doe stood at attention. And McKibben was waiting.
The years of scouting and preparation put McKibben in place for the shot, but ultimately, two simple forces helped him bring down that buck. The doe came to the field in search of food, and King followed in search of a receptive doe.
Most hunters tend to view food plots as an essential early-season or pre-rut meeting ground for whitetails, but once the rut starts, they end up chasing the bucks that are chasing the does.
As McKibben’s example shows, oftentimes being where the does are will lead the bucks to you, and that means that the most important time to hunt over your food plot might be at the peak of the rut.
Plant For Success
Almost everyone who plants a food plot considers the seeds they’re planting in the ground, but very few consider the ground into which they are placing those seeds. Having the right soil is the first step toward attracting, growing and, ultimately, harvesting deer.
Big antlers are a direct result of nutrients, like phosphorous, in the soil, and the plants in your plot simply act as a vehicle to transfer nutrients from the soil to growing bucks.
The first step to improving your food plot is testing your soil to ensure the right balance of minerals and pH. Soil tests are cheap, usually under $10, and it may well be the best $10 you spend this season.
Local extension agencies can provide a wealth of information and are perhaps the most accessible and least utilized resource hunters have at their disposal. If your soil isn’t balanced, the experts at your local extension office can help you find the right balance, which will bring more deer to your land.
Outcompete the Other Guy
The popularity of managing for big deer has skyrocketed over the last decade, so there’s a good chance that the deer on your property have choices when it comes to where they’ll dine. So, how do you compete for the deer’s attention?
The first step is to diversify your plot. Planting highly-palatable foods, like clovers and brassicas, will draw deer in right away, but you’ll also want to sew in some insurance plants like chicory, which is attractive to deer and drought resistant. This way if things dry up, you’ll have the last plot with a food source that’s still attracting deer.
It’s also extremely important to plant the right plants at the right time of year to provide an attractive plot during the rut. Many managers plant summer or early-fall blends with the intention of getting a deer early.
Be sure that you coordinate plantings so that you’ll have an attractive food source for deer (specifically the does) during the rut. Late-season oats are a good choice, as are some brassicas and radishes.
Such plantings will provide forage right through the rut, and if the does are there, you can bet the bucks will be close by.
Some people go to great lengths to attract deer to their property only to blow every hunt with a bad approach to their stand. Here are some keys to getting in and out of the woods unseen.
Plan your approach: Before the season starts decide how you’ll approach your stand and have alternate approach routes mapped out in case the wind is wrong on your primary approach route.
Clear your path: It only takes a few minutes to clear a path into your stand that allows you to slip in undetected. Well before the season starts, clear away some of the brush (but not enough to expose your entry) to reduce the chances of scraping up against foliage and making noise. If possible, sweep dry leaves off the path with a limb before the hunt.
Pay attention to your exit: If you consistently conceal your entry but just as often blow your exit from the stand, you’re going to alert the deer to your movements. Remember, they’re patterning you, too.
Hide Your Setup: Many hunters who are slathered with camo and scent eliminating sprays are given away by an obvious stand. Deer are intimately aware of their environment, and anything that looks out of place will be avoided at all costs.
Get your stands up early so deer grow accustomed to them being in their location. If that’s not possible, choose a setup spot that hides your stand as much as possible. (I even have a friend who places a “dummy” stand in position away from his primary stand location to move deer in his direction).
Silence your stand: Perhaps most importantly, make sure your stand doesn’t move and that it’s quiet.
The metal-on-metal joints in all tree stands create sound, and those sounds are so unnatural that they will spook any deer in earshot. Be sure to lubricate your stands, and use products that don’t have a strong chemical odor.