While driving south on I-75 from Clarkston, Michigan towards Detroit, the scenery quickly changed from pockets of mixed rural settings to full-blown urban developments. The miles of small suburban improvements, swamps, woodlots, and upland settings, filled with sumac, gray dogwood, and various conifers, were a pleasing sight to begin the day, before the traffic constricted to a snail's pace flanked by concrete and steel. But every morning, there he was! With his red summer coat and more than 170 inches of antler, he was a sight to behold, though not enough to slow the endless snake of automobiles that crawled and slithered to the Southeast. Well into the beginning of the October bow season he could be seen during most morning commutes, clinging to "his" little patch of comfort he had no doubt experienced for multiple years, before meeting his fate that neither man nor beast could alter.
That northern Oakland County Michigan monarch was glued to his daytime hangout, not because of any advanced food plot strategies, but rather because there were zero human intrusions into the postage stamp of cover where he chose to live. His nighttime wanderings would eventually lead to his demise, but during daylight hours he confined himself to an area undisturbed by hikers, hunters or food plot planters. How did the non-hunting homeowner accomplish on the back of his ten acre lot what tens of thousands of hunters work a lifetime attempting to achieve? Simply, he did nothing at all.
There are risks associated with creating a food plot and it's quite possible that doing nothing at all may be your least risky option. This is obviously an article about advanced food plot strategies, so doing nothing at all is not what I enjoy, promote or encourage you to do. The rewards of food plotting can be outstanding and it is extremely rare that a landowner would not have an opportunity for a higher level of success by establishing a quality food plot program. But the negative effects of the intrusions of man can not be overstated.
I will let you know at the conclusion of this chapter how and why that southern Michigan giant eventually met his fate. But for now, follow along as I discuss with you the top five risks and the top five rewards of planting fields of green.
Risks and Rewards of Planting Food Plots
Ironically, the potential risks of planting food plots are the exact same as the potential rewards, as determined by either exposing or eliminating the factor of human intrusion.
1. Deer Herd Education
Risk: Creating a food plot is similar to laying a trap. Would you lay a trap for predators such as bobcats or coyotes without making every attempt at notalerting them to your presence? If you do not follow a very strict strategy of including your plot within the boundaries of a true sanctuary, then you risk educating every deer in the neighborhood to your hunting movements and land use. The higher the quality of your food plot system and the higher the level of attraction, the more potential there is for educating the local deer herd, if steps are not taken to eliminate your hunting presence.
Reward: The higher the attraction of your food plot and the more you allow the local deer herd to continually use your food plots without human intrusion, the more you lull the local deer herd into a false sense of security. As the season progresses and the deer become increasingly educated to the movements of the surrounding hunters or landowners, the value of the secure movements that relate to your advanced food plot strategies increases with each passing day.
2. Balanced Daytime Bedding
Risk: Doe family groups can tolerate a much higher level of stress - including both deer and human related stressors - than bucks will, so it is possible to create a "doe-only" daytime environment on your parcel. With high quality food sources and high quality cover, you will undoubtedly have the opportunity to attract and even build a deer herd. However, if those deer are wise to your food source intrusions, the doe family groups will bed in the more remote areas of your parcel, or possibly even offyour parcel, if human intrusions are excessive. In turn, this has the potential to displace mature bucks even farther away. For parcels of 500-1000 acres or more, you may have room for a small number of daytime mature buck hangouts, but as the parcel size decreases it doesn't take much intrusion to have no room left for stress-wary mature bucks.
Reward: By using well-placed food plots determined by the shape, access, and available habitat on your parcel, you can specifically use food to determine where the majority of the doe family groups spend their hours of daytime bedding use. When doe family group bedding locations are defined by food, you can then potentially leave the bulk of the rest of your parcel's cover for mature buck usage. Lower overall stress levels become very attractive to the local mature buck population, even if those interior bedding areas that you offer them are used only during the peak of surrounding hunting season pressure.
3. Quality Deer Herd Dynamics
Risk: When food sources are subjected to excessive human intrusions, and daytime buck bedding areas become occupied by doe family groups, young and old bucks can both experience an attract/repel phenomenon that unnecessarily exposes them to harms way. Longer travel routes between food sources and bedding areas may increase the potential for high-risk road crossings and may expose them to a higher number of stand locations on surrounding properties. Your ability to attract, hold, protect or harvest, and to improve both buck age structure and sex ratios can all disappear with just a handful of careless intrusions.
Reward: If you can minimize the amount of human intrusion in your food plots, you have the opportunity to promote the attract/hold phenomenon. This also effectively reduces the overall length of buck movements between bedding areas and food sources and reduces their exposure to higher mortality rates. When you offer a low-stress environment that encompasses adequate bedding space for both sexes, safe travel to and from food sources, and unpressured quality food sources, your small parcel has the potential to positively influence the entire neighborhood. It's not uncommon for parcels with a protected daytime deer herd to become very attractive to a majority of the bucks in the neighborhood during the most intense portions of the hunting season. The mature bucks that are attracted to your parcel during the hunting season often spend their nighttime hours - or even the majority of the rest of the year - in other locations, but quality herd dynamics (e.g., adequate buck age structure and appropriate sex ratios) are shaped in November, not May, and during the hours of daylight, not darkness.
4. Defined Deer Movements
Risk: Stressed-out deer herds pinball from cover to cover, ever changing the location of their daytime safe and secure bedding areas. When the lazy travels between daytime bedding cover and food sources are disrupted, deer will often adjust their usual travel patterns. Dominant doe family groups displace subordinate doe family groups, doe family groups displace bucks, and the reliability of defined habitat usage deteriorates. Inconsistent usage of daytime bedding areas and inconsistent travel patterns to and from food plots changes where you should hunt and how you access your property. Consequently, you are always playing catch-up by following the effects of your movements, instead of following the effects of your habitat improvements. If you're not careful, you can actually end up spending more time patterning the negative effects caused by your own movements, instead of patterning deer movements.
Reward: Defined deer movements allow you to effectively pattern deer, instead of reacting to their movements caused by your intrusions. By maintaining the security of your food plots, you can stay ahead of the movements as deer fall into a consistent pattern of overall food plot and parcel usage. Understanding and promoting their consistent movement patterns between food and bedding locations provides the opportunity for access to stand locations to be as deer-free as possible. In other words, you can move about your property with the confidence that deer are most likely within the areas that you have pre-determined. Advanced food plot strategies serve to initiate the establishment of defined deer movements, forming the base of daily deer movement as deer predictably move from bedding to food as the evening hours approach.
5. Daytime Mature Buck Movements
Risk: Game camera pictures can reveal that although mature bucks frequent your food plots on a daily basis, they do not do so until the middle of the night. Are those bucks nocturnal? Probably not. Instead, those mature bucks are most likely still moving as darkness falls, but they are doing so only where they feel safe and secure. If the location that they feel safe and secure is 1/4 mile away or more from your food plot, expect them to show up on your pictures hours - not minutes - after dark. A loss of daytime buck movement has a direct impact on your hunting season success, leaving you with a small window of opportunity to shoot a mature buck, either during pre-rut movements or during the mid-rut (or later) period, as a wandering mature buck vacates his primary daytime home range in search of a receptive doe.
Reward: When you create food sources that establish defined bedding areas for doe family groups and mature bucks, and you facilitate those movements to take place over 200-300 yards instead of a 1/4 mile or more, you can expect the timing of those mature buck movements to follow. It can boil down to simple math: if a mature buck has the opportunity to travel several hundred yards through consistent quality habitat improvements of secure cover and bedding area, his travel time during the daylight hours will be just a fraction of the time compared to having to travel through open, unimproved, and unconnected habitat. Once you begin to experience consistent daytime pictures of mature bucks, your efforts are really starting to pay off! However, daytime buck pictures may only be a piece of the puzzle. Another observation is to focus on how many mature bucks that you are seeing during the middle of the night.
What I have experienced while using advanced food plot strategies is that although daytime pictures of mature bucks may increase as the parcel develops, pictures of mature bucks during the middle of the night will often decrease. As mature bucks center around your small parcel during the day, when their movements are limited, they could very well be fulfilling their "3 mile home range" under the cover of darkness while not on your own property. Your goal should be to observe as much daytime movement as possible on your own parcel (including evening movement toward a high-quality food source) while mature bucks spend the majority of their nighttime hours elsewhere.
The negative effects of our human intrusions can not be overstated, as in many cases doing nothing can be much more effective. Backyard bucks enjoy finding a little piece of cover that they cannot only call their own, but most importantly, that they can escape to from any human stressors. The more you can keep the factor of human stress out of the food plot equation, the more success you can experience.
The giant Michigan whitetail mentioned at the start of this chapter likely would have lived through another hunting season if it weren't for his urge to chase does and feed on the other side of the busy highway. His honey hole of daytime security cover protected him for many years, but in the end the social aspects of a big food source lead him to his fate.
The key on your own parcel is to minimize the risks associated with planting food plots while safely encompassing the movements of a quality deer herd between bedding and feeding locations. When advanced food plot strategies are implimented correctly, you will experience the highest possible level of control over the fate of the mature bucks that you're pursuing.
If you liked this food plot article (chapter 6 of my latest book) and are thirsty for more, you will really love my Food Plot book! "Food Plot Success by Design" which can be purchased HERE