Planting a green field doesn’t guarantee that you’ll take a buck on it. Some produce high-quality bucks every season, while others rarely if ever even yield a buck. What factors make hunting food plots great, and what makes them a waste of time and money? To help offer up some deer hunting tips for hunting over food plots, as well as give some insight on the best time to hunt food plots, we’ve contacted Dr. Grant Woods of Reeds Spring, Missouri, an avid hunter and one of the nation’s leading deer researchers and animal-nutrition experts.
“When your green fields don’t produce the size and number of bucks you expect, consider the following explanations,” says Dr. Woods. “Some green fields aren’t producing the types of food that attract deer during hunting season. Or, something may have spooked the deer before they’ve arrived at the green field. Or, something may have spooked the deer on the green field.”
Deer don’t want to become venison on somebody’s table. Therefore, the deer care more about dodging hunters than they do eating. A deer doesn’t have to feed during daylight hunting hours. The deer can feed at night and/or in thick cover where hunters can’t spot them. A buck only will leave that thick cover and come out into a green field to feed when he feels confident that his head won’t end up on someone’s wall. Deer learn more quickly than most hunters assume.
Deer Hunting Tip – Don’t Shoot Does in a Green Field
“To help green fields produce bucks, don’t shoot does in a green field,” Woods emphasizes.
Many hunting clubs permit members to take does in green fields, because generally, hunters need to bag a certain number of does off a property to keep the herd in balance. Deer hunting over food plots provide the easiest place to see and identify the does before you squeeze the trigger.
But Dr. Woods warns, “If you shoot the does on a green field, the bucks will be much less likely to utilize that field during daylight hours. However, if you only harvest does in the woods away from the green fields, the fields will become sanctuaries where the bucks can feed more confidently.”
If you allow bucks to feed on the green fields until the time you plan to hunt and harvest them, you’ll put less pressure on your food plots and increase the number of bucks you see. Some clubs manage their green fields by imposing the rule of, “You can’t hunt in a green field until after you take the number of does in the woods that the club expects you to harvest.”
Using this rule, club members can harvest the number of does they need to take early in the season before the food supply decreases. Then the green fields will become sanctuaries for the bucks because of the lack of hunting on them. You’ll see more bucks, and you’ll have longer to study their body sizes and antler development on food plots managed under this system. When it becomes the best time to hunt food plots, you’ll get to choose the older, bigger bucks that you want to harvest.
Deer Hunting Tip – Attract the Deer with the Correct Foods
“Just because your green field produces plenty of food doesn’t mean that deer will come to that food source to feed during hunting season,” Dr. Woods reports. “For instance, although your field grows lush, green Johnson grass, deer don’t like Johnson grass and rarely will eat it. Even if your field grows plants that deer like to eat, those plants may lack the nutrition to create the sugars and other parts of a plant that draw in the deer.
“Too, the amount of fertilizer you add to the land often determines the palatability of the plants in a green field to a deer. If the deer don’t want to eat the plants in a green field during hunting season, the field serves little purpose.
“To create a fall food plot that deer will utilize during hunting season, first do a soil test. Put the correct amount of fertilizer and lime on the field as suggested, and use a herbicide to control the weeds in the green field. Then the weeds won’t steal the nutrition from the ground. I define a weed as a plant that continues to grow after the plant spends its energy and no longer tastes palatable to the deer. If you’ll follow these recommendations, then the crop you plant for deer will produce a maximum yield.
“To guarantee the palatability of the green field’s crops throughout hunting season, always plant blends of seed instead of single crops. A blend of seeds will produce food for deer before, during and through deer season and even afterward. As the field yields a crop, the deer can totally consume these early plants before the next plants in the blend mature.”
Dr. Woods suggests that you plant a seed blend with an early wheat in the blend that germinates quickly, makes a lot of leaves, has a big seed head on it and comes out of the ground fast. Then the deer can completely consume the wheat during the early season. Next, the other plants in the blend can draw the nutrition and moisture from the soil and become palatable to the deer for later in the season.
“Some blends of seeds in a green field planting will attract deer all during deer season,” Woods comments. “These blends address the issue of wanting to attract deer into a food plot as quickly as possible, while also having quality forage to keep deer in a food plot through the long season and providing them with nutrients they need to survive the winter and become productive in the spring.”
Deer Hunting Tip – Don’t Spook the Deer on Their Way to Green Fields
Woods says that deer sometimes won’t come to a green field because they get spooked before they arrive there. To prevent spooking the deer before they reach the field, take care not to leave human odor in or around the outer edges before you hunt the field.
To minimize odor around green fields, some clubs use flagging tape to create a 50- to 100-yard buffer zone from the edges of the field where no one can hunt until after they harvest their limit of does. Then the club will permit them to hunt there.
You also can reduce the pressure on green fields by not hunting every green field every week.
“If a road divides your property, hunt on one side of the road one week and on the other side of the road the next week,” Woods recommends. “This pattern allows you to minimize the amount of human odor you leave behind in the woods.”
When deer hunting over food plots, carefully enter and leave your stand site so your human odor doesn’t blow across the deer trails leading to the green fields. The more you protect the sanctuary of your fall food plot, the more likely that you’ll take a big buck from the field each time you hunt it. Remember that the less hunting pressure that the green field and the surrounding area receive during hunting season, the more likely that you’ll see bucks there.
Deer Hunting Tip – Tie Deer’s Bellies to their Brains
“One of the best survival tools a buck has is his stomach’s rumen – a compartment that allows him to eat and store a lot of food, regurgitate that food, chew it up, and eat it like a cow chews its cud,” says Dr. Woods. “For this reason, a buck can feed solely at night, sit in the shade of thick cover during the day, chew his food and not feed again until after dark.”
If you’re wondering about the rut being the best time to hunt food plots and asking, “won’t bucks come out in green fields and chase the does then,” yes – that will happen. The younger bucks and a few older bucks may make that mistake. But the smartest bucks will remain 50 to 75 yards off the green field, walk around the edges and use their noses to discern the presence of an estrous doe feeding.
If you’ll look for and find those dim trails, 30 to 75 yards off the edges of a green field, you often can pinpoint a place to take an older-age buck that’s coming to the field to find an estrous doe but won’t willingly run out in that open field to try and breed her. That mature, smart buck often will wait until after dark to rendezvous with the hot doe. Remember, the older, bigger bucks with the best racks haven’t grown those big antlers and gained their heavy body weights by running across fields where hunters sit nearby in shooting houses.
Maintain a constant food supply in the green field to improve and increase the number of deer that use your green field. “Always keep food on the table for the deer,” Woods emphasizes.
If the deer have access to highly-nutritious and highly-palatable food every time they visit the green field, they won’t stray off your property. Also, when adjacent properties begin to run out of food for deer, the deer on those lands will come to your filed.
Deer hunting over food plots requires you to draw deer into your fall food plots, thus needing to provide more feed for those deer. During extreme winters, when few if any green fields provide enough nutrition for all the deer that come to a green field to eat, you may want to consider using deer feeders.
Also, if you set-up a deer feeder in or next to your green field, you still can attract deer, even though food doesn’t actually grow in the field after deer season. By feeding the deer in the green field after the season, you ensure that deer will continue to come to feed.
If a buck thinks, “green field,” when he feels hungry, he’ll more likely utilize that field during hunting season, which helps tie a buck’s belly to his brain. He’ll want to eat where he always has eaten, and where he always has found plenty of good-tasting, high-quality, nutritious food. Just like we continue to go to a favorite restaurant week after week and year after year, a deer can be taught to follow that same type of pattern.
You can have great green fields that produce high-quality bucks every season. However, the best require intensive management, the planting of more than one crop and trigger-finger management of the doe population to keep the herd in balance. If the green field becomes a sanctuary and a consistent source of high-quality food, the bucks will frequent the field.
By using a deer-management program, you can harvest bigger and better bucks than other hunters in your area and see numerous bucks on every one of your fields. But, you and the members of your hunting lease must decide how effectively you want to manage your fall food plots and the number and quality of bucks that you want to produce.
Deer Hunting Tip – Use the First-Strike Tactic
When deer hunting over food plots, you’ll have the best odds of bagging a dominant buck the first time you hunt that green field. Decide before hunting season which green fields you’ll save as no-hunting zones and not hunt on until the rut. You can hunt over other green fields, just not the chosen green fields. If you or your hunting club have ten green fields planted, you may designate three to five green fields that no one can hunt over until the peak of the rut with the correct wind direction. With these deer hunting tips, you optimize your opportunities to take a trophy buck because:
* bucks can meet does in these green fields without hunters harassing them;
* bucks regularly will feed in these green fields during daylight hours without seeing, hearing and/or smelling a hunter;
* older-age-class bucks during the rut will check out green fields, primarily those where they’ve encountered no hunting pressure or seen, smelled and/or heard hunters every weekend, for estrous does;
* you can meet an older-age-class buck at a time and place where he least expects you or other hunters to show-up because no one else has hunted that green field.
”One of the problems that we all have is we want to hunt bucks today like we hunted bucks 25-years ago,” says Brian Murphy, executive director of the Quality Deer Management Association (QDMA) and a wildlife biologist. ”However, 25-years ago, most of us were satisfied with taking any bucks. The easiest buck to take was the 1-1/2- to 2-1/2-year-old bucks. Those bucks were the ones most likely to show up on the green fields.
“However, when you implement a quality deer-management program on your land and start protecting those younger bucks, the older bucks will quickly learn to stay away from hunters and become more adept at hunter dodging. That’s why we can’t use the deer hunting tips to take older, mature bucks as we do to take younger bucks. A buck that’s 3-1/2-years old or older is an all-together different animal than most of us have hunted before and harvested. Therefore, you’ll have to use different strategies to take these older, smarter bucks, including determining the best management for deer hunting over food plots.”
For more deer hunting tips, check out John E. Phillips’ books, available on Kindle, print and Audible, The Masters’ Secrets of Deer Hunting: Hunting Tactics and Scientific Research Book 1 and How to Hunt Deer Like a Pro.
This article first appeared in the October 2018 print issue of Great Days Outdoors Magazine. For more great hunting and fishing content for the deep South, subscribe to Great Days Outdoors print and digital editions or click the image to download this issue.