If hunters are willing, the easiest part of a deer management program is to produce mature bucks. It’s quite simple. If young bucks are not harvested, most will get older and provide hunters with an opportunity to improve the adult sex ratio and buck age structure of the deer herd, as well as provide opportunities to observe and harvest larger-antlered bucks. However, while growing mature bucks can be easy, getting them in front of hunters for a harvest opportunity is not! These guys have been around the block a time or two, and you can bet they know every square inch of your property and when it is safe to use it.
Hunting-pressure management is an important part of a deer management program. Carefully managing hunting pressure is critical for consistently harvesting mature bucks so that you don’t have to depend on the rut to catch one off guard. This is especially true in states that have extremely long hunting seasons where deer are often hunted for several months at a stretch. Since hunting over food plots has become increasingly popular, to the point that some hunters sit over food plots exclusively, I wanted to share a tip that can help reduce the amount of hunting pressure that will be applied to them over the course of the season.
Obviously the most important factor when hunting food plots is wind direction, which should always blow your scent away from the plot and where deer come from to use the plot while you are hunting. However, next on the list is stand placement and hunter access.
One of the most common mistakes food-plot hunters make is placing their stand in the food plot or on the edge. Thus, hunters are forced to scatter deer out of the food plot each time they come and go, which promotes nocturnal use of the food plot. If plots are only hunted a couple times per season, this isn’t a significant issue. However, when plots are heavily hunted, such as a hunting-club type setting, this scenario will result in reduced deer observation rates and overall hunter dissatisfaction.
Locate the stand a minimum of 15 to 20 yards away from the food plot, preferably on the side of the field where deer are least likely to come from.
Stands on food plots should be set up in a way where hunters can enter and leave the stand without impacting deer on the plot. That is, you should be able to approach the plot from the downwind side and climb into the stand with a field full of deer and not flush them out. Conversely, when it gets dark, you should be able to climb down from the stand and walk back to your vehicle undetected. Doing so will promote more daytime activity and overall use of your food plots, which is where you want them spending a lot of time eating quality forages anyway, right?
The first step to accomplish this is to locate the stand a minimum of 15 to 20 yards away from the food plot, preferably on the side of the field where deer are least likely to come from. It should also be located in an area that allows you to take advantage of ideal wind directions for that particular area. This usually means the downwind side of dense cover and good travel corridors. The stand should be placed far enough from the plot but still allow good visibility of the field. You may have to do some selective trimming of tree limbs and other vegetation, but don’t take too much. Only trim what is necessary and leave the rest for cover.
The next step is to dedicate the portion of the food plot in front of the stand to be planted and managed in a visual screen. Screens can be managed with a variety of species such as corn (seen in the photo at the top of this page), Egyptian wheat, sorghum-sudan, taller varieties of grain sorghum and sunn hemp. It just needs to get tall enough and thick enough to shield hunters, and the stem needs to be stiff enough to hold up over the course of hunting season in your area.
One problem I ran into with Egyptian wheat was that it would reach about 10 feet tall and produce a very large and heavy seed head in areas with fertile soil. The first storm with high winds would lay it all down, because the stem wasn’t stout enough to hold up the heavy seed head. To combat this I planted it later in the growing season (late July for the South, late June in the North), and I did not apply fertilizer, which provided fewer growing days and only allowed it to reach 6- to 7-feet tall with a smaller seed head. This worked better for providing a visual screen that would persist through hunting season and was less susceptible to wind damage.
The depth of the screen is another important consideration. Although the ideal depth may vary depending on the specific location and set up, a good rule of thumb is a minimum of 10 to 15 yards. This is typically deep enough to provide a good visual break that will last most of the season before melting down in late winter. Keep in mind that if the screen is too wide and tall, it can cut off a portion of the food plot and limit shooting opportunities if the hunting stand is not elevated high enough off the ground to allow hunters to see and shoot over the top of the screen effectively.
You don’t necessarily have to plant hunting screens. Creating a screen by using the naturally occurring vegetation works just as well. Simply allow the vegetation to develop in the area you wish to designate as a screen and limit disturbance of that area for a period of time. Eventually, tall grasses, weeds and shrubs will colonize the area and provide an excellent screen to shield hunters that can last for years. However, you will need to periodically manage the vegetation every two to three years with some type of disturbance to keep trees from growing too tall and blocking the view of hunters. Practices such as burning, disking and herbicides are all very effective for controlling vegetation within the screen when it reaches a level where it needs to be set back again.
Keep it quiet
Lastly, not only should hunters be able to access the stand without being seen by deer, they should also be able to access it without being heard. It is important to have a good stand access trail that leads hunters to the stand without being seen or heard. In areas that have a lot of dry hardwood leaves or dead limbs, you may have to rake or blow out the trail periodically, especially after all the leaves fall, so hunters can walk on the bare soil and not make a sound. This is especially true when it gets dark and the ground is less visible on the way out. Also, be sure the stand doesn’t have a creaking door or make any other types of noise to alert deer when climbing in and out.
Setting food plots up in a way where they can be hunted without constantly spooking deer out of them is very rewarding. It’s satisfying to know that deer will likely be in the food plot when you arrive and won’t have to scatter from the field when you leave. Taking these steps can help you maintain better quality hunting throughout the season and minimize the amount of hunting pressure being applied, which ultimately increases the amount of time deer spend on the property you hunt.