UPDATED ON: May 1st, 2015
It’s Mid-December. You have just gotten a trail camera photo of a huge buck in your area. You know the post rut is on and deer will be slaves to their stomachs. The big buck is sure to be following the does to the food. However, there are no major food sources on your hunting property. How are you going to get that trophy buck within bow-range during the late season? Fall food plots are the answer.
After the stress of the rut, the entire deer herd, and especially bucks, will be looking to pack on as much fat as possible before winter hits. Late season hunting strategy differs greatly from hunting during the rut. During this time “food” is king. Therefore, if you can provide a food source that will attract deer when it’s cold, you will likely see more deer than at any other time of year. There are three late season plots that have always worked for me.
Late season plots can offer awesome hunting opportunities.
The first is corn. Where whitetails are concerned, corn is king. Pound for pound nothing else offers as much of what whitetails need when it is bitterly cold. Corn is not high in protein, but deer care little about that during very cold weather; carbs for energy and fat for surviving winter are what the deer crave. Corn has plenty of both. When the mercury dips into the teens or below, I have seen deer walk through a clover plot and standing beans to get to corn. For this reason, corn is my number one choice to hunt over when it is brutally cold. Thus, I leave my corn standing through the beginning of December. Before I start hunting it during late season, I like to take my truck and drive through the plot a few rows at a time. It makes it easier for the deer to get the corn, and also makes it much easier for me to shoot into the plot.
I start with about 10 rows closest to my stand, then each week another ten rows. The easy access to the food will bring deer to my corner of the plot. My corn plots are generally smaller than five acres, with most being about two acres. Corn is fairly difficult to plant properly however. The ground must be prepared, and fertilized, and then planted using equipment. Not everyone has the means or ability to provide a standing corn plot on their property. If this is the case, get creative. I have paid farmers to leave a couple inside corners of a field standing. If you are able to find access to corn during late season, the results will be worth the effort.
A stand on the edge of a standing cornfield is the ticket when the temperature plunges.
The second forage I like for late season is standing beans. Beans are more than just a great late season plot. They are a potent one-two punch. They attract (and hold) deer during the summer months as well as during late season. An easy, reliable food source like beans will keep deer close by, especially if the plot is situated close to a bedding area. Soybeans are full of carbs as well. They are also very easy for deer to eat. When there is fresh snow on the ground, most of the whitetail’s food is covered. Picking bean pods off of a stalk sticking two feet out of the snow is much easier than pawing through the snow looking for morsels. If corn is not available when it is really cold out, beans are where the deer will be. I have had good luck hunting over standing beans even when it is relatively warm out during late season. They provide tons and tons of late season forage for deer, at a time when most natural food sources are scarce. Because of all of this, beans can become a deer magnet when all other food sources are exhausted. The key to planting them as a food plot lies in timing.
You want them to be available during the cold winter months. I rely on them to provide the deer with food all the way through winter to reduce stress on the herd. To achieve this I want to plant my beans later than all the area farmers do. This way the deer will not decimate my small plots when they are young as they will be feeding in the farmers’ fields. It also means that my beans will mature later. I want this to happen because, once again, I don’t want the deer to wipe my plot out before I have a chance to hunt it. I want the deer to feed in the huge bean fields until they are harvested. Then my plot will be the only food source around. After all crops in the area are gone, then it is the time to start hunting late season plots.
During most of the season, deer will stop in small hunting plots to get a mouth-full (or two) on their way to the larger fields. However, when all the area crops are harvested, these plots become destination feeding areas. Deer activity will increase significantly after harvest. I am amazed every year at the number of deer that visit my standing bean plots once the crops are gone. Beans are also a little easier to plant than corn. As long as the ground is clear of vegetation, beans can usually be drilled into the soil without discing. Being a legume, they also produce their own nitrogen, so fertilizer requirements are less. I have also planted beans by discing the ground and broadcasting the beans on top, then lightly discing them into the soil. Whatever method you choose, if you plant it…..they will come.
Proper seedbed preparation is important for a successful plot.
But what if you do not have access to large equipment to plant corn or beans? Does this mean you cannot have a great late season plot? Absolutely not! As good as corn and beans are, there’s an additional forage that is my favorite when the weather gets frosty: Brassicas. Varieties such as turnips, sugar beets, radishes, forage rape, and kale are my favorites. They are dynamite during late season. They are also much easier and cheaper to plant than grains. They are also more drought tolerant than corn or beans, which is very important for those of us in the Midwest this year. Most of the Midwest is shrouded in a severe drought. As a result, many crops and food plots alike are in jeopardy of failing this year. My corn is two feet shorter than last year, with fewer and smaller ears, and my beans are doing terrible as well. Any crop success is reliant on rain, and this year, much of the country hasn’t gotten much. My solution to this problem is brassicas, brassicas, and more brassicas. I plan on tilling under about one third of my corn and beans, and planting brassicas there this year, as well as all my usual brassica plots. As long as the plot gets at least one good rain soon after planting, brassicas can survive dry weather.
Brassicas can not only survive with little water, they can provide a huge amount of late season forage for your deer herd.
Brassicas are unique in the fact that they have a natural way to keep from being over-browsed before late season. From the time of planting (between July 15th -August 15th) until the first frost, the deer will hardly touch them. The leaves of brassicas are naturally very bitter at this time. It isn’t until a hard frost (usually around thanksgiving in my area) hits the plants that they become attractive. The sugars are released into the leaves, and a feeding frenzy begins. The week following the first hard frost is the best time to hunt a brassica plot. Deer have a notorious sweet tooth, and the sweet forage will pull deer from all around once it matures. The deer will pound the plot hard until nothing but stems and stalks remain. Last year one of my brassica plots ½ an acre in size was knee high on thanksgiving. By December 10th there was nothing green left in the plot. But even when that happens the plot isn’t finished. When it starts getting a bit colder, the deer will return and dig up the bulbs themselves and eat those until the plot is completely exhausted.
All that is needed for a successful plot is a few basic tools and a young willing helper!
Brassicas are also economical and easy to plant. Brassica seed is some of the cheapest seed you can buy. A 2 ½ pound bag, enough to plant a half acre or so, can be found for as little as $10. Not much when you consider that a 50 lb. Bag of seed corn (which plants 2 acres) that is roundup ready and resistant to pests can set you back from $100 to over $200. Planting Brassicas is simpler than grains as well. Till or disc the soil using whatever means you can. ATV discs or garden tillers work just fine. Put out fertilizer on top of the ground before working the ground. This way the fertilizer will be incorporated into the soil during discing. Broadcast the seed on top and then use a lawn roller or fence type drag or harrow to ensure seed to soil contact. After that, pray for rain. In 60 days you will have a lush green plot.
I usually start hunting my brassica plots at the first hard frost, beans during early December, and save the corn for late December and January when it really gets cold. No matter what variety you choose to plant, the principle is the same. Provide the deer with a food source when all others are exhausted. Do that and you will have a recipe for late season success.