It doesn't take long for quality bucks to figure out the game. Within days of the first shots of deer season, mature bucks not only become scarce, but virtually seem to vanish, and hunters who continue to guard field edges and open stands of mature hardwoods will likely spend their days wondering where all the deer went. Many of those whitetails are already wearing a tag, the result of a successful opening-day hunt, but plenty of others have simply gone into hiding. They bury themselves in thick cover or they move to large blocks of woods where most hunters can't — or won't — go. Smart hunters go after them. Smarter hunters not only go after those deer deep in heavy cover, they actually have the foresight to plant a miniature food plot far off the beaten path before the season starts. For Tracy Waddell, a commercial plumber from eastern North Carolina, that means deep in the middle of private property that is surrounded by pressured land.
The ground Waddell hunts was clear-cut just five years ago, and the lush growth that has grown up is a jungle of thick cover. It's too thick to drive a tractor through, which means it's the perfect hiding place for pressured bucks. And it's the perfect place to plant a small, personal food plot.
Waddell carries in a bag of Whitetail Institute's Secret Spot food plot seed along with a bucket of fertilizer and lime, and he makes his own deer magnets deep within the cover. It's not easy, he notes, but it draws deer out of the surrounding cover when they won't otherwise step into a larger field or travel through open woods during daylight hours.
"The only problem I have is that the deer hammer the food plots before they really get established. They just mow it down," he says. "However, they don't get it all, and there are always deer coming to these plots throughout the season."
Along with the seed and fertilizer, Tracy hauls in a rake and a brush ax to clear existing vegetation. He typically plants three or four patches around his tripod or tower stands, which gives the deer more options and more food. In some cases, he'll carry in a chainsaw as well, because some of the existing growth is just too large for an ax.
"It's a lot of work, but it's definitely worth the trouble," insists Waddell.
Planting In Denser Cover
Creating a big-buck honeyhole in the middle of a dense forest is a bit tougher, because any food plot seed needs at least four hours of daily sunlight to thrive. Plant it in heavy shade and you won't enjoy the fruits of your hard labor. The solution, of course, comes in the form of a chainsaw and a brush ax. Clearing sun-blocking trees and dense undergrowth can create a bright spot that allows virtually any seed to thrive. Cutting trees might not be allowed on public land or on private property owned by someone else, so check regulations or ask the landowner. If you get the green light, go for it, but go in with the right tools.
As Waddell learned, it's important, even vital, to clear the ground so that the seed can come in contact with the soil. Without that ground contact, the seed simply won't grow. He uses a standard garden rake to break up the hard surface soil, then spreads the seed and fertilizer and lime. After that, he rakes back over the seed mixture to cover it with a thin layer of soil. Although many seeds will germinate if they are dropped onto the ground and left alone, birds might eat the seed before it has a chance to sprout.
"I definitely have better growth when I rake soil back over the seed I spread on the ground," Tracy says. "I also learned that raking is easier after we've had a little rain to soften the ground. I tried raking after a long spell of hot weather, and it's almost impossible to break the surface."
What to Do When You Can't Clear Cover
Even if you don't have the option of hacking out a clearing, you can still find an opening somewhere far off the beaten path. As Waddell learned, one of the best places to create a hidden hotspot is in natural openings deep within clear-cuts and other areas with thick but short brush. If it's difficult to reach on foot, then itss probably a great spot to build a honeyhole. Timber harvest is big business in the East and South, so finding the right combination of short growth surrounded by thick escape and bedding cover is often a snap. In deep mature forests, look for small openings created by fires, storms or even insect-related damage where the tops of big trees are dead or completely gone. There might be new growth in the form of saplings or shrubs underneath, but that can be easily removed with the right tools. If the ground is covered with grass or any other short, thick vegetation, it's a good idea to treat it with a non-selective herbicide like Roundup. Give it a few weeks and then go back with a rake to remove the dead plant matter. If the ground is covered with leaves, they'll also have to be removed. Again, the key to any successful food plot, whether a large open field or a small patch deep in the woods, is good seed-to-soil contact and a good dose of sunshine.
Of course, no secret spot will produce a buck if it gets hunted too hard throughout the season. Knowing when to climb into that stand deep in thick cover and knowing when to give it a rest is as important as choosing the right location and following good planting practices. Hunt right and you'll have a big buck magnet that no one else knows about.