One: Design Before You Dig
On an aerial map, look for strips and pockets of open ground toward the interior of your property, and plant those first. This keeps your plots—and the bucks they attract–away from roads and the neighbors’ fence lines.
Also, the closer you plant to thick bedding cover the better your chances that mature 8- or 10-pointer will pop out into the plot to grab a bite one evening this fall.
Think back to past hunts on the land. Whitetails are habitual animals that come and go in the same places from year to year. Where have you seen the most deer and found the found the most trails, rubs and scrapes over the years? Plant your plots in and around areas of established deer traffic.
Two: GPS Your Plots
“Use a GPS receiver to measure the exact area of every food plot,” says Bill Gray, an Alabama wildlife biologist. “Knowing the precise acreage of your plots will prevent over applying seed, fertilizer, lime and herbicide. Better crops are always produced when the correct amount of seed, fertilizer and lime are applied.”
Three: Plant North to South
“Configure plots to run more north-south than east-west,” says Dr. Grant Woods, one of the top deer managers in the world. “Growing plants will get adequate sunlight each day, but they won’t bake in the summer. The northeast corner of a slope generally has the moistest soil and is a particularly good spot for a plot.”
Four: Get A Top Soil Sample
Dig 5 or 6 six cups of dirt from various spots around a plot area, mix the soil in a bucket and come up with one representative soil sample. Have it tested at your county extension office or by a seed company for recommendations on liming and fertilizing. Bonus tip: Ideally your dirt would have a pH level of seven, or neutral. But usually it’ll test 4 to 6. Keep in mind that it takes a ton of lime per acre to raise the pH one point, and it takes lime months to work most efficiently. Plan well ahead of time.
Five: Plant Clover
You have a bunch of seed choices, but you can’t go wrong by planting a 60/40 mix of a perennial like Imperial Whitetail Clover and chicory in spring. By mid-May the clover is producing major tonnage, and the chicory kicks in soon thereafter to provide a steady food source for lactating does and bucks putting on new antlers.
The great news is that the clover will last 5 years, and the chicory about 3 years, so this minimizes your work and cost big time.
Back in 1940, a different type of deer was observed in the Sierra Del Carmen Mountains of Mexico. While nearly identical in color and features to the common whitetail, this animal was considerably smaller in stature, and even a bit smaller than the Coues deer, which inhabits similar mountainous habitat.
Scientists studied the animal and identified it as the “Carmen Mountain Whitetail.”
A mature Carmen buck weighs 100 pounds and stands about 30 inches high. Antlers are typically baskets, with beams that curve inward. An 8-point buck that scores 80 to 100 inches is a good one.
Eighty years ago, the only known habitat of the Carmen whitetail in the U.S. was the Chisos Mountains of Southwest Texas. The tiny deer has expanded its territory 100 miles to the north and west, and can now be found in several mountain ranges in Far West Texas, including the Chianti Mountains where I hunted last December.
Cool country. The peaks and canyons of these mountains are remnants of volcanic eruptions in the Trans Pecos millions of years ago. Indian caves and lookouts hidden throughout the Chinatis are evidence that humans have inhabited this land for thousands of years.
My friend Steve Jones’ camp here in the high desert sits at 5,000 feet. It’s off the grid and rustic, just the way I like it. You eat like a king, and there’s even a shower.
The more we hunted and the more I adjusted my eye to this country, the preferred habitat of this whitetail became clearer. The deer tend to hang out at 4,000-6,000 feet, near stands of scrub oak and free-standing water when available. We look for them feeding on grassy hillsides at first and last light. They are not only small, but elusive.
On the fourth and last day of my hunt, I got one. Long story short, I had to take a long shot, and after a long and nervous tracking job, we found him. You’ll see this unique hunt on a new episode of BIG DEER TV later this fall. Cameraman Matt Young did a superb job filming this, with some spectacular drone shots of this vast and rugged country. One of my favorite shows ever.
This is a cool hunt, one you might do once in your life. If you get the hankering check out Backcountry Hunts. Steve Jones is a great guy and good at what he does, with more than 3 decades of guiding hunters in Far West Texas and throughout the Southwest. In addition to Carmen deer, he has opportunities for elk, mule deer and free-ranging Aoudad sheep.
When we scout and hunt a property for deer from September through December, we poke around and look for rubs, scrapes and tracks. But we are reluctant to walk around too much or penetrate too deeply into the woods for fear of bumping deer. That’s good, but trouble is, by working only the perimeters of a hunting area, you only get a glimpse of how and where the deer, and bucks, live and travel.
But in the spring, you can walk freely in the woods and investigate every ridge, bottom and thicket for signs of deer. Why not kill two birds with one stone and combine your scouting with your turkey hunting in April and May?
At daylight, listen for a gobbling bird and go get him if you can. Midmornings, when the turkeys go quiet, start walking. Cover every ridge, draw and creek bottom on the land. Check out every edge, thicket or swamp. You’ll bump a few deer, but who cares? You won’t be back to hunt them for another 5 or 6 months.
As you’re walking along pause every few hundred yards and cast a few yelps and cutts, hoping to strike a gobbler whose hens have left him for the day. If no luck with that, cut every deer trail you come across, follow it a ways and see where it goes. Trails the deer use now will be fresh and muddy, but old worn trails they used last fall and winter will still be visible. Those old trails are the ones you need to find and follow, since those are the ones a buck used back in hunting season, and the ones he’ll use it again this fall.
Main trails will fork into secondary trails that link more food sources and cover thickets. Walk those too, and key in on pockets of deer sign. When a trail cuts across a creek, veers around a ridge point or drops into a ditch, take note because those funneling points are great places for trail cameras and tree stands next fall.
As you hike, look for feeding areas you might have missed or never knew about—white oaks on a ridge, a patch of greenery near a swamp, persimmons, old apple trees… Same goes for small or large thickets, cutovers, weedy ditches and the like that serve as satellite or major bedding areas.
Rubs and scrapes from last October and November are easy to spot in the spring woods. Look for “signpost” rubs–large, scarred trees that mark some section of a buck’s core living area. Missouri whitetail scientist Grant Woods points out that while mature bucks blaze the big rubs, many deer interact with them. “They act as communal pheromone wicks and are located in areas with high deer traffic,” he says. That would be an obvious spot to scout further and hang a stand this fall.
Woods has found a correlation between the number of rubs in an area and the number of older bucks that live there. On a management property in Tennessee, he’s observed an amazing 5,000 rubs per square mile, or 7.8 per acre. If you find a piece of woods lit up rubbed trees like that, start looking for stand sites for this fall.
Whitetail bucks are habitual, and scrape in the same general areas year after year. As you walk and turkey call, look for three old scraping patterns, and make a note to come back and check them again as bucks start rutting this October:
–A cluster of scrapes at the intersection of 2 or 3 trails, with big rubs nearby. This is a “rut junction” and a great spot for a trail camera.
–A scrape line on the edge of a linear honeysuckle thicket or a row of pines or cedars. Bucks run these edges frequently in late October and early November. Another good spot for a trail camera.
–A heavily scraped spot on a ridge 100 yards or so off a corn or bean field. If the acorn crop is good again in the fall, bucks will stage and scrape there again.
I hope you get your turkey this spring, but if not all is not lost. The more you roam and learn the woods, and the more old buck sign you find, the better you’ll hunt this fall.