No Food Plots? No Problem!

AJ Gall

Not everybody has a food plot…

Do you have a food plot to hunt over this fall?  In this day in age, food plotting has become all the rage.  Magazines are jam-packed with regurgitated articles on how to plant, what to plant, where to plant, and why you should plant this and that type of forage.  Hunting shows are repeatedly filmed over mega food plots loaded with bucks and after they kill, they give all the credit to their sponsored brand of food plot seed.  Go to your local sporting goods store and you’ll find multiple isles of food plot seed sitting on the shelf and all you can do is dream of the day you will own your own hunting paradise.

While it’s reality for some, for most it’s just a dream.  Now don’t get me wrong, I am not against planting food plots.  In fact, if you’ve watched any of our videos you know I’ve got several acres of food plots on the very land I spend most of my time hunting.  However, I also know that food plots are not the norm for the majority of hunters out there.  Up until three years ago, I had never hunted over a food plot in my life.  Not because I didn’t want to, but because I couldn’t.  I spent the majority of my time hunting the public lands of northern Wisconsin and small private parcels with permission. With so much being written about how food plots help you as a hunter, it was time to revert back and write an article dealing with the real struggles of the everyday hunter hunting an everyday landscape and a few tips for continued success on properties with no food plots.

1 – Scout More

It should come as no surprise that the more you scout the better your chances SHOULD be of harvesting a good buck. “Should” being the operative word.  I know plenty of hunters, friends, and even family members who will spend days walking many miles in the woods every fall hoping to stumble over the perfect spot.  Every now and then they get lucky, but I’d argue that they could have saved a lot of time and energy by looking at an aerial map first.  I understand mapping whitetails can be a complex subject and if you don’t know what to look for, then a walk in the woods is better than a blank stare at a map. This is exactly why we started a new blog series called Mapping Whitetails which will help deer hunters better understand what to look for on a map.

Scouting deer using a computer and google earthPulling up an aerial image of your hunting property allows you to see the big picture in terms of how deer may be travelling through an area.  Scout locations from a computer first and mark potential hot zones, then go in and ground proof them to make sure your predictions were right.

The biggest advantage of being able to decipher a landscape on a map is that it allows you to spend more time ground scouting in HIGH QUALITY areas.  More often than not, you can spot the decent areas from your desk and go right to them for ground verification, rather than wandering around aimlessly hoping to stumble upon one.  Spending less time scouting quality areas is much more beneficial than spending a ton of time scouting less-than-average areas.  This is especially true for the weekend hunter and/or travelling hunter, of whom time is of the essence.

2 – Hunt Quality Over Quantity

Just like scouting, focus on hunting quality over quantity.  When I say quality, I mean hunt your best areas as much as you can during the rut.  This is usually your best chance for success on public land and small private parcels because pressured deer now have the urge to breed.  Not to say you can’t bag a dandy during the early season, but in my experience, sightings of mature deer are hard to come by after the first week of the season up until the rut starts to kick in.

This commitment is more of a mental hurdle than anything.  I used to think I couldn’t miss a single day out in the woods and if I did I would miss my only chance at a big buck.  Looking back at what I know now, that philosophy hurt me a heck of a lot more than it ever helped.  Now, I typically sit a handful of times from the season opener through most of October and ramp it up to nearly every day from pre-rut on through the tail end of the rut.

Giant Whitetail BuckRight around the 20th of October is when I prefer to ramp up my hunting efforts.  By October 31st I’ll be in a stand as much as possible. . . just not the same one.  Here’s a picture of a buck we got on a small 30 acre piece of private land with only 5 acres of woods.  Needless to say we were excited to hunt!  Unfortunately an automobile got him before we could.

There’s several reasons I believe in the philosophy of hunting quality over quantity, especially when hunting public land and small parcels.

  1. Without food plots or ag fields to hunt over, it’s difficult to pattern an early season buck. Most public land is typically dominated by timber and if there are fields, you can bet every other hunter is already sitting over them.  Thus, these deer become nocturnal very quick, and remain that way until the rut.
  2. Hunting early will put additional pressure on the deer and will result in having a cold stand come November. Scientific research in conjunction with my own observations say that your first and second sit on a stand are your best chances to tag a mature whitetail.  They are smart, so don’t educate them any sooner than you have to.

3 – Switch It Up

Switching where you sit can be extremely tough to do on small parcels or if you’ve had a close encounter during a previous sit, however, it’s crucial to do so.  A lot of times hunters will get stuck in their routine which ultimately results in tag soup season after season.  What’s happening one day can be completely different than the next.  So ditch your routine! The only routine you should be on is your scent control routine.   Too many hunters get too comfortable going to the same stand day in and day out with out regards to the wind direction because it’s convenient.  All I have to say is good things come to those who work for them.

4 – It’s Still About the Food

Aside from breeding season, whitetail behavior is dictated largely by their feeding habits.  This is precisely the reason so many people are planting food plots these days.  However, food plot or no food plot, deer are still going to be moving to food during the evenings and returning back from food during the morning.  Now it’s up to you to find out what and where that food is.

In big timber areas that may be a young clear cut or a clover planted log landing, elsewhere it could be fallen acorns, nearby crop fields, fruit trees, or native browse.  The truth is every area will be different, therefore finding the preferred food source in your area is key during your scouting missions.

5 – Find an Area that Excites You

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, you should find an area that you are excited to hunt every time you enter the woods.  Whether it’s a giant signpost rub, trail camera picture, active scrape, or simply a beautiful view, each and every hunt should be accompanied with an anxious sense of excitement.  If you’re not excited, then why are you hunting there?

Big Rub on Public LandFinding a rub like this is on public land is sure to keep spirits high throughout the season.  Sometimes not having trail cam pictures of bucks on a specific piece of property is even more exciting than having them because it allows you to dream of what could potentially walk on by.

Far too many people settle for what they’ve got . . . even if it doesn’t excite them.  This is a strange phenomenon to me, but I see it time and time again.  You get permission to hunt a private 20 acres and that’s all you hunt the entire year or you go to the same stand that doesn’t produce night after night.  A season of this is one thing, but when it goes on year after year, it becomes counterproductive.  Remember this, you can’t do the same thing and expect different results.  My advice to you is to stop making excuses.  The only thing preventing you from gaining access to another private land chunk or finding a new public land honey hole is you.

For example, a buddy and I once asked over 46 different farms one weekend and every one of them said no.  Thanks to these permission asking tips and the drive to strive for more, the very next weekend out we gained permission on the first farm we asked.  It was a beautiful 150 acre farm, one of which while driving up the driveway we thought we had a better chance of winning the lottery than getting permission to hunt on this property.  That’s 1 out of 47 properties or roughly a 2% success rate, not good, but it only takes one.  While we have this property in the books, we will still hunt public land regularly to keep the pressure low until the time is right.

Wrap Up

There is nothing I enjoy more than stepping foot onto a new piece of dirt for the first time – public or private.  Figuring out how whitetails utilize the surrounding landscape is the greatest game of all.  Get out there and explore – that’s the true nature of a hunter. Canoe a backwater stream, explore a new property, or scout a new ridge, after all, isn’t that what we as hunters live for?

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About The Author
From Woods to Table

AJ Gall

AJ Gall's prior hunting and wildlife experiences began long ago and make him the perfect contributing deer hunting guru.  As a habitat consultant under Dr. Grant Woods, AJ has worked on properties in 13 different states, amassing over 25,000 acres of quality deer management. He now uses that knowledge to help clients find their dream hunting properties as a licensed real estate agent in Wisconsin.  


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