4 Fundamentals for Bow Hunting Food Plots

Early Season Bow Plot Strategies

If you’re obsessed with bow hunting, we know you like a challenge. After all, hunting with a bow is much harder than hunting with a firearm – you need the animals much closer and more can go wrong with an arrow’s trajectory than a bullet/slug. But if you have private land and can plant early season food plots, you can make your life just a little easier (without totally giving up the challenge)Early season whitetails can definitely be very predictable, but they can also be very frustrating when they don’t play the game. That means early season bow hunting can fluctuate a lot depending on the weather conditions, hunting pressure, and natural habitats. By planting a few bow hunting food plots, you can bring deer in right where you need them and increase the chance of filling your tag. Here are four things that you need to consider for planting early season food plots.

Video: TJ Unger is plotting for the season. A new bow hunting plot has him excited as the 2018 deer season approaches. With a hit-list buck in the area, and a new fully thought out kill plot in the works, TJ might have just aligned his assets right for a successful year in Indiana! 

1. Early Season Attraction

If you’re primarily bow hunting in the early season, your deer plots obviously need to be most attractive in the early season, right? It’s surprising how many people miss that fact. You can control that aspect a few different ways.

Food Plot Seeds and Time of Year

You definitely need to make sure you plant the right species/seeds in an early season food plot. For example, if you planted corn or beans in the middle of the summer, thinking they would be prime for an early season hunt, you might find that a bad summer drought wipes your plot out before you can hunt it. Similarly, planting cereal grains too early in the year may mean you have dry grasses in your plot, which aren’t very attractive to deer. Here are a few seeds and strategies that can be very effective for early season food plots.

 PHOTO: The Virtue TV 

  • Clover/Chicory – planted in the prior fall, perennial clover and chicory plots are a good drought-resistant and browse-tolerant combination to attract deer. Annual clovers planted in late summer are very attractive to deer by the early season time period as they are young and full of nutrients. 
  • Brassicas/Turnips – depending on where you hunt, brassica and turnip seeds can be extremely attractive to deer. The young green tops are greedily eaten and deer may even crunch a small bulb or two if the plants get large enough by the early season. As far as when to plant turnip seeds and brassica seeds, mid-summer plantings work well if timed before a rain event or in lower areas that stay a little bit wet throughout the summer. 
  • Cereal grains – wheat, oats, and rye can all be very attractive in early season food plots. If planted before a rain event, they should germinate and grow quickly, and they are very nutritious and sought after when they reach six to eight inches in height. 
  • Soybeans/Peas – this is an odd one, but hear us out. If you don’t care about producing mature plants with beans/pods on them, young beans and peas are very sweet and attract deer like crazy – until they are browsed out, which will happen quickly with large deer herds and small bow hunting kill plots. Be ready to hunt when these plants are a few inches tall! 
  • Combination plantings – the best food plots for deer may combine all of these plants in a single plot. The higher-growing plants can act as a nurse crop and protect the lower-growing ones until they get established. Plus, planting several species in one plot helps increase the odds of attracting deer if one of the seeds fails.

2. Deer Travel Strategy

If you build it, they will come, right? That’s not always the case, unfortunately. For maximum attraction and a better chance of encountering a mature buck, food plot placement is critical.

  • Location – try to locate your bow kill plot along natural deer traffic routes. Find a spot between a destination feeding field/large food plot and a bedding area. Deer will naturally take trails between them, so plant your early season food plots somewhere to intercept them. Small food plots in the woods can be dynamite in the early season. 
  • Staging areas – just off of larger fields (50 yards or so), try planting small kill plots. Deer (especially mature bucks) tend to stage up in these areas during daylight hours prior to entering larger fields. 
  • Size – when you’re bow hunting, you don’t want to be sitting on a 5 acre field – it’s hard to shoot across that distance. Make your hunting food plots around a tenth of an acre so you can shoot from one side to the other. Smaller plots will also make deer more comfortable to enter it during daylight hours.

3. Shooting Opportunities

The danger with smaller food plots is that deer can sneak up on you, feed, and be gone before you have a chance to grab your bow, get in position, and take a shot. Here are a few ways you can try to maximize the time that deer spend in these small bow hunting plots, simply by distracting them or increasing the attraction.

  • Distraction – by scratching out a mock scrape, sinking a sapling tree trunk (i.e., rubbing pole) into the ground, or hanging a licking branch on the edge of your early season food plots, you can keep deer interested and occupied a little longer. While they’re focused on the distraction, you can move into position and watch your lighted nocks disappear behind their shoulder. 
  • Waterholes – if you’re located in a relatively dry area, waterholes for deer can be particularly attractive in the hot early season weather. Sink a small basin or tub into the ground and try to keep it filled as often as possible. Before and after eating, deer will likely stop to get a drink, which can allow you to take a shot. 
  • Other food – if you have any apple, persimmon, pear, or oak trees on your property, try planting small food plots adjacent to them. Many of these trees produce soft or hard mast precisely when the early hunting season starts. And when these trees produce, deer will hit them hard, often ignoring other food sources temporarily. It will help buy you some time for a shot, and it’s also added insurance that deer will still come there even if the plots fail.

4. Tree Stand Access

Of course, if you can’t stealthily access your tree stand consistently, even the best early season food plots will fail you. Here are some ways you can improve the access to the stand sites and plots on your bow hunting property.

  • Screened access – you can use existing vegetation (e.g., thickly growing spruces, dense brush, hinge-cut trees, etc.) to hide your access trail by planting food plots on the other side of the direction you approach. Or you can plant your own seasonal screen using tall sorghum grass species or Egyptian wheat. 
  • Play the wind – make sure your plot is located upwind from your stand site and access trail so deer wouldn’t normally smell you while approaching or sitting in your stand. 
  • Access trail – before hunting season, take some time to clear the vegetation away from your access trail so that you won’t spook deer in the area on your way in. You may even want to rake the debris off of it. Take your time walking in and use binoculars to scan your food plot as you approach to make sure you don’t bump a mature buck off of it.

This season, try a few of these methods out to increase the attraction of the early season food plots on your hunting property. If you have existing food plots, try tweaking them a bit to adopt a few of these strategies. And if you’re planting brand new food plots, take these design and placement considerations seriously. Under the best early season hunting conditions, you might not need all this help. But under the worst conditions and luck, it’s nice to have an ace in the hole.

Setting Up a New Property for Bow Hunting

Creating a Bow Hunting Property From Scratch

Picture this, you’ve just purchased your dream hunting property. It’s exactly like you pictured, two-thirds of it is wooded and the other third is in AG production. The previous owners haven’t done anything too fancy in terms of deer management, but that didn’t stop your mind from racing with ideas on how to improve the property for deer hunting for the first season of hunting it. Since then, you’ve scoured the aerial maps, jotted down ideas, bought trail cameras, and planted food plots. The property is yours and you’ve got a blank canvas. It is time to turn this property into a deer hunting and more importantly bow hunting masterpiece that even Picasso would envy!

As you begin this process it’s important to realize what is realistic, and what is/can be the most effective in terms of delivering bow hunting opportunities for the first year of hunting a new property.

Creating a Plan that is Realistic

Like any great architectural design, it starts with a vision. From there you will start to develop a plan, then change the plan, then change the plan some more until finally, you’ve got something tangible to work with. The canvas may be the physical landscape, but the blueprints happen on maps first. Many websites and hunting map apps offer incredible aerial imagery with a few clicks and scrolls of the mouse allowing you to focus in on your property. One such asset is the free version of Google Earth Pro – it’s a major step above the standard version and offers just about all the features a land manager and hunter could ask for. You can mark trails, food plots, sanctuaries, tree stands, trail cameras, and even figure out acreages and distances. Perhaps the best part is that Google Earth Pro turns everything you add into a layer that can be clicked on and off allowing for easy altering. Check out the photo below to see an example of a strategic layout of a hunting property done using the free Google Earth Pro.

Maps will always be the lifeline and center of discussion when it comes to doing anything on your property, be it hunting, managing, or just plain strategizing. It makes sense to use a variety of apps and maps to get as much detail on paper as possible. Now onto the fun part, setting the stage for successful bow hunts.

Bow Hunting Food Plots

Let’s start with what’s usually first on everyone’s mind when it comes to habitat management – food plots. Plant it, and they will come…right? Wrong! Often times we are so anxious to get something in the ground, we hurry and plant a food plot wherever it might be convenient for us, not the deer. These spots often include power and gas line openings, field edges, old grassy spots, or just about any place that’s on our hunting property and void of trees. While there is no harm in this, these spots are not always ideal bow hunting locations. This is where those maps come in handy. Mark the bedding areas and physically draw out how the deer are moving about your property. There will be hidden clues lying in the topo lines and habitat edges as to how deer will likely travel across the area. A well-placed kill plot along one of these travel corridors might create the opportunity you’re seeking for your first year of hunting the property.

PHOTO: The Virtue TV

Plan your attack carefully and remember, bigger is not always better when it comes to creating killer bow hunting plots. There’s a big difference between a destination feeding plot and a bow hunting plot. The two main differences are usually size and location. It’s not to say a destination plot can’t be a killing plot, but generally speaking, a feeding plot is usually more than two acres in size, while a killing plot is typically under an acre. It’s often closer to ¼ acre to promote close encounters for bow hunting.

Additionally, a network of food plots will create bottlenecks for deer movement. Often times, bucks will travel just inside the cover on the downwind side of the food plot while scent checking for does or danger, especially during the rut. Deer and big bucks especially will stage up in a well-placed food plot that’s tucked back in the cover and within one hundred yards or so of their desired feeding field. Use these tactics to layout and install food plots in the best locations possible – it’ll save a lot of time, money, and headaches down the road.

Waterholes for Deer

Food plots are usually top-of-mind when it comes to improving the deer habitat, but let’s face it, the majority of hunters don’t have the time, money, or effort for exceptionally productive food plots. This is where deer waterholes come in. They are cheap, easy to install, and can be placed just about anywhere. The simplest designs include 50-gallon barrels cut in half, kiddie swimming pools, cattle tanks, and holes lined with plastic. The cool thing about water holes is you can place them just about anywhere. Placing them on ridgetops and funnels may slow up cruising bucks for a quick drink during the rut, allowing you to get off a perfect shot. Placing them in open timber or along field edges can also help bring deer in range. Once the deer get conditioned to this new source, it may even shrink their range if water is the limiting resource on your hunting property.


After food plots and waterholes for deer, habitat is usually the next asset to look at for a new hunting property. One of the first things that comes to mind when discussion deer habitat management is hinge-cutting. Not too long ago hinge cutting was once a relatively new and foreign topic, but now it’s a household term amongst deer hunters and managers. For those that are unfamiliar, hinge cutting is simply cutting a tree three-quarters of the way through and approximately 3-5 feet off the ground. Ideally, the tree will fall in the direction you intended and the portion of the tree you didn’t cut through will continue to provide water and nutrients to the rest of the tree which is now laying on the ground. There’s plenty of articles that cover this topic more in depth, but the point is to provide living and growing browse and cover at a height beneficial to deer.

There are three basic management outcomes that hinge cutting will achieve depending upon how it is implemented: bedding, browse, and transitional cover.

  1. Hinging for bedding purposes can be done in two ways: creating individual bedding locations and creating overall bedding areas. Basically, the difference is whether you will be doing select individual trees or an entire area.
  2. Hinging for browse is similar to hinging for bedding areas, but is done at a higher frequency. Browse areas should be done in areas with little to no future timber value or areas that are extremely crowded and choking each other out.
  3. Feathering the edges with hinge cuts is also an effective management practice. Feathering edges around food plot openings will increase the security cover and can provide a soft edge between hardwood stands and food plots or field openings. This is an important factor to consider, as these denser edges will often lead to an increase in daytime deer movement, especially mature buck movement.

Along the same line of creating soft edges, is the practice of creating barriers with hinge cuts or other downed trees. In essence, you’re creating a semi-natural fence to alter deer movement in your favor. You can cut or stack a tangled mess around food plots so the deer can only enter in certain areas or even lay a line through a big chunk of timber to concentrate the often-erratic deer movement to certain pinch points. There’s a lot of fun to be had in the woods with a chainsaw, but just remember you can’t uncut a cut tree. It’s always a wise idea to consult a forester first or at least take the less-is-more approach.

Strategically Placed Scrape Trees

When it comes to creating bow hunting opportunities on a new hunting property mock scrapes are often overlooked. Planting scrape trees or creating mock scrapes in October and November in certain areas is a super simple and effective project to steer deer into bow range. All you need to do is to cut down a scrape worthy tree or branch within bow range of your stand, scrape a patch of dirt in below the branch, add some scent to the ground and branch, and wait for the right buck to start using it frequently. Like any scrape, these are perfect trail camera locations and once a pattern is developed, hunting locations! If you don’t want to physically place a tree, another strategy is to selectively trim branches along field edges, making sure to only leave one or two perfect scrape branches in the perfect spot.

And there you have it – a quick guide to creating an ideal bow hunting property from scratch. While this barely scratches the surface of some techniques and improvements, these simple enhancements can drastically alter a bow hunting property’s productivity with the realistic effort needed to produce results. Remember though, it’s crucial to start with a vision and map out your plan before you go in with time and money. Be strategic in your approach and remember less is usually more if it is done properly.