Often we as hunters get lulled into the routine of planting food plots and then sitting over them all season. For many, the hard work we put into planting and maintaining them yields us few if any daylight sightings of the mature bucks we're after. We get trail camera pictures of them night after night. It seems the big guys always wait till the safety of sunset to come out of the woods and then slip away again just before the sun comes up the next morning. It can be frustrating when you know your land is holding mature bucks but the feeding habits of those deer make them nearly impossible to kill. So what should we do to solve this problem and provide ourselves more opportunities to harvest mature bucks during daylight hours? A new study published by researchers from Auburn University's Deer Lab may hold the answers.
Why Don't I See Bucks During the Day?
First, we need to understand why deer behave the way they do in regards to food plot usage. Whitetails are timid animals, they do not like exposing themselves in open areas where they know they are vulnerable to predation by their #1 predator, humans. Decades of hunting have taught deer that open fields and food plots mean danger, while cover means relative safety during daylight hours. Their natural instincts tell them this as well. After dark its a different ballgame. Deer know they are relatively safe to venture into the open without fear of being picked off by a hunter from hundreds of yards away. Deer, especially mature bucks, utilize food plots heavily at night, but their wariness drives them back to the safety of the woods come daylight.
Now of course we have all hunted and observed deer in the open during daylight hours, many in food plots, but by and large these are young bucks and does. Often these deer are willing to come out in the open to feed but, if you've hunted long enough, you are painfully aware of the habit of mature bucks to be largely nocturnal in regards to food plot usage. Mature bucks are usually the most cautious deer in the woods. They're smart and experienced and they've been hunted for years. Time has taught them the value of avoiding the areas hunters use the most. The bucks that didn't learn this lesson got killed long before they ever reached the size of that 12 point that doesn't show up to your plot until midnight.
Mature bucks do slip up. Whether they venture into the open after a hot doe during the rut, or if they simply make the mistake of coming out for a mid morning snack, it does happen. The problem for us hunters is that its rare and because its rare we spend countless days, sometimes even years waiting on one buck to make a mistake. I think the goal of all of us is to cut down on that waiting and find a way to consistently find and harvest mature bucks, but to do that we need to find them during the day. So where are those bucks on all the days we spend waiting for them over our favorite food plot in vain?
The research published in this month's issue of Ecology and Evolution by researchers from Auburn University's Deer Lab shows bucks spend most of their time in the cover of the woods, specifically hardwood forests. In fact the data, gathered by fitting deer with GPS collars, shows that bucks were roughly 8 times more likely to be found in hardwood forests during the day than food plots.
The graph above shows which habitat was selected at different times of day by bucks (blue lines) and does (red lines) throughout the pre-rut, rut, and post-rut. These habitats are broken down into four types. Food plots, planted pines, natural pines, and hardwoods. Each graph shows what time of day deer used these different habitats. Areas of gray shaded background on each graph are during darkness, yellow bands show daylight and dusk, and the light blue area in the middle represents daylight hours.
You might be asking what all these little dots and lines mean and what that has to do with your hunting tactics. Let me explain:
If you look closely at each of the graphs, what you'll see is that during every phase of deer season bucks avoided food plots during the day like the plague. You can see the steep dip of buck activity in plots each day at sunrise and a sharp increase just after sunset. Between those times, (during daylight hours) they chose instead to be in hardwood timber. The margin between how often bucks selected one type of habitat over another wasn't small either. They used hardwood timber roughly 8 times as much as they visited food plots. This is because they feel safe in these areas. They aren't out in the open and they don't typically find a lot of hunters in these areas. We typically pile up our stands right around food plots and deer know this.
Where Do They Go?
So does that mean all we need to do is move our stands to the nearest patch of oaks to see more bucks during the day? The real answer isn't quite that simple. If we want to get the real takeaway from this study and use it to create a better hunting strategy we need to dig a little deeper.
First, we need to ask ourselves why we became so dependent on food plots to begin with? Food plots concentrate deer. Just like any major food source, deer congregate around and use food plots. Before we started planting food plots, deer had to live off what was available. That meant roaming the woods in search of food. If you've ever hunted a truly wild area with no man made food sources around then you know what that's like. Deer movements are scattered and unpredictable. Its hard to predict where they will be and when. Its a hard place to hunt.
Is There a Better Way?
We use food plots to overcome that challenge and provide a predictable place for us to intercept and harvest deer. The only problem with our strategy is the inherent dislike of whitetails, especially mature bucks, for open areas during daylight.
What if we could change our tactics and provide a food source that would concentrate deer, give us opportunities to hunt them, while still providing the cover and security deer need to feel comfortable spending time there in the daylight. Sounds like a great idea right, but how do you turn it into reality? Its easier than you might think.
There is a unique food source that often gets overlooked that can provide exactly the kind of conditions described above.
Have you ever hunted an old homesite? Maybe an area that had been abandoned deep in the woods years ago. These areas often have fruit and nut trees that were planted by their previous residents. Personal and anecdotal experience has proven those long forgotten apple, pear, pecan, and plum trees around old home sites deep in the woods to be some of the best honey holes you can find. If you ever find one, put out a trail camera and you'll see they get more than their fair share of daylight traffic, even from mature deer. So why is that? One of the most overlooked benefits of mast producing trees is that they provide a food source in an area where deer feel safe, within the cover of the woods, making them the best food source you can hunt over if you want to see mature deer during daylight hours.
If a few leftover apple trees around an old homesite can create a great place to hunt, imagine what it would be like if you converted that 1/2 acre food plot deep in the woods to a tree plot planted in a solid stand of fruit and nut trees. Imagine the attraction you'd be able to create by providing a food source like that. Many of our customers have done just that and it has yielded tremendous returns for them in being able to consistently see and harvest mature bucks.
Wildlife orchards, tree plots, groves, whatever you want to call them, they all share one key advantage over food plots. They allow deer to feed, on a highly attractive and nutritious food source, while never having to come out in the open spaces of a food plot. Adding a food source like this to your property will create unique opportunities to hunt deer that rarely show themselves in the fields you normally hunt.
Planting fruit and nut trees and creating tree plots where deer can feed while feeling safe during the day is far superior to planting food plots if your goal is to see and harvest mature bucks. Don't get us wrong, food plots have their place. They can provide a great deal of nutrition for deer which is important. But if you want a food source that will be utilized during the day you shouldn't be sitting over a food plot, you need a food source mature deer will consistently use during the day. You need a tree plot.
Why Haven't I Heard About This Before?
Planting trees for deer may be a brand new concept to you. It is to many of the people we talk to. The fact is planting food plots has been around for generations and it has become ingrained in our hunting culture but, as we always tell people: just because that's the way its always been done doesn't mean that's the way it should be done.
You may think that the benefits mentioned already in this article are enough of a reason to start investing in tree plots but frankly we haven't even mentioned some of the most important benefits that we stress to landowners while trying to share the benefits of planting trees.
Some of those include:
Fruit and nut trees produce more calories per acre than food plots, by a lot. Some calculations show fruit and nut trees produce 4x the calories per acre of the average food plot.
Fruit and nut trees have been shown to be more attractive than any other food source tested in a study by the Whitetail Research Institute in TX. In this study deer chose to feed on chestnuts (our #1 bestselling tree) over all other food sources including corn.
Planting trees eliminates the yearly investment in both time and money most people spend on food plots. Trees are more of a one time investment of time and money. Plant them, protect them with a tree tube or cage, and then let them grow. You can apply a yearly dose of fertilizer around them if you'd like, but it certainly isn't required. After a few years you'll have trees that produce a tremendous food source every year with little to no input and will continue to do so for generations to come.
If you pick the right varieties, they will be producing very quickly. There are many trees such as chestnuts, plums, paw paws, and sawtooth oaks that will produce in as little as 3 or 4 years so don't think of trees as only a long-term plan.
As more and more people are educated on the benefits of planting trees for deer we're seeing more and more landowners across the country joining the trend and converting some of their food plot space to trees. Some even use fresh clear-cuts, steep hillsides, or rocky areas that can't be planted in most food plot crops anyway. After seeing the results for themselves, we've had numerous customers tell us they plan to convert all of their plots into tree plots.
How Do I Get Started?
If you've never planted a tree before don't worry, anyone can do it. You just need the right information to do it the right way. You can find all the info you need to get started in our Growing Guide. It will help you decide what to plant, where to locate your tree plots, and how to plant and care for your trees to ensure their success.
If you want to see more mature bucks during daylight hours you need to get away from food plots. There are better strategies out there that will increase your success and decrease your time spent waiting on a mature buck to step out into an open food plot. If you want to get serious about harvesting mature deer you need to do something different, and for many of us the answer is tree plots. They provide a fantastic food source that bucks will use during daylight hours at a rate far superior to food plots.