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Elevational Food Plots:

by: Mark Thomas, QDMA

Use altitude to your advantage to get a look at mature buckss

One of the greatest things about Quality Deer Management (QDM) is the substantial shift toward older bucks in the population over time. Just having more mature bucks out there, however, does not necessarily mean you will see or harvest them, especially if your hunting strategies do not change along with your management strategies. You may need to adjust your tactics and your land management techniques in order to view and harvest these older, wiser bucks. In particular, food-plot design and habitat layout can be modified to increase harvest success, and this article is one of three that will help you do just that.

Food plots are usually established on relatively flat ground, a function of past agricultural practices, available open ground and the limitations of older equipment. And in some geographic regions, flat ground is the only ground! In parts of the country with contour, I like to incorporate a change in elevation into food plots whenever I can. When this “third dimension” is added to a food plot, especially when travel lanes can be constructed to connect the plot to a drainage or other wetland, use of the plot by older-aged bucks can be increased. I’ll give you a more detailed description of the set-up, and then you’ll have a better understanding of why this design works.

Location & Design

To correctly install food plots with a significant change in elevation, I usually locate a relatively gradual, east-facing side hill of moderate slope. The ideal set-up would include a location for a stand site just below the ridgeline near the top of the open slope, a bench or shelf about halfway down the opening, and a stream drainage or swamp at the bottom. It also helps to have very dense bedding cover nearby, either close to the bench or at the bottom of the plot. I like to have around 100 yards between the top of the plot and the bench and another 100 yards of open hill down to the bottom. With a rifle, this gives you a 200-yard shot from the stand location at the top to the large plot at the bottom. The bench needs to be 50 to 80 yards wide and deep. I keep the open slope fairly narrow, 30 to 50 feet wide, with irregular, curved edges. The change in elevation from the top to the bottom usually averages from 80 to 120 feet or so. I usually enlarge the area near the bottom of the slope, stopping well short of the drainage or swamp.

The open area at the bottom of the slope and the bench in the middle of the slope serve as the larger planted areas. In order to draw deer into these larger areas, particularly mature bucks, I create “travel lanes” radiating outward. These are narrow, curved or irregular trails that are shoulder-width on a deer. The lanes should tie the opening at the bottom into the creek drainage or swamp, and they can tie either the bench or the lower plot into dense bedding cover. These travel lanes direct deer into the larger openings, and deer will start using them as soon as you create them. One option is to fertilize these lanes to enhance the browse and make them even more attractive. Nine times out of 10, deer will enter the larger plot from these travel lanes.

Now, why do older-aged bucks like these features? I believe a combination of factors are involved. Access to prime bedding areas and escape cover is a key. The narrow width and curved edges of both the open slope and the travel lanes provide them a sense of secrecy and cover rather than open exposure. Mature bucks also tend to use bottomland drainages and swampy areas as travel corridors, and they also move along contour lines and shelves, so your set-up doesn’t require them to range far from their normal beat to reach an attractive food source. Finally, and perhaps most important, the stand site is located near the top of the slope, far removed in both distance and altitude from the most attractive parts of the plot. With a few exceptions that I will discuss, your scent is seldom carried into the lower portions of the plot, and the signs of your entering and leaving the stand are less likely to be detected by wary bucks.

One thing I know for sure — many of my clients have seen and harvested some outstanding bucks in these features. This past season, I was sitting in just such an elevational food plot on a client’s land when a buck emerged from the lowest point of the plot and walked all the way up the plot to literally within eight yards of me. He had a true double main beam on the right side and a massive rack. I sure enjoyed watching him saunter off. I set up a couple of infrared cameras and caught him on film at night (see the photo at right).



In all likelihood, you will need to create an opening for an elevational food plot. If possible, coordinate this project with a commercial logging project elsewhere on the property, and have the loggers use their tree-cutting equipment to clear your elevational food plot for you. Be sure to mark the edges clearly and carefully ahead of time. If you choose your area carefully, you can minimize the amount of tree-cutting that has to be done (as well as stump removal afterwards) and tackle this project with a chainsaw.

On the steepest slopes of your elevational food plot, install water bars and turn-outs to prevent erosion. A water bar is simply a low berm of soil running with the contour that stops the downhill flow of water and channels it off to the side of the opening. When you till the opening, be sure to till along the contour lines instead of down the slope. Finally, plant your plot as soon as possible after tilling. These steps will further inhibit erosion.

For tilling, I use a Mahindra 4110 42hp 4x4 tractor with about 1,200 pounds of front-end weights and industrial lug tires. Over the years I have tried every model of tractor there is, and the Mahindra has come to be the one I rely on. Whatever tractor you use, it will need to be a sturdy, 4x4 model like the one I just described to tackle these slopes. I pull a double offset tandem BrushMaster 6-foot set of disks weighing approximately 2,000 pounds. This disc includes 16 18-inch square blades rotated at a 45° angle to increase the cutting ability. Each disc gang is bolted to a device called a Shock Flex Riser. You can literally disc right over stumps without lifting. 

For seeding, fertilizing and liming these elevational food plots, a tractor-mounted broadcast spreader or an ATV with spin-cast spreaders are probably the best options. I usually till only the top couple of inches of soil when I cut in my seed, fertilizer and lime on the second pass.

I also use my ATV-mounted sprayer rig for spraying heavy brush on the edges of the plots, if necessary, to set back succession and create transitional edge habitat, or “ecotones.” I usually kill all non-mast-producing trees within 20 feet of the edges in order to allow more sunlight to reach the plot. These trees do not necessarily have to be removed; you can kill them and leave them standing with an injection of herbicide.

The travel lanes can be installed with a sling blade or machete. I use a heavy-duty weed-eater with a brush-saw blade called a PJ blade, which consists of chainsaw teeth riveted to a steel disc — a much faster option! Remember to keep these lanes very narrow, only about 24-inches wide.


Crop Management

As for food-plot crops, you should use the same species, varieties and/or commercial mixes that have done well on your land in the past. I have found that rotating between plantings of warm- and cool-season annuals is better than planting perennials because of limited sunlight in these narrow openings. 

My warm-season seed mixture usually includes browntop millet, iron-clay peas, dove-proso millet, buckwheat, peridovic sunflowers and partridge pea. This tends to favor deer, turkey, quail, and dove, in that order. Another good warm-season mix is BioLogic’s BioMass. This is a mixture of two varieties of soybeans (including quail haven), iron-clay peas, two varieties of sorghum, and sunflowers. I’ll till this under in the fall and plant a cool-season mix of Plot-Spike oats (40 percent), Buck Forage oats (40 percent) and 20 percent annual winter rye. Another good cool-season mixture which does well in the fall/winter is Green Patch Plus, from BioLogic. This includes 21 percent brassicas by seed count, 50 percent wheat and oats, and 29 percent clover. The clovers are preinoculated. 


Stand Set-ups

When hunting with modern firearms, I like a double ladder stand around 16 to 20 feet in height, and I shield the ladder and stand with camouflage material or brush. I place the stand 30 to 40 yards from the upper edge of the elevational food plot. This is a buffer zone, and I try to keep it thick with brush to screen your movements and sounds as you enter the stand. It is important that you be able to get into this stand without spooking deer that are in the food plot or bedded nearby when you arrive. This requires that you establish a trail to the stand that enters either along the contour lines of the slope or from uphill. Choose a course for the trail that leads through thick cover — if it’s possible given the landscape, you shouldn’t be able to see the plot at all until you reach the seat of the stand.

Whatever stand type your use, it is imperative that this stand be completely camouflaged with blind materials or brush. Remember that we are creating a plot with mature bucks in mind, and a square shooting house looming over our set-up is not a stealthy option.

For hunting with muzzleloaders and bows, choose a location for a lock-on or climbing stand above but in range of the bench in the middle of the plot. Early-season bowhunters should observe from the ladder stand at the top before the season comes in, noting the entry points and patterns of mature bucks they see. Then, set up at that location with a climber on the right day. 


Wind and Other Considerations

If you were able to locate your plot on an east-facing slope, westerly winds of greater than five miles per hour do not normally pose a problem — your scent is blown straight over the elevational food plot. Remember, you are sitting over 100 feet in elevation above and more than 200 yards from the bottom of the plot. Where wind can hurt you is early on perfectly calm mornings. Until the sun appears, air temperatures are still dropping and the air is slowly creeping down slope, carrying your scent with it. Hunting during these periods should be avoided. I usually wait until around 9 a.m. or so, about mid-morning, to enter my stand. By this time, the advancing sun is creating rising currents. Scent-blocking clothing, scent-eliminating sprays and cover scents are important, especially when hunting near the shelf area.

I do not use elevational food plots for harvesting does or, if your program is at this advanced level, management bucks. Designate other conventional food plots for doe harvest and still other, larger food plots for nutrition plots, which are off-limits to all hunting. Meanwhile, your elevational plots should be hunted stealthily and sparingly. Do not overhunt them, or your careful design and hard work will be wasted. I would suggest hunting them no more than twice a week during a long season, a little more often in northern and Midwestern states with shorter seasons. Also, treat the bedding areas, swamps and thickets adjacent to your elevational plot as sanctuaries not to be disturbed.

With a little planning and work, you can have your elevational plot installed and planted in time for the coming season. Meanwhile, I’ve got more food-plot design strategies to help bring mature bucks into view — we’ll continue our discussion in the August issue of Quality Whitetails.



About the Author: Mark W. Thomas is a certified forester and wildlife biologist and the owner of Forestry/Wildlife Integration in Birmingham, Alabama, and he is the vice chairman of the National Board of Directors of QDMA.