Few hunters apologize for shooting deer off food plots, and many hunters pose their kills amid clover and brassicas for hero photos.
Few hunters, however, freely admit to shooting deer off bait piles, and even fewer pose their kills amid hay, beets or shell-corn for grip-and-grins.
Likewise, if you search “food plots for deer” in Amazon’s book department, you’ll be able to fill your bookshelf with expert advice for planting, growing and nurturing deer food. But if you search “baiting for deer,” you’ll find no specific work on the topic. Instead, you’ll find acrylic and metals signs of various sizes and colors that you can nail to trees or hang on fences to forbid hunters from baiting deer.
Why such different attitudes toward two practices with the same goal of attracting deer to food sources? The answer is complicated.
Despite its entrenched popularity where legal, deer baiting has never enjoyed the legitimacy of deer drives, still-hunting, calling, decoying, spotting and stalking, scrape or rub-line hunting, or even hound-hunting. No one produces podcasts or TV shows on baiting, and no one writes how-to articles titled “Top 10 Baiting Tactics for Bruiser Bucks.” In fact, when cameras show deer vacuuming corn from dusty two-tracks in Texas or alfalfa hay from trampled snow in Saskatchewan, the host usually ignores the bait or uses a euphemism like “luring station.”
Plots and Piles: Are They Natural?
Even so, not everyone thinks food plots are any better or worse than bait piles, at least when it comes to the hunter’s intent. Attempted comparisons stumble through the “labyrinth of the primitive human mind,” said Valerius Geist, a Canadian zoologist and retired professor at the University of Calgary.
“Long ago I concluded that deep inside everybody, regardless of their view, is an ‘angel,’ and the rest of the world is at fault,” Geist said. “Bait and food plots are a way to success—sweet, overpowering success—and so they will be defended.”
Jim Tantillo, a Cornell University professor who teaches environmental history, environmental ethics, and the philosophy and morality of hunting, considers bait piles and food plots basically the same thing: an attractant. Whether you plant and grow the attractant on private land, or haul a bushel of corn or sugar beets to treestands on public land, your intent is to “sluice” deer.
“The only distinction is the degree of naturality,” Tantillo said. “If you were hunting over an agricultural field, no one would think about it. But when you place or grow your own attractant, whether it’s a decoy, beets or clover, it’s just different forms of bait, and you end up arguing over their degree, their ethics and a person’s internal character.”
Karl Miller, a professor of wildlife and ecology at the University of Georgia, said he’s not anti-baiting or anti-feeding, and said feeding can even be useful as a last-ditch effort when forests or woodlands can’t be managed to benefit deer. Still, he considers food plots a more natural practice that accommodates more animals over larger areas without crowding them into confined sites to compete for food.
“That connection to the Earth is important,” Miller said. “I’ve been asked this question for 30 to 35 years, and I still like the answer I heard from a faculty member when I was a student. He said a food plot is held firmly to the soil by its roots, but there’s nothing to hold bait there except gravity.”
Food plot proponents also note that food plots are subject to the same natural forces as native plants, shrubs and trees. That is, they can’t grow without adequate water, nutrients and sunlight. The ground must be cleared, tilled, and possibly fertilized or supplemented before planting the first seed. After that, your control ends as hope begins, and nature takes charge.
“I can’t buy the ‘vagaries of nature’ arguments,” Tantillo said. “I don’t think that’s the debate’s silver bullet. I testified in Maine a few years ago in defense of bear baiting. Some hunters bait bears for 30 days and still can’t get bears to show up in daylight.”
Likewise, South Carolina researchers found a decade ago that well-fed deer in baited areas spend less time on their hooves browsing and “working for a living.” The study’s author—Dr. Charles Ruth, the state’s deer and wild turkey program coordinator at the Department of Natural Resources—found bait-hunters were less successful than those who didn’t bait.
Ruth said deer become “fat and happy” when baiting evolves into prolonged supplemental feeding, which keeps deer bellies full. When deer aren’t motivated to browse or graze during daylight, they spend more time bedded in secure cover. They’re content to regurgitate food from one stomach chamber and chew their cud before swallowing and passing it to the second of their four stomach chambers.
“Hunting a well-fed herd resembles hunting a very low-density herd,” Ruth said. “Once you start baiting, it tends to get out of hand and evolve into a feeding operation. After a while, virtually everyone is doing it, and they feed deer over a wide area for long periods of time.”
Until about two years ago, South Carolina forbade baiting in its interior Piedmont region, but allowed baiting in its Coastal Plain. That provided an ideal situation for Ruth’s research. Even though deer densities are lower in the Piedmont, hunters there killed 28 percent more deer per square mile than those in the Coastal Plain, including 35 percent more does per square mile, and 7 percent more bucks per square mile.
Plus, Piedmont hunters hunted more efficiently. They put in 18 percent fewer man-days of hunting effort, and 2 percent fewer man-days per deer harvested. Meanwhile, deer-vehicle collisions in the region were 44 percent lower per capita than on the Coastal Plain during the study period.
In effect, widespread baiting puts deer on a schedule, which affects all hunters’ deer sightings and success, whether they bait or not. That’s especially true where automatic feeders are allowed, and set to dispense feed at specific times.
“It’s like Pavlov’s dogs,” said Bob Zaiglin, a veteran biologist who runs Zaiglin’s Wildlife Resource Management in Uvalde, Texas. He’s also the wildlife-management department chair at Southwest Texas Junior College.
“When deer hear that spinner spitting corn, they learn to rush in or lose out,” Zaiglin said. “Not until you shoot some of them do they come in more cautiously. If you set the timer so the feeder won’t go off at night, deer learn they can’t always wait until dark to eat. With a food plot, you can’t control consumption. Deer come in when they want, which is usually early morning, early evening and nighttime.”
Therefore, baiting and food plots often spark conflicts. Some hunters stake out turf by baiting specific sites on public lands, and some landowners plant large food plots to pull deer from adjoining public or private lands in hopes of holding them on their property. After that, tensions prevail and arguments never end.
The Disease Debate
Tantillo, however, said disease concerns trump all debates. “You have to allow for real-time management decisions as conditions change, whether it’s disease or winter-kill,” he said. “When a disease shows up, wildlife managers can’t ignore it. I understand why they wouldn’t want deer sharing snot, urine, feces and saliva from the same pile of sugar beets.”
Dr. Grant Woods, owner and creator of Growing Deer-TV and The Proving Grounds in southwestern Missouri, said no one should minimize the potential for disease at bait piles.
“By its nature, bait has more disease risks than food plots,” Woods said. “I see huge differences. Whether a food plot has corn, clover, soybeans or whatever, deer bite the edible part and it’s gone. Even if it grows back, it won’t regenerate quickly, so the deer move on.
“They don’t put their heads back into the same little spot for their next bite,” Woods continued. “It’s much more likely for contagious diseases to transmit when deer keep putting their faces in the same place alongside each other, especially when someone pours more food into that spot again tomorrow, next week, next month and next year.”
Tantillo said baiting/food-plot issues make for interesting, never-ending discussions as societies and attitudes change.
“What constitutes hunter norms evolves over time,” Tantillo said. “Those of us in our 50s, 60s and 70s consider treestands the accepted norm, but back in the 1880s when T.S. Van Dyke wrote The Still Hunter, he thought the one true way to hunt deer was to stalk and track them over rock and wood. If you told him you prefer to sit and wait, he would have looked at you like you had three heads.”
Tantillo also said norms also vary by place and circumstance. “If someone is hunting safely, respecting the law and honoring traditions—and the alternative is staying home and playing video games—I have a hard time condemning how that person hunts,” he said. “But I also think the old geezers have a point by making an activity more nuanced and challenging. It’s the difference between checkers and chess. Hunting has the potential to be chess.”
Feature image via Spencer Neuharth.