Lee and Tiffany Lakosky’s Field of Dreams
A CLOSER LOOK AT HOW AMERICA’S FAVORITE DEER HUNTING COUPLE GROW THE MONSTER BUCKS THEY HUNT EACH FALL.
There’s an old saying in real estate about what makes a piece of property really valuable: location, location, location. According to the Lakosky doctrine, the thing that makes a farm valuable for deer hunting is food, food and more food. Next to the food factor comes protection and low hunting pressure. Lee’s philosophy is simple. If you can offer your mature bucks plenty of good food on a year-round basis and a sense of security so those deer feel safe on your land, your chances of keeping them on your property increase dramatically.
Because food is one of the most important components of Lee’s total hunting program, to say that he is a perfectionist about his food plots would be an understatement. In truth, Lee is a farmer at heart. He loves being behind the wheel of a tractor, and he does most of the disking, planting and fertilizing of his food plots himself. Because he has so many food plots to plant, this is a huge annual undertaking. Amazingly, he never drove a tractor until he and Tiffany moved to Iowa about eight years ago. But now, when you see him behind the wheel of a huge John Deere, he looks like he was born to handle just about any type of farm equipment.
“He’s a fanatic about making sure the soil is turned over just right and making sure that all of his rows are perfectly lined up,” said Linda Profant, Tiffany’s mom. A city girl like her daughter, Linda moved to Iowa from the Minneapolis area several years ago to be closer to Lee and Tiffany, and she loves her new life on the farm. And just like her daughter, she can often be found in the fields, helping out in various ways during planting season. It’s not unusual to see her on the back of a planter with Tiffany, making sure that the seed is being dispersed evenly while Lee drives the tractor.
“I kid Lee all the time about what a perfectionist he is,” Linda said with a smile. “He is never satisfied unless all of his rows are lined up perfectly, and I tell him the deer don’t care. They’ll still eat the corn and soybeans even if some of those rows are a little crooked.”
Lee might be a fanatic about what he does, but the hard work and sweat equity that he puts into his hunting land is enormous. However, it clearly pays big dividends. Without question, it’s a labor of love, but his work ethic and energy level might be characterized as being almost super-human. The man is driven, and it’s not in his makeup to do things half-heartedly or in sloppy fashion. After all, the ultimate prize in his eyes is a mature white-tailed buck that’s 5 or 6 years old, and the older bucks that he and Tiffany set their sights on don’t come easy. So in spring, when those long, green rows of young corn stalks or soybean shoots start popping out of the
ground like little soldiers standing at attention, you can see the pride beaming in his face. Fanatic or not, there is always a lot of satisfaction in a job well done.
Getting it Right
Through the years, Lee has fine-tuned his food-plot program at the farms he hunts by experimenting with various deer foods. His extensive experience and knowledge make it almost easy for him to know exactly what he needs to do on every food plot each season — and how to do it. Each farm has its own set of challenges and obstacles to overcome, and Lee is always thinking outside the bubble; planning, scheming and trying to improve and fine-tune his already highly advanced food-plot program.
“We basically have two kinds of food plots on most of our farms,” Lee said. “I plant large food plots on all of the farms we hunt to help hold the deer on those farms and help carry the deer through winter. Our larger plots might range in size from 10 to 25 acres. We also plant dozens of small food plots that might range anywhere from one-half acre to an acre or two. Sometimes, I’ll doze out a good spot in the timber, or I’ll use a small field or opening in the woods that was already there. “These small food plots are our killing plots, and I put them in specifically to hunt over. You’ll almost always find them in the interior of the property, well away from
any roads. Before I ever put in a food plot, I always make sure that I have a good idea of how I’m going to hunt it and where I’m going to place my stands. I also make sure that I have a good way of getting in and out of those stands without spooking deer, for morning hunts and afternoon hunts.
“I plant corn and soybeans on most of my larger plots. I usually plant about half and half — that is, 50 percent corn and 50 percent soybeans. I rotate the locations of these two crops back and forth each year because the beans put nitrogen back into soil while corn takes it out, and I always want to keep the soil as healthy and as nutrient-rich as possible.
“As I’ve stated over and over again, you can’t have too much food. On every farm we hunt, I try to make sure the deer have good food sources for every month of the year, especially in late winter, when it’s cold. Because most of my larger food plots butt up against mature timber, I’ll often plant clover around the edges of the timber for a distance of about 20 yards all the way around the food plot.
“I’ve found that if you try to plant corn right next to big timber, the trees suck all of the nutrients out of the soil, and the corn is not going to do well. The stalks might not even produce a single ear of corn. So I plant clover instead. It does extremely well, and the deer love it. They love to ease out of the woods late in the afternoon and start feeding on the lush clover. Then they like to work their way out into the corn and soybeans.
“Normally, I don’t plant corn or beans on any of my smaller plots. If you have a lot of deer on your property, as we do, they’ll wipe out the plants on a 2-acre field or a one-half-acre field before they ever put a bean on them. My smaller plots are planted in clover, wheat, Buck Forage Oats, turnips or something similar that’s green, fresh and palatable.
“That way, the deer always have a high-protein food source during hunting season. Through the years, I’ve experimented with just about every type of seed available for food plots, and I use many different types of seed each season. I’ll try anything new that comes out on the market, and if it works well for me, I’ll continue using it.
“I keep a planting book in my tractor, and in that book I record the date, temperature, soil conditions and the amount and type of fertilizer used in every food plot I plant. At the end of the season, I look in that book and ask questions like, “What kind of crop did I get?’ ‘What did I do wrong?’ ‘Did I plant too early or too late?’ and ‘What do I need to do differently?’ I look at every field and make adjustments accordingly for the next season. It’s amazing how much I learn every year.
A common misconception about Lee & Tiffany Lakosky is that they were born into deer hunting royalty. This is simply not true. Like many of the high-profile deer hunters who came before him, Lee Lakosky had to learn how to hunt deer on his own. That involved a lot of trial and error. “I got interested in bowhunting when I was about 13, but it still took me a long time — seven long years to be exact — to get my first doe with a bow,” he said. At that time, Lakosky spent his fall days chasing whitetails near his Minnesota home with his friend Paul Landberg. “Paul and I would go out and knock on doors, and most landowners who deer hunted during gun season thought bowhunting was a novelty. They’d give you a strange look and say, ‘You’re going to try to shoot one witha bow and arrow? Yeah, go ahead.’ “ Three years after shooting his first doe, Lakosky notched his first archery buck, a yearling 6-pointer. Tiffany’s path as a bowhunter started much more quickly. After dating Lee for a while, she decided to try her hand at archery, then bowhunting. It took Tiffany just one tree-stand vigil to taste success. While sitting with Lee on the afternoon of Sept. 24, 1999, she notched her first bow-kill, a yearling 6-pointer.
The Magic of Clover
“People ask me all the time, ‘If you could put in one all-around plant that would be a magic bean for your deer, what would it be? My answer is clover. Clover has about 30 percent protein, it withstands heavy grazing, it grows well in dry weather, and it doesn’t die out like alfalfa. It’s good for antler growth during summer, it stays green throughout winter, and the deer just love it. And the first thing that really starts growing again in early spring is clover. The deer and turkeys are all over it in late winter or early spring. For that reason, we find a lot of sheds in our clover.
“But you have to make sure that you don’t plant one type of clover alone. It’s important to get a whitetail blend that contains several different varieties. If you were to plant white clover by itself, for instance, it loses its palatability and protein when it gets mature, and it gets stemmy. Eventually, you have to mow it back down again.
“But if you plant a blend of whitetail varieties, the various plants grow at different rates and mature at different times, so that when one is maturing, the next one is prime. When that one gets mature, the next one is prime, and so on. With several varieties, you can also go a much longer period of time without mowing and keep a palatable clover in that field for longer.
“So if I could plant one thing, it would be clover for those reasons. Most of our hunting in early season is done over clover fields, and early season is the time when we shoot most of our biggest bucks. Clover is always a mainstay for us. In our small food plots — which are an acre or two, or even as small as one-half acre or one-quarter acre — we usually put in clover, or a turnip and rape mixture. That’s because when they get on that mixture, they’ll wipe it out pretty fast. But the nice thing about turnips and rape is that the deer really don’t touch them until later in the season after you’ve had a hard frost.
“And a lot of times, on a new farm where the deer have never had food plots and never tasted turnips or rape, they won’t eat it at all or even touch it until January, when nothing else is left. Then they’ll go eat it and realize they like it, and they’ll be all over it. After that, they’ll remember it the next year, and they’ll be in there eating it again right after the first big freeze. All of those starches in turnips and rape are not very palatable until the plants freeze, causing those starches to turn into sugar, and then the deer eat them like crazy.
“On my small food plots, you can plant turnips and let them get to the sizes of small baseballs. The deer won’t touch them or the big leafy rape plants until cold weather. During hunting season around November, I’ve had really good luck during the rut hunting some of my smaller fields, because the deer will be in there all over those plants. And even though they’ll often wipe it all out within a couple of weeks, the timing is perfect because it happens during hunting season.
“Further, if you’ve got some big, baseball-sized turnips that are frozen in the ground, they’ll eat the tops off them pretty fast. But it’ll take them a while to dig out the bulk of the turnips that are frozen down in the ground. They might keep working on them for a month or longer so they actually last quite a bit longer than you might think in a small field.
The Killing Fields
“Normally, the smaller plots that we call our killing fields are very secluded by design, and they’re the ones we really try to focus on for hunting during early bow season. They’re always tucked into the timber somewhere, never close to any roads and never within sight of any road. Even if they’re bigger fields (1½ to 2 acres), they have to have good pinch points or something else that makes them attractive to deer. A lot of times, I’ll leave small islands in the larger fields so the deer have a lot of cover and feel safe about stepping out into the open. Basically all of our smaller food plots are set up for bow-hunting, although we do sometimes hunt them during late muzzleloader season.
“You hope that the deer are feeding in the larger fields at night, especially just before daylight. So our strategy for early season is simple. In the mornings, we try to sneak into the smaller food plots in the timber and get set up in our stands without disturbing the area. Then, as the deer are coming off the larger fields and moving toward their bedding areas, they’ll often hit those secluded fields in the timber because they feel safe and secure in those fields, and we might get a chance to see them during daylight hours. That’s where we often shoot some of our best bucks during archery season.
“Of course, our mainstay in those smaller fields at that time of year is always clover. But sometimes, we’ll put in some Buck Forage Oats or winter wheat. We’ll plant it in late August or early September so that when everything else is dying back in October and November, that’s the one thing that will still be growing. And just as I do with clover, I mow it back when it gets long, and it’ll start growing again. The oats and wheat will withstand quite a bit of grazing, but nothing withstands heavy grazing as well as clover.
“Even though our larger food plots are planted primarily in corn for feeding the deer over winter (the beans are long gone by then), we do sometimes hunt those larger fields during bow season as well. We have to use a little different strategy on the larger food plots, such as relying on decoys, rattling or calling. We also put out rubbing posts in critical places near the edges of these larger fields where we have stands.”
It’s Not Easy
For Lee, planting and maintaining so many food plots is really a full-time job. Getting everything together is like assembling the pieces of a big never-ending puzzle. It takes a lot of time, money and equipment, including tractors, planters, tillers, lime, fertilizer and seed. From spring through late summer, planting never really stops. And at $4 per gallon for diesel fuel, Lee went through about 70 gallons a day during the 2011 spring planting season.
“In an ideal year, I’ll plant corn, beans and clover in June, and rape and turnips in July. After that, I start working on fall clover, Buck Forage Oats and wheat by the last week in August or early September. But the last few seasons (up until Summer 2011), we’ve had unusually heavy rains that have really put things behind. It’s always something. A few years ago, we had a drought in early and midsummer, and much of my corn and beans on several farms never made it. So much depends on weather.
“My goal is to have enough food planted on each farm to last through April (spring green-up). But no matter how much I plant, I usually can’t get it to last much past February. I keep very precise records on each food plot on each farm — the results of any soil tests, how much lime and fertilizer were needed, what I planted each year, and how the plots did. I’ve used just about every food plot product and seed on the market, and I’ve learned through trial and error what works and what doesn’t work. If something doesn’t work, or if the deer don’t like it, I’ll use something else next time.
“In areas where the clover grows thick, I mow it and bale it in late summer, and I feed the bales in late winter when food is scarce, just like feeding hay to cattle. In a good year with adequate rain, I can often get three cuttings of clover during the summer months, and it’s still very nutritious. Baled clover is invaluable in late winter when there’s a lot of snow on the ground. It’s a great supplement at the time of year when the deer need it the most.
“Our clover fields are really important to us. They’re like protein pellets for the deer in March and April. Clover is our magic bean. It provides 30 percent protein in the summer. It doesn’t die out, and the deer always love it as long as you plant different varieties.
Don’t Forget the Late Season
“Most hunters think about planting in spring and late summer. But by the time deer season is finished in late January, a lot of people are over hunting for the year and thinking about ice-fishing, skiing or turkey season in spring. They’re thinking about everything except the condition of their food plots.
“I have a favorite saying: The last day of one hunting season is the first day of the next. I believe all serious whitetail hunters should have that mindset. For us, the end of hunting season is a time when we really focus in on our food plots, and we immediately start thinking about the next season. We evaluate what we’ve done and how well certain food products worked, and we start planning for the spring planting season.
“Obviously, there’s nothing you can plant in late winter, but you should be thinking ahead about what you might need to plant in the spring for next season’s food supply. You should be asking yourself questions like, ‘What worked, and what didn’t?’ and ‘Were my corn fields, bean fields and turnip plots large enough to carry the deer through the entire season?’
“A lot of factors can affect how well our food plots turn out. If there isn’t enough food to last until spring greenup, we sometimes resort to using feeders in late season. We feed a combination of corn and high-protein pellets. In lean years, this helps get the deer through the coldest part of the winter.
“So many times in January, February and March, mature bucks will start to show up on certain farms where we’ve never seen them before. In a lot of cases, this happens because we’re the only show in town. That is, we’ve got the only food around. If you can hold these bucks over the winter, and if they get in the habit of coming into your food plots on a regular basis, there’s a good chance you can keep them on your property throughout spring when you start planting new food plots. After that, they might become permanent residents and stay through hunting season. That’s what you want. And it’s so easy to accomplish with good food.
Plots Need Time to Produce
“Sometimes it takes a year or two to condition your deer to new food plots, so don’t get discouraged if the deer don’t use them as heavily as you’d like the first year, especially with coldweather foods like rape and turnips. Deer are creatures of habit, and it might take them several years to get in the habit of visiting certain food plots on a regular basis.
“I’ve had a number of instances on several of our farms where I’ve gone in and planted maybe 10 or 20 acres of corn for late season, and the deer only ate about one-third of it the first year. After seeing the lack of interest, I was even tempted to plant something else. But as time went on and as I continued to plant those same plots each year, the deer started mowing them down like there was no tomorrow. It just took a while.
“I remember planting about 20 acres in corn and beans on one of the first farms we ever had in Iowa. That first year, at least 18 acres of it was never touched. Now, some nine years later, you’ll commonly see 200 deer out in that same 20-acre field, and the food is usually completely gone by the end of hunting season. So no matter what you plant — corn, beans, clover or turnips — don’t get discouraged if the deer don’t wipe it out that first year. Every year it should get better, and you should start to see more and more deer in those food plots.”
— Deer & Deer Hunting contributor
Duncan Dobie is an accomplished whitetail hunter and professional outdoor writer from Georgia.