Using Decoys While Bowhunting
November 04, 2010
If one decoy works great for whitetails,two decoys might work 10 times better.
It was like a plague. The symptoms were debilitating and widespread across the Upper Midwest. Spawned from wet weather, this epidemic started in early fall, and its effects lingered through the entire deer season.
This is my decoy setup in Iowa. Any buck walking out of the corn or down the ridge from either side would spot the decoys and most likely respond. Imprisoned by a bad wind, I kept a close eye on the dental floss tied to my stabilizer.
This insidious pestilence? Standing corn.
Bowhunters across the heart of whitetail country felt the malaise created by millions of acres of unharvested corn that gave whitetails sanctuary and drastically reduced apparent daylight deer movement. Even during the rut, when bucks were searching for estrous does, the action was slow because most does were camped out in the corn.
As I drove to southern Iowa to hunt with Tim Young of True Trophy Outfitters, I knew all of this, but I also knew Tim always has good bucks on his properties. All I had to do was pull one out of the corn for a shot. And I had a plan for that.
The first dawn of our hunt found cameraman Ross Farro and me in treestands situated on the lip of a steep draw. The bottom was choked with cedar, a perfect bedding area. To the east, several grassy draws led to a creek, while the high ground provided deer with the ultimate sanctuary -- standing corn.
They must have been using it, too, as we saw only a handful of does before realizing we'd underestimated the frigid wind and bailed for lunch. During the rut, I'm a big fan of sitting all day, but a hunter is wise to conserve energy for the perfect days. Besides, we obviously had not dressed for an all-day sit. Is that one excuse or two? I forget.
By afternoon we were back in the same tree. Just as the sun kissed the horizon, a nice 4x4 popped up in the CRP grass 200 yards to the southeast and walked toward us. Since he was coming straight on, I didn't call. When he slipped out of sight in the last draw he took a hard right and reappeared below us, going away. Just as well. I didn't want a buck that size tempting me so early in the hunt.
Seconds later, another buck materialized in the tall grass 80 yards away. His antlers looked odd, so I grabbed my binoculars and discovered he was a nontypical with lots of gnarly points on a large frame on the left side while the right antler looked like an upright club with forks. My heart rate hit another gear.
Grabbing my call, I sent him a grunt. He ignored me. I tried a can bleat and then rattled.
He remained oblivious.
Then he took a halting, labored step. His left hind leg was stiff and useless. I couldn't see a wound and presumed it was an old injury because, as is typical, the antler opposite the bad hind leg was the one messed up. He must have had the injury before he started growing his antlers.
Whatever the cause, I wanted that buck, but he was of no mind to fight or procreate.
Apparently seeking only to survive, he hobbled off in the same direction as the 4x4.
The next morning we were back, hoping to at least see the nontypical buck. Just before sunrise I spotted him across the main draw, limping as he fed. When he disappeared in a patch of tall grass and didn't come out, my brain involuntarily went into stalking mode.
This muscle-bound Iowa buck fell for my decoy spread, but he turned out to be camera shy.
The wind was right, the buck was unique, and I surmised if I could get close, he'd stand for the shot. Ross and I hiked out to the truck and drove around the section to start our approach from downwind. We made a great stalk right to the spot, but the buck was gone.
He must have moved while we were en route. We never saw him again.
With all the standing corn around, I wanted to maximize my chances when -- or if -- a buck finally popped his head out of the cornrows. To do that, I employed my favorite tactic, two decoys, a buck and a doe. My philosophy is simple: When a rutting buck comes by, alone or with another deer, and sees my two decoys, he's compelled to address the situation. Not only does a new, unfamiliar rival have the nerve to be on his turf, but he also has a woman. No self-respecting buck can ignore that.
So, the next morning we set up beside a cornfield, and as Ross settled into his camera stand, I placed my two decoys between our tree and the standing corn.
The day was brutally slow. To depict that reality, just before sundown Ross started videotaping the setting sun, the breeze-blown leaves, and me staring off into space.
That's when I glanced at the decoys for the 800th time -- and saw a buck with the body of a linebacker staring at the decoys, all tensed up!!
Tensing up myself, I reached for my bow and motioned to Ross. Carefully he spun around in his stand, hit record, and focused on the buck, which was now trying to get downwind of the decoys. By design, we were also downwind of the decoys. With his mind trained on the fake deer, the buck never saw me draw my bow. The eight-yard shot was perfect, and the buck charged back down the ridge and ran straight into the ground.
I was excited to take a great buck and share the experience with Bowhunter TV viewers.
Cameraman Ross Farro did a great job -- except for one unfortunate moment.
Then I turned to address those viewers, but the camera was not where I expected it to be.
And Ross's face was pale. That's when I knew.
Remember, I said he spun around and hit the record button? Well, h
e was already recording, so the camera went into standby mode. By the time he discovered the error, my arrow was gone and the buck was down. We had no footage of the buck, a cameraman's worst nightmare. That happens to every cameraman sooner or later, and it was just Ross's turn. Far more often it's the hunter who messes up.
We got down and recovered my gorgeous buck. His body would have easily topped 200 pounds dressed weight. Despite the obvious disappointment, I'd taken a great Iowa buck with a perfect shot. I healed up fast. Ross, not so much.
I love to hunt Iowa, a state that manages its deer herd to near perfection, especially from a bowhunter's perspective. The season structure, especially in regard to gun season, promotes more mature bucks in the herd to the benefit of all deer hunters. And Tim always puts me on good bucks.
In Kansas, I placed my decoys 24 yards from our ground blind tucked between two cedar trees at the edge of a cornfield.
After saying our goodbyes, Ross and I headed for Kansas to hunt with Miles Willhite's Little Walnut Outfitters, where we stayed at the historic Beaumont Hotel in tiny Beaumont, Kansas. The weather in Kansas wasn't quite as hospitable. As a significant snowfall hit that first day, we drove the wet roads and scoped out the areas we'd be hunting.
Based on his scouting, Miles had tucked a ground blind between a pair of cedars on the edge of a picked cornfield, and he wanted us to hunt there. However, the wind was wrong and would be for a couple more days, so we would start our hunt in a treestand near a creek at the opposite end of the cornfield.
Although it was a half-mile hike on muddy ground, I have such faith in my decoys that I hauled them out in the darkness and set them up on the field edge, hoping to pull in any buck crossing the cornfield. If necessary, I would call or rattle to draw their attention, and the decoys would complete the job.
As it turned out, that day was painful. I could see the blind 600 yards across the cornfield, and it was the hot location. Personally, I would not have put it there, but Miles had good reason.
"I don't know what it is, but the bucks just love walking that end of the field," Miles explained. "And, I never argue with the deer."
The proof was in the action. That morning I saw two bucks, one a 160-class beast, walk within bow range of that blind, and that big one and a smaller buck did the same that evening. It was driving me crazy, especially since those bucks were too far away to spot my decoys. I was imprisoned by wind direction and could only watch the parade. Fortunately, the bucks were gone by dark, and I was able to stash my decoys and escape undetected.
Outfitter Miles Willhite and I are plenty happy with my white-antlered Kansas buck.
The suffering continued the following day. With the wind still wrong for the blind, we returned to the ringside treestand. We saw 11 different bucks, half on the other side of the creek, the rest walking past that blind.
Just at sundown, a really good, white-antlered buck followed a doe into the cornfield.
Within seconds the 160-class buck we'd seen previously trotted into the field and, with a mere head fake, confiscated the doe. The defeated buck, a great animal, walked dejectedly, you guessed it -- right past the blind at about 15 yards! I almost wished the cornfield was still standing so I didn't have to endure such torture.
Pulling up Accuweather on my BlackBerry, I saw that the wind would switch to the north around noon the next day. Given that forecast, I planned to sit the treestand in the morning, but the minute the wind changed I'd haul my decoys across the field and set up in the blind.
The morning was slow, but about 1 p.m. the dental floss on my stabilizer started waffling back and forth and then finally pointed due south. That was the trigger. Immediately, Ross and I climbed down and hustled both decoys across the sunlit cornfield and set them up in front of the blind. If either of those two larger bucks came into the field, they would not be able to resist my ruse.
Once the wind changed to a favorable direction we bailed out of the tree, and I hauled my decoys across the cornfield to the hot blind.
Once settled into the blind, I was upset with myself. I'd set the decoys only 24 yards from the blind, and they should have been a bit farther out to give bucks plenty of room to walk between the decoys and the blind. Decoy placement is often a chicken-or-egg dilemma. If you put the decoys at 35 yards and a buck swings wide, you end up with a really long shot. If you put them too close to a ground blind, you could get picked off.
When they're really close, you need to be in a treestand. Now I couldn't take the chance on getting out and moving them.
Ross was still upset about the Iowa incident and was determined to make it right. So when I leaned forward and spotted a buck coming along the edge of the field, Ross was all over the record button on his camera.
It was the white-antlered buck! His ears were pinned back and his hair was standing up.
He was not happy. As I was afraid he might do, he veered around the outside of the decoys. But then he headed toward the back end of the buck decoy, a strange response.
I'd ranged him at 35 yards and was at full draw when something in the blind caught his eye and he stopped. I settled the sight pin tight behind his shoulder and released. The arrow hit in front of the shoulder!
As the deer ran north, he did something odd. On wobbly legs he stopped, turned his head back, smelled the arrow, and bolted as if he'd been shot again. He ran another hundred yards and did it again! The arrow was keeping him on the run. Watching through binoculars, I could see good arterial bleeding, but I was swearing at myself. This time the cameraman had recorded the whole episode perfectly -- and the hunter had messed up.
Watching the video, we could see that the buck was hit hard, but we opted to back out anyway, and we recovered the beautiful buck the next morning. We'd made the right decision in waiting.
The unhappiness with my sh
ot wore off quickly as I admired the buck's antlers. Once again I was basking in the success of using a two-decoy setup. That buck may have wandered past the blind on his own, but the decoys virtually guaranteed an encounter.
Using two decoys can be a hassle and a lot of work. And decoys can occasionally spook deer, especially does. In my experience, however, the positives far outweigh the negatives and, besides, watching bucks interact with decoys is a blast.
To a rutting buck, my decoy setup is double trouble.
Author's Notes: On both hunts I used a Mathews McPherson Monster at 65 lbs. draw weight, Carbon Express Aramid KV arrows, Bohning Blazer Vanes and wraps, Rage 2-blade broadheads, QAD Ultra-Rest, LimbSaver Prism sight, and clothing from Cabela's.
For a good hunt in Iowa, contact: Tim Young, True Trophy Outfitters, (515) 494-7433, firstname.lastname@example.org, TrueTrophyOutfitter.com. In Kansas, contact: Miles Willhite, Little Walnut Outfitters, (620) 476-2225, (316) 648-3601 (cell), email@example.com.