By Curt Wells, Equipment Editor
THE VEINS IN MY neck were bulging like garden hoses as I worked to bleat loud enough to be heard over the brisk wind.
A buck had walked out of the Russian olive trees 200 yards away, turned, and headed the other direction. He had no intention of coming my way – until he finally heard my bleating. He had to that. My wife could probably hear it, and she was 30 miles away at home.
I stood in one of only two huge cottonwood trees in the middle of a large meadow of prairie grass. Well-used deer trails snaked along the edge of the trees and through intermittent stands of cattails that dotted the meadow.
All I wanted was for that buck to see the doe decoy standing 16 yards from the base of my tree. It would be up to her to do the rest.
The 4×4 stopped, looked back over his shoulder, and stretched out his neck like a turtle trying to get a better look. When he spotted the decoy, his travel plans changed.
It was early November, just before the North Dakota gun season would open, and the rut was going strong. Thus, I was confident the buck would investigate any potentially receptive doe.
Some bucks will trot toward a decoy, but this one was content to angle casually across the meadow. He stopped occasionally, raising his head above the grass to relocate the doe, then continued in a semicircle that would bring him around behind my tree. Because the wind was blowing that direction, I picked out a shooting lane to the west where I could take him before he hit my scent stream.
But he didn’t do that. Instead, he turned directly toward my tree and walked under my stand, where I put an arrow between his shoulder blades. He ran 100 yards toward the olives and collapsed in view. My girl had done her job.
These days, I am rarely satisfied waiting for a whitetail to just “happen” down the trail I’m hunting over. That leaves too much to chance, too many questions unanswered. What if a buck decides to take the trail behind me instead? What if he doesn’t come far enough down the trail? What if he sees other deer and drifts toward them? Or what if he comes to the edge of cover and decides to wait until dark to come down the trail?
I don’t like unknowns, which is why, come late October, I employ what I call “high-profile” decoy tactics. A number of aspects come into play, but the primary goal is to ensure the buck you’re after sees your decoy. Until that happens, you’re just sitting in a tree.
CHOOSING A LOCATION
You can’t just set a decoy out in front of your favorite tree and expect bucks to come running. Look for the optimum location for decoying first, and then place your treestand or ground blind accordingly.
Traditional locations to consider are bedding, travel, and feeding areas, ranked in that order. Setting up close to bedding areas is a great choice, because you could encounter mature bucks at any time of day. Travel routes are next, and in come cases they can be preferable to bedding areas, because you don’t run the risk of disturbing deer in their beds. Feeding areas can be good, but if a mature buck doesn’t get there before dark, a decoy won’t help much.
What I call “cruising” areas might be the best decoy locations of all. Rut-drunk bucks instinctively cruise where they have the best chance of finding the scent they seek. River or creek corridors are prime examples because does frequently travel there. Ridgelines are good too. Crop fields and pastures can be productive during peak rut, but meadows with high prairie grass and scattered brush are even better because a buck trying to cut a doe track has some cover.
Regardless of location, you’ll want to position your decoy for maximum visibility. Look for a patch of high ground in a swamp; the intersection of several ridges; or an opening in riverside trees and brush where deer, even from the other side of the river, can spot your decoy quickly.
If you choose to hunt “deep cover” near bedding areas, look for a place where a deer can see your decoy from as many angles and from as far away as possible. Make it easy for a buck to see your decoy, and you’ve solved your biggest problem.
Many bowhunters don’t use decoys because of the transportation hassles. A decoy can be cumbersome, and carrying it through heavy brush can create a lot of noise. Just sitting in a tree, hoping a deer will come by, is much simpler.
But not nearly as effective.
Last fall I used a Delta decoy made of the same foam as 3-D targets. With the carrying strap, I was able to haul it everywhere without creating a ruckus. If you have one of the hard-plastic decoys like the Flambeau or Carry-Lite, you’ll want to place it in a carry bag of some sort to prevent brush from slapping the decoy and waking up the neighborhood. It’s also helpful to assemble the decoy before walking the last 50-yards or so.
Some of the soft foam decoys, like the Feather-Flex, or silhouette decoys like the Montana Decoy or Mel Dutton, are much easier to transport. You give up some realism, and when a buck works his way around to the edge of a silhouette, he will be confused when the decoy disappears on him. But there’s nothing wrong with a confused whitetail.
Store your decoy where it will not get contaminated with foreign scent of any kind. And always wear latex gloves when handling your decoy to keep it free of your scent.
Yes, decoys are a bit of a hassle, but you soon get used to that – especially when you discover how effective and fun they can be.
HE OR SHE?
That’s a tough one, unless you’re clairvoyant. If I predict the buck I’m after will be alone, I’ll use a doe decoy, particularly during peak or post-rut. If I think a buck will show up trailing a doe, I’ll use a buck decoy to challenge his space and possession of the doe.
Not being much of a soothsayer, I often use two decoys, a buck and a bedded doe. That solves the gender problem, and that setup is often more effective than a single decoys, because a lone buck won’t appreciate my buck having a woman. And he will come to do something about it. However, using two decoys increases the workload, so it may not always be practical.
It really comes down to rolling the dice. Some hunters use a buck decoy exclusively, and logic says presenting a dominance challenge offers the best overall odds. The buck is especially effective in close quarters where a buck is suddenly confronted with a rival.
But sometimes a doe works better, especially in high-visibility situations. If buck walks out of the trees 200 yards away, cruising for does, he’s not likely to walk that far out of his way to confront a buck. But if he thinks your fake doe may be a babe, he’ll walk a lot farther than that. That’s the essence of this whole concept.
Okay, we’re set up in a prime location. The rut is getting underway. Only one thing remains – getting a buck to see your decoy. My first choice is to let deer flow into my space and to see the decoy for themselves.
When that doesn’t happen, I add some audio. In the pre-rut of late October, for example, I’ll use a buck decoy and some rattling to draw attention to my set up. Bucks are establishing their pecking order then, and the combination of rattling and the presence of a strange buck can bring a buck straight to your stand. Sometimes challengers come running, but more often they approach cautiously. So be patient.
In early November, as bucks start chasing does in earnest, I like to use a grunt call to simulate a buck chasing or tending a doe. I start off fairly subtly but sometimes grunt loudly and repeatedly to sound like a buck that’s trotting and grunting simultaneously. This is when I like to use a buck and a doe decoy in combination. A snort-wheeze call also works well.
When the rut starts to wane a bit, I often switch to a bleat call with a doe decoy. I want to sound like a lonely, desperate doe, which is music to the ears of a buck not yet ready to admit the dating season is over.
Last fall, this approach could have worked wonders for me, ifÂ… On opening day of firearms seasons in South Dakota, I was in a tree overlooking a broad cattail swamp. For obvious reasons, I had not put out a decoy. Just after sunrise, I spotted a beautiful 5×5 frantically searching for a doe on a trail 70 yards away. I bleated and then grunted to get his attention. He looked my way eagerly, and in the open cover he “knew” he should see the deer that was making that noise. When he did not, he melted into the cattails. If I’d had a doe decoy standing in the grass, I’m almost certain the buck would have come to investigate.
If a buck emerges from cover, does not see your decoy, and isn’t likely to see it, break out some kind of audio stimuli and “force” him to look for your fake deer. In many cases, that’s all it takes.
FINE-TUNE THE VIDEO
Imagine your vision at about waist level, which would be a deer’s perspective. You can see that high grass and brush would obscure your view of the decoy, so make sure you take that into account when placing your decoy.
But even if a decoy is clearly visible, a buck can look right at it and not see it. I’ve had bucks walk within 30 yards of a decoy and never know it was there. A deer’s vision is tuned to motion, so you may have to provide some movement to catch a passing buck’s eye.
A device like the Tail-Wagger, a battery-powered unit with a lightweight foam tail attached, can be a big help (check to make sure electronic devices are legal in your state). The tail has a timed, natural wag to it, much like a relaxed whitetail. I’ve found that slight movement can grab the attention of a whitetail from an amazing distance, even through heavy brush. That flicking tail also seems to calm wary does, which are typically very nervous around decoys.
Another electronic option is a decoy made by MOJO Decoys, on which the tail moves and the head and neck that swing back and forth.
If you cannot, or choose not, to use electronics, you can still improve the visibility of your decoy. One way is to run a thin fishing line from the tail of the decoy to a treestand or ground blind. With a slight tug on the line, you can twitch the tail, which adds life to the decoy and will catch the eye of a passing deer.
Another method is to attach some sort of very lightweight material, like a strip of white plastic garbage bag or lightweight fabric, to the rump of the decoy. Even the slightest breeze will simulate a wagging tail.
Whatever method you use, increase the visibility of your decoy with movement.
One very important thing to remember is this: Don’t give a buck too much credit for thinking. Just as a buck has no idea what happens when an arrow zings through him, he cannot reason out deficiencies in decoys. He won’t look at a beat-up decoy and say to himself, “Geez, that doesn’t look right, it must be a decoy.” He may get nervous because of scent contamination or the stationary, unyielding posture of a decoy. Or he may just have other things on his mind are more
important to him at the moment than reacting to another deer. But he won’t be thinking, Decoy!
Three times deer have attacked my decoys. One was a buck that, for reasons known only to him, rammed my doe decoy head-on. Attacks are exciting, a reward for all the hassles of using a decoy. I can’t wait for attack number four.
Decoys don’t work all the time. Nothing does. However, with a decoy you’re not forced to sit passively, hoping a buck will “happen” by. With a decoy you manufacture your own luck. And I guarantee it will raise the excitement level of your hunting. Just don’t pop a blood vessel when it all comes together.