If it’s possible to laugh and whimper simultaneously, the faint noise I was emitting fit that description.
With a cactus needle crucifying my left knee, I was hunched over in the prairie grass aiming my rangefinder through a hole in my decoy. A big pronghorn buck was charging directly at me and closing fast. Hopefully, my son Jason was ready to rise up and fling an arrow over my back — if for no other reason than to protect his father!
“Sixty yards,” I whispered. “Fifty yards… 40 yards…”
Suddenly, the buck locked his knees and skidded to a stop, perplexed by the young interloper standing his ground. He turned slowly just as Jason came to full draw, and the movement sent him trotting half-heartedly 10 yards to the left where he stopped to stare.
Ffffttttttt! Jason’s arrow was gone. And so was the buck. Missed by a mile.
That very exciting encounter serves as a perfect example of how much fun it is to fool big game animals with decoys. Plenty has been written about decoying whitetails, but mule deer, pronghorns, elk, moose, caribou, and other species also respond readily to decoys under the right circumstances. In most cases, the technique differs from decoying whitetails.
First, let’s look at a few strategies to help you “counterfeit” western and northern big game animals, and then we’ll examine some decoy options.
During the mid-September rut, when antelope bucks are very possessive of their territories and their harems, you can exploit them by invading their space with a decoy. For mobility you need a lightweight, portable 2-D decoy (that’s true for most western game), with one exception: A 3-D Carry-Lite or similar full-body decoy placed in front of a blind or windmill stand can be very effective in drawing rutting bucks into bow range. With that said, here are some tips on counterfeiting a pronghorn buck.
- Locate a buck that might be susceptible to decoying, which means either a lone buck, or a herd buck that’s working hard to keep his harem together.
- Use terrain as cover to approach as close as possible to the buck. Once you’re close, tip up the decoy. If possible, try to get it on a horizon where it’s most visible. The sudden appearance of an intruder will bring an aggressive buck running.
- If possible, work with a partner — one the shooter, the other operating the decoy and rangefinder. That way the shooter can concentrate on drawing and aiming.
- As the shooter, keep a low profile. Hide behind the decoy or other cover, preferably downwind of the decoy, until you’re ready to shoot.
- If a buck comes into range but spooks as you draw, complete the draw and stay ready. Bucks commonly run a few yards and stop. That’s when you shoot — quickly.
- Aim low. Pronghorns are ultra-fast and very adept at jumping the string.
- Be advised — this technique is low percentage and may require many encounters before you score. On the upside, it’s sure a lot more exciting than sitting in a ground blind.
This scenario is far different, because you’re generally not trying to lure an elk up close, just give him confidence. That is, when a bull responds to your call but fails to see an elk at the source of the calling, he most likely will get suspicious and hang up. The decoy will give him confidence to come on in. Consider these tips.
- Carry a lightweight decoy that folds up and straps to your pack, and use it whenever you set up.
- Save weight by ditching the metal stakes for your decoy. Attach a short piece of insulated copper wire to the top of the decoy and simply hang it from a limb.
- Avoid setting up near any sort of ridgetop or peak. A responding bull will stop as soon as his head clears the horizon, and you’ll be left with no shot.
- A bull doesn’t need to see an entire elk to be fooled. Don’t worry about gender either. Just give him a glimpse of any part of your decoy and make him investigate.
- Whether you’re alone or with someone, the shooter should be well in front of the decoy. Don’t expect a bull to walk right up to the decoy as a whitetail might.
- The shooter should hide on the downwind side of the decoy in case a bull decides to circle to locate the vocal elk with his nose.
- In a two-person setup, have the caller stay with the decoy and add slight movement to it to draw attention if necessary.
- Time your draw so an incoming bull won’t see you. If possible, wait until he walks past you.
Decoying moose is similar to elk in that you’re not necessarily trying to pull a bull right to the decoy. You just have to convince him another moose is present, so he will come to investigate your calling. Here are some thoughts.
- A moose’s eyesight isn’t as sharp as an elk’s, so the decoy doesn’t have to look perfect.
- Even from long range, a moose can pinpoint your calling location precisely. If you’re alone, call near the decoy and then move ahead to the downwind side and wait.
- Do not discount the eyesight of moose. They are very good at spotting movement, but sometimes they just don’t care. Stay in cover, and time your draw well.
- If you come across a bull that’s really stupefied by the rut, be aggressive, especially if he drifts downwind and your setup starts to unravel. Sometimes you’ll get away with murder, especially if a live cow is distracting the bull.
- A bull moose that doesn’t see another moose may hang up just like an elk. Have your partner move the decoy to convince the bull and finish the job.
In 2007, I tested a caribou decoy from Montana Decoy and found it effective in stopping migrating bulls. I set up the decoy about 60 yards away, and when the next group of bulls walked between me and the decoy, they stopped to stare at the decoy, offering me a perfect shot. None were big enough to entice me to shoot, but they offered me good shot opportunities. I believe this decoy would also work as cover on barren ground or even during a stalk.
My focus on whitetails in November (plus opening of the firearms season) has prevented me from bowhunting mule deer during the rut, so I don’t have personal experience. However, I can see the potential for using a decoy to draw a rutting mule deer buck up out of a draw or across the open prairie. Two companies now make mule deer decoys.
Here’s a quick rundown on the manufacturers who make decoys designed for western game. Fl
ambeau and Mel Dutton, the originator of the big game decoy, used to make hard plastic, folding, 2-D antelope decoys, but these decoys are no longer available.
I’ve included Carry-Lite because this company has the only 3-D antelope decoy designed to be staked out in front of a blind — a rut technique that’s been very effective for me. I used to spend time modifying 3-D targets, but Carry-Lite has filled the void with its very realistic pronghorn decoy. The latest version of the EZ-Goat, new this year, is lighter and quieter than previous models. It has fold-up legs, and the head slips inside the body for easy transport.
The Challenger Decoy is an inflatable pronghorn that can be used to challenge rutting bucks. It comes with a foot pump and special stake system that doesn’t need to be driven into the ground. Two sizes of horns are removable, and a viewing hole in the body allows you to keep an eye on, and range, incoming bucks.
EXTREME DIMENSION WILDLIFE CALLS
Extreme Dimension Wildlife Calls has expanded into the 2-D decoy market with its Phantom Decoys HD-Series. Besides whitetails, Extreme makes antelope, elk, and moose images printed in high-definition on durable, waterproof plastic that rolls up for easy transport. The heads also rotate so you can present alert, relaxed, or feeding postures. Stakes are included.
HEADS UP DECOY
Heads Up Decoy has a new line of ultra-light, packable head-and-neck decoys. A fabric sock imprinted with a photorealistic image is stretched over plastic support tubing.
Species available are elk, antelope, and mule deer. These work best with a partner who pokes the head out of the cover, using slight movement to draw attention. If you’re alone, “flash” the decoy. I can see potential in attaching the pronghorn to the upper half of your bow when approaching a rutting buck.
Montana Decoy has the most extensive line of super-lightweight 2-D decoys. Besides multiple whitetail deer decoys, this company offers three elk decoys, two antelope, a moose, a caribou, and even a Moo Cow to hide behind. These decoys feature photorealistic images on a quiet cotton/polyester fabric stretched across a spring steel frame. With a quick double twist these decoys fold up flat and compact, and they weigh just ounces.
This company’s pronghorn decoy is an ultra-light, foldable decoy made of plastic that is impervious to the weather. You can hang the decoy from your hip as you walk. Once set up, you can keep track of the action or use your rangefinder through a viewing hole in the decoy. The decoy weighs about a pound, and when folded measures only ¾” thick. Renzo’s also sells a cow elk decoy and, of course, a buck and doe whitetail.
Manufacturers’ Contact List
- Carry-Lite Decoys, (256) 353-0634,www.carrylitedecoys.com
- Challenger Decoys, 1-800-381-2743,www.challengerdecoys.com
- Extreme Dimension Wildlife Calls, 1-888-239-5133, www.phantomcalls.com
- Heads Up Decoy, (785)-650-4038,www.headsupdecoy.com
- Montana Decoy, 1-888-332-6998,www.themontanadecoy.com
- Renzo’s Decoys, 1-800-583-5416,www.renzosdecoys.com