October 29, 2015
By Curt Wells
This was not the buck I was after, but I wanted him bad. Real bad.
He just stood there, at 25 yards, facing me but staring at my two decoys. It's impossible to know what was percolating in his baseball-sized brain, but the decoys were standing in the same position they were three days earlier when this huge nine-pointer paid his first visit to my ambush. On that day, he was following a gaggle of does that spotted, but largely ignored the decoys, then led the buck away before I could get a clear shot.
This time, he was alone and confused.
With my release hooked on my D-loop, my upper body was coiled and ready to draw at the first hint the buck was going to turn. It didn't matter if he turned toward, or away from the decoys, I was ready to strike. All I needed was 90 degrees in either direction.
After long, agonizing seconds of indecision, the buck took that first slow, hesitant step to exit, stage right. I wasn't two inches into my draw when the buck caught me. He spun and vanished before I could use a bad word. Had that beast of a buck walked in at any other angle he would have been mine. At least the decoys did their job.
I love deception. Deceiving turkeys, antelope, elk, moose, and especially deer — making them believe they're only doing what comes natural — makes me grin. I spend plenty of time lying passively in ambush, but give me a decoy of some kind and a call to match, and I'm a content, and potentially deadly, bowhunter.
I was hunting with my friend and outfitter, Miles Willhite, in Kansas, and over the past several years we have been following a buck we call "Baby Booner." I've passed on the buck twice in recent years, because we could see his potential. In 2014, the buck outgrew his name and became a full-on Booner with exceptional length and symmetry, despite mediocre mass and spread. Even though we felt the buck was still only 4½ years old, the threat of poachers and neighboring hunters prompted us to target Baby Booner, given the opportunity.
Not surprisingly, the big typical buck had a different plan. On the second day of the hunt, I spotted Baby Booner with a doe out in the open prairie. He was working hard to keep her there, where he could more easily deal with any buck that dared to approach. This situation, commonly known as "lockdown," is a challenge for the bowhunter. Once a buck finds an estrous doe, he abandons any sort of travel pattern and is no longer out cruising for does.
He's much more difficult to hunt. You could stalk him, should he and the doe bed down in a visible location, but he will not leave that doe until she submits. Unless the doe leads him past your stand or blind, you could sit there for days and not see the buck.
The good news is, once the buck is finished with that doe, he will go in search of another. That makes him vulnerable to the bowhunter with decoys. The bad news is, a dominant buck typically finds another doe quickly, and could spend a week or 10 days out on the open prairie in lockdown. That is the dilemma.
Later in the rut, once the majority of does have been bred, a mature buck must spend more and more time cruising to find a receptive mate. I call this the "desperation phase," and it makes a dominant buck killable again.
Since I was in the middle of lockdown, sitting in a tree while Baby Booner was running around out in the open somewhere was excruciating. I saw young bucks, those not tough enough to possess a doe, cruising around in their perpetual desperation phase, but the bigger bucks were absent. A short drive around the countryside, and spotting multiple bucks chasing does in the open prairie grass, verified the stage of the rut.
Despite this poor timing, I had to keep hunting. I set up my decoys every day, sat all day, and hoped a buck that was "between does" would stumble into my ruse. A seven-day hunt eventually became an 11-day hunt. I was prepared to stick around for the desperation phase, but my cameraman was not. He had somewhere else to be, so Miles took over the filming duties.
On the 12th day, November 19, we made the decision to move to the agricultural land and hunt out of an old, black-plastic ground blind Miles had overlooking a tiny food plot.
The hope was a desperate buck would wander by, but I like to increase the odds of that happening by rattling and mixing in a few grunts. If bucks are tangling at this stage of the rut, they are fighting over a doe. Other bucks know that.
We settled in for an afternoon hunt, with a double decoy set out in front and optimism to match. As the shadows lengthened, a buck scooted across a narrow opening about 200 yards out. His intense, nose-to-the-ground attitude told me he was vacuuming the earth for the scent of a doe.
I put my rattling antlers to work, but the buck was out of sight before I could see his reaction. Still, I was certain he had heard me.
Ten minutes later, Miles whispered, "Curt, here he comes from the left!"
The buck's attempt to get downwind of the rattling he'd heard was short-circuited when he spotted the two decoys. That visual was good enough for him. He was hooked.
I could not see the approaching buck from my angle, but Miles was giving me a running update.
"Is he a shooter?" I asked.
"Yes. He's a shooter," Miles said.
"How close?" I whispered.
"Draw your bow!" Miles hissed back.
I was reluctant to draw so early. It was dead calm, and I would not get away with letting down inside the noisy plastic blind. I had to trust Miles though, who was busy trying to keep the buck in the camera frame. I tucked back into the darkness of the blind, pulled the bowstring to the tip of my nose, carefully touched the release, and waited.
By the time the buck, a definite shooter, walked into my view, he was posturing and threatening my buck decoy. At just a step away from battle, he lost his nerve and pulled back. It was too late. My arrow flashed through his vitals. He retreated to the creekbottom, stumbled, and tipped over inside of 15 seconds.
As Miles and I went through our congratulatory antics and started shooting support video, a 1½-year-old buck walked past the blind at 10 yards, then right past the buck decoy like it wasn't there, and ambled up to the north end of the southbound doe.
Without hesitation he mounted her, as if he actually knew exactly what he was doing. He was driven by instinct, but was left with bewilderment. The little buck backed off, sniffed the decoy then remounted. Finally, he dismounted and walked off more than a little confused. It was everything we could do to not laugh too loudly.
We crawled out of the blind and recovered a beautiful Kansas 10-pointer that I am virtually certain would still be out there had I not been using the deceptive tactics of rattling and decoys.
I've come to expect those kinds of experiences when hunting over a pair of decoys. It's a hassle, and certainly not foolproof. But when it all comes together and I find myself drawing down on a buck that is decoyed and confused — it makes me grin.