Dilemmas & Solutions: How to Use Deer Decoys
A love/hate relationship would best describe my rapport with whitetail decoys. When they work, whitetails totally ignore their surroundings and you could knock them out with a heavy crescent wrench. Then there is the flip side. When they don't work, red flags go up and whitetails flee as if the IRS were after them for a multi-year audit.
The latter walloped me hard in Kansas a few years back. A buddy of mine invited me to bowhunt his farm, and a trophy buck was appearing regularly on trail cameras while visiting a lush food plot. With the pre-rut in full swing, I felt a decoy was a top option and put a buck into play.
During the first evening I hit paydirt, and the buck showed up like the trail camera had predicted.
He was actually in tow behind a snoopy doe, the beginning of an encounter that had me wishing the decoy would simply go away. Had the buck arrived as a bachelor, everything would have been fine. But the doe soon grew wary of the plastic pal, and after a few minutes of stomping, head jerking and a fleeing snort, the encounter ended. I never saw that buck again.
To get the most out of each whitetail encounter using a decoy, consider all of the elements involved. Then it's up to you to decide if a decoy is the right way to go.
To Use or Not to Use
Decoys can attract whitetails that are out of bow range, and they can divert attention away from you. The decoy becomes the main focus of attention, but are they always needed? I say "no."
Some setups are just too foolproof to roll the dice on whether a deer is in the mood for decoy socializing. Field-edge setups, scrapes, tight funnels, and water sources likely don't need a decoy tossed into the trap. If it appears deer will file by in archery range, then adding a questionable element into the setup is as risky as gambling in Vegas. If you have high confidence about your stand site without a decoy, then leave it at home.
Conversely, some stands might require you to nudge deer your way. Large fields can be tough to pattern as deer alter entrance routes, sometimes appearing near and other times far. A decoy used in a field in the early season, rut, or late season could attract deer for socialization or breeding. Of course, during the pre-rut and rut, a buck, or even a doe decoy, adds the perfect element (except in my Kansas case) to lure a buck set on dominance or love. Buck decoy usage rules during the rut, but as breeding peaks, a doe may be just as attractive.
And sometimes you just don't know where a deer will show up, and a decoy can be the lure to pull a buck 50 or 100 yards closer. I've found this to be an effective use in open timber, wetland funnels, and even in standing crops.
Nevertheless, every deer has a unique personality, like your family members and hunting buddies. Some bucks see others as a social opportunity, while some shy away from any interaction. They live a bunker-style existence, and adding a decoy into their world doesn't always guarantee a fish-in-a-barrel shot.
Decoys for Your Style
Two styles of hunting, aggressive and passive, have resulted in two styles of decoys. Most decoy models cater to a passive style of hunting from a ground blind or treestand. These models represent a doe or buck in a 3-D format. The 3-D decoys are oftentimes bulky, cumbersome, and better left in the woods for a return visit. Moving them from place to place requires a heavy packing job, and ultimately a noisy venture.
Once I find a likely ambush spot, I'll tailor the trail to accommodate a decoy insertion. First, I'll widen the trail using a machete and pruners to remove limbs that could "spank" the decoy and create plastic, echo sounds. I'll also look for a nearby spot to stash the decoy, and then I'll pile up limbs that I can cover the decoy with when not in use. Although I always cleanse my decoys before use, rain, dew, frost and the likes all combine to keep the decoy scent-free. If I feel like using it, I simply dig it out of the brush and set it up. And if I need to move it, the carved corridor allows a noiseless exit.
The other model of decoy was inspired by decoy innovator Mel Dutton and his foldable, 2-D pronghorn decoy. Dutton marketed a similar whitetail decoy for hunters to use in still-hunting or stalking fashion to lure bucks into bow range. Montana Decoy now owns that market with their lightweight, photo-screened decoys. These foldable, two-sided decoys are perfect for bowhunters who like to stay mobile, but even if you decide to set up, they still offer a viable option to lure bucks into range. Montana Decoy offers buck and doe versions depending on the season and scenario.
Near or Far, Thick or Open
As you ponder sites, keep in mind where you'd like to advertise with your decoy. My personal belief mirrors my philosophy on personal defense firearmsâ€”keep them close. Unless you have a unique setup that limits a buck's opportunity to circle wide, stake your decoy close. Since the majority of bucks are 4½ years old or younger, most will show some aggression combined with hesitation as the distance to the decoy decreases. If you put the decoy beyond 20 yards and a buck circles to 30 yards or further, you'll face a long shot. You'll also likely face limited shooting lanes, unless you hunt a field edge.
I like the decoy to be within 10 yards of my site, so if a buck interacts, it almost always results in a 20-yard, textbook-perfect shot. There is one exception. If your stand site is adjacent to a terrain feature that limits travel behind the decoy, you may want to place it 20 or 30 yards away and force the buck to come between you and the decoy. Standing corn, steep banks, rivers, impenetrable brush, and the likes all may force a buck between you and your decoy, instead of having the buck outside the decoy.
Don't overlook the stance and positioning of your plastic partner. Deer have a distinct ritual that repeats itself in nearly every meeting. Bucks don't necessarily want to duke it out, but they do want to portray themselves as tough guys. To pass this message on to an opponent, they go head to head in a parallel fashion, but do so while passing wide. They'll take on a stiff-legged approach and bristle their hair to make themselves look bigger. If neither flinches, there could be a fight. We'll revisit that later.
Keeping this behavior in mind, study where you expect deer to arrive from and depart to as they pass by. Next, envision an approaching buck and how you can position him to go head to head with your decoy so he eventually presents a broadside, or quartering-away shot in a shooting lane. Lastly, do all of this with prevailing winds in your favor. Bucks may try to get downwind if they sense a sham, but if they bubble with confidence, they often forget about the wind and march in for a showdown.
Augment Your Imitation
A plastic decoy takes on the appearance of a yard decoration, but you can change the pink flamingo look to that of the roaming gnome with a few easily added details. In brief, bring that buck to life.
Since most of you tote deer calls into the woods, just the simple inclusion of deer vocalizations can make any nearby deer take a second look at your decoy. Even if you just use a buck decoy, the associated sound of an estrous doe bleat combined with grunting may fool another buck into believing Mr. Plastic has a date hidden nearby.
As in all calling situations, use distance to bolster realism. The closer a deer is to you and your calls, the more likely it will pinpoint the origin. Having a buck look at you up in a tree is a standoff you don't want to experience. Rattling should only be directed at deer well beyond 100 yards, and preferably when they are screened behind brush. Anytime you use grunts or bleats at 50 yards or closer you're asking for focused trouble. Each situation varies, but it's best to have deer at a distance when calling, and then let the decoy finish the ambush.
Scents add another factor of realism to a decoy setup. It's easy to incorporate scents using a temperature-regulated dripper, wicks, or even a light misting on nearby brush. It may help calm the fears of a nervous deer and also add in another distraction component to the setup. I generally have a mock scrape set up nearby with a dripper, and as I enter the stand I spray a light coating of doe estrus on nose-level vegetation where I expect deer to travel. This along with a decoy almost guarantees I can get the draw pulled off without detection.
Finally, give your decoy some cool moves. Motorized "tail-waggers" offer high-tech solutions (be certain electronics are legal in your area), but I generally use duct tape and a paper towel on the rump. Any light wind flips the paper like a buck flicking its tail. Small, white feathers tied to the end of a decoy's ears also imitate ear flicking. Some companies have even added head-bobbing movement together with a wagging tail, all activated by the breeze. And to show fake aggression, I rotate the ears on my decoys backwards to mimic how a buck lays his ears back when he's ticked off.
Speed It Up
Once a buck takes notice of your decoy, especially if you're using a buck decoy, things can happen surprisingly fast. Wild animals seldom linger since movement keeps them safe from danger. The same is true of decoyed deer. If they take the bait, you could be faced with a shooting opportunity in seconds, not minutes, so be prepared.
Watch for the telltale signs of a buck's hair bristling, the stiff-legged gait, ears laid back, and a parallel walk. When this occurs, and the buck enters your shooting range, take the shot at your first opening. Not only could the buck spook as the battle unravels, but worse yet he could attack your decoy. A fight could erupt at any second, and once flesh smacks plastic, a buck often flees in confusion and your shooting chance will likely disappear just like the deer.
If a fight appears inevitable, you have a couple of hopes to stall the battle. First, it's possible deer scent could make a buck pause. That's why I layer a mist over nearby vegetation. Second, you could employ a call. Grunts or even the aggressive snort-wheeze may pause a buck long enough for a shot.
My last decoy ambush took place near a waterhole encircled by standing sunflowers. Wind-driven snow pelted my face as a group of does browsed along the grassy reservoir. Suddenly the entire herd bolted, and out of the corner of my eye I saw the party pooper. A mature buck crashed onto the scene and chased the does back into the flower refuge.
As the buck trotted my way, I grunted once to direct his attention. It sped him up, and as he revved his motor he lost focus, at least until he saw the decoy. Sidestepping as if to avoid doggy doo in the yard, the buck diverted his attention toward the buck. It gave me the ideal opening to draw, but the buck wasn't stopping for a fightâ€”he had love on his mind. Fortunately his trot slowed to a brisk walk, and I put the pin out in front of his chest and released. He walked right into the arrow and toppled in a crash of stalks seconds later.
I still have a love/hate relationship with decoys, but on that day, snow and love were in the air for the buck, and eventually for me.
The author lives in Sheridan, Wyoming. To learn more about him and his hunting tactics, go to www.markkayser.com.