The path to hanging a wide-racked whitetail in that time-honored spot above your mantle is one fraught with peril, and more often than not, the journey toward a set of trophy antlers is decided by your willingness to keep your ace in the hole rather than play it in the first hand.
Make no mistake about it: The pursuit of mature, top-heavy bucks is a game of timing. Regardless of the hours you spend scouting your property and your intimacy with a buck’s pattern, if you play your cards at the wrong time, the jig is up. Let a mature whitetail buck catch you in a mistake and you’ll likely be eating that expensive buck tag. Hang on to your power play until the timing is right, and you just might reap the benefits.
The savvy hunter relies on traditional tactics as the foundation of his or her approach, but a willingness to implement new tactics when — and only when — the conditions are right can tip the balance of the deer woods in your favor. Hopefully, your buck trips up before you do!
Decoy hunting is a prime example of a tactic that is often better left in the bag, but given the right set of conditions and proper implementation, it could be the factor that determines the difference between munching on a buck tag sandwich and putting your biggest buck ever down for the ultimate nap. The key is learning when to trot out the plastic intruder and when to leave him in the truck.
Before we discuss some of the common mistakes and misconceptions associated with decoying whitetails, I need to clarify one thing: There will always be exceptions to the rule. The conditions might be perfect and a big buck will do the opposite of what you expect. But in the majority of cases, each animal will react in a similar fashion. The pursuit of whitetail bucks is one of consistency and odds, and thus, better to error on the side of “most likely” than make a mistake by betting on a long shot.
I’m no biologist, but having witnessed many interactions between big buck and decoys, I have an idea of what is taking place in a whitetail’s mind when he confronts an intruder, be it plastic or flesh. Your use of a strategic tactic such as a decoy can be far more effective if you understand why whitetails react the way they do.
The rut takes place at different times across the North America, but for the sake of this discussion, we will consider the second week of November as the peak week in the whitetail woods. My decision to carry a decoy into the woods is often dependant upon the weather and when the first major cold front of the fall pushes through. I typically begin hauling “Scar” into the woods no sooner than the final week of October, and I will continue to take him with me through the third week of November, when applicable.
The most effective decoying period will likely be during the seeking phase just prior to the peak of the rut. Another important factor to keep in mind is your buck-to-doe ratio, as a higher level of competition between bucks can improve the odds of having your decoy stomped into the earth.
The reason decoying works under the right circumstances is buried firmly in the natural behavior of whitetail deer. Deer are territorial and will fight to protect what they think is theirs, especially breeding rights. Mix a territorial and protective nature with sexual frustration due to unwilling does, and you have the perfect combination to dupe a whitetail with a fake.
Myth: Never face the decoy directly at your set up, as an approaching buck might assume the decoy is alarmed and looking in the direction of approaching danger, thus giving up your location.
Truth: I have been very blessed to have had many opportunities to either hunt or film decoy sets and I have found this to be the most common mistake hunters make. I have had an occasional buck blow the set up, but usually for other reasons. A challenging buck will aggressively circle downwind towards the head until he is standing broadside a few yards from the decoy’s nose, all the while posturing in an attempt to intimidate his foe by giving the illusion his body is bigger than it is.
The point of decoy placement is to put an approaching buck in a position for you to make an easy shot while keeping his attention directly away from you and on the decoy, allowing you to make your moves undetected and perfectly place a lethal shot.
If the rare occurrence transpires where an angry buck hammers your decoy, sending body parts flying through the air in different directions, and blows your set up, don’t be disheartened. You just witnessed one of the coolest encounters you will ever have in the deer woods, and you will have one heck of a story! Get down, put your decoy back together and try again.
Another topic of discussion is how much distance to allow between a decoy and your stand location. The standard is no more than 20-25 yards for bowhunting. In most cases, this will draw the buck right into your most effective range, setting you up for a chip shot and a birdie putt.
Myth: During the peak of the rut, a doe decoy is the best option, as the bucks are looking for breeding prospects instead of a fight.
Truth: Again, this is a game of numbers, and like I mentioned early on, there might be a situation where a doe decoy could have worked. However, more times than not, you will have a blown situation when employing a doe decoy rather than a buck decoy.
Doe decoys attract more does. A mature boss doe is
probably the toughest animal in the woods to fool, and the closer she gets, the more likely she is to blow your set up, alerting every deer within hearing distance.
Hunting over a decoy is risky business for the simple fact that most does won’t tolerate a statue. Even though I have killed a few does in my decoy sets, most have responded in a negative manner. Whitetails are very social animals, especially the females, and they often seek the companionship of other does, or perhaps curiosity will suck them into close range for further investigation. That usually ends with them turning inside out as they retreat, snorting all the way.
If the decoy is set up as a buck, she is more likely to ignore it, as she doesn’t want him pursuing her. An approaching buck is more likely to react aggressively to an intruder than he is for the purpose of procreating. Even if he is on lock-down with a doe, he will see the challenger as a threat to his turf and confront him. Play the numbers and go with the option that is most likely to produce a positive response, plain and simple.
Myth: Decoy movement is essential in successful whitetail decoying.
Truth: I can understand why this myth has developed, and I can even justify a little bit of the right kind of movement. More often than not, if a buck has too much time to evaluate the situation, movement of any type won’t convince him to finish and it might actually hurt more than it helps
When a sex-crazed buck comes charging into your set up, especially if he is responding to rattling or calling, movement won’t really make or break the outcome. The size of the field you choose to set up in and its relation to where you expect the deer to come from have more of an impact than does decoy movement.
At the very most, I have used a piece of white fabric or plastic bag underneath the tail for the wind to move. It is more important to locate your decoy in a place where the approaching buck must get fairly close to fully evaluate things, and at that point he should be mad enough at the decoy’s existence that his display of dominance takes precedence over his need to evaluate the situation.
The less time he has to look things over, the more likely success is to follow. The ideal situation is to be set up in a small field adjacent to security cover. I also avoid hunting in overly tight quarters or even in the woods, as an approaching buck will most likely be surprised by the decoy and spook. The contrast of a decoy in a small open field will produce far better results. When mixing a proper decoy set with some intense rattling and grunting, the response can be fast and furious, so make sure you are ready to make the shot when it presents itself.
Myth: Mature bucks won’t decoy. For the sake of this discussion, 4 1/2-year-old bucks and older are considered mature.
Truth: Mature bucks are undoubtedly more in tune with their senses and are flat out harder to fool. Don’t let that fact keep you from trying the decoy strategy. In fact, you are more likely to get an exciting encounter with a mature animal, more so than you would with a subdominant deer.
Mature bucks will decoy. A mature and dominant buck is more likely to approach carelessly, as he knows he will win before he even sizes up his opponent. This situation is why you need to pay attention to every detail when hunting over a deer decoy. Big, mature animals will decoy, and if it does happen, it will happen fast. Scent control is essential when attempting to pull the wool over a mature animal’s eyes. If it doesn’t smell real, the jig is up. If the ears are adjustable, turn them backwards in an aggressive posture, as that will signal to an approaching buck that he is not heeding the warning.
THE PERFECT BLUFF
During the first week of November, the first thing to locate is a set up where the wind is blowing across a small field into your face. Place the decoy, free of human scent, facing directly at or very slightly quartering to your setup no more than 20-25 yards out. If I can’t get extremely close to this scenario, the decoy stays in the truck.
Perfection is rarely experienced in life, and especially in the deer woods, but when you encounter a situation that forces you to improvise and construct better circumstances to make an encounter more likely, you are in the right place for victory. Finally, when your plan comes together and success lies at the end of a crimson trail, perfection is attained.