By Gordon Whittington
Many things aren’t quite as they seem. Flip through a fashion magazine and you’ll see how drastically someone’s appearance can be altered if enough time is spent and enough cash changes hands. From silkier hair to whiter teeth, fuller lips, thinner thighs and so on, the available tweaks are all but endless. Whoever first said life is but an illusion might have just laid down a copy of Vogue.
There’s also a lot of fakery in the hunting world. Generations of waterfowlers have tossed wooden ducks onto the water. And over the past few years, many hunters have begun using turkey decoys. Bird hunters regularly employ such fakes, in combination with calling, because their sharp-eyed quarry can be notoriously hard to coax into lethal range of a thimbleful of pellets.
Mimicking waterfowl and turkey sounds is something with which nearly all whitetail bowhunters can identify. Over the years, innovative deer calls for making grunts, bleats, snort-wheezes and even “roars” have become standard gear. Around the rut, few archers would think of heading afield without some sort of call in their packs. Being able to make sounds that lure bucks into bow range is often a huge advantage.
But what about the visual fakery? Where’s the deer decoy? Most bowhunters have heard of them, and even seen them used on TV hunts, but they aren’t using one themselves. If the thought of decoying has crossed their mind, it evidently was but a fleeting notion.
I don’t claim to be an expert on whitetail decoying. But maybe that’s why I’m pretty sure I can help you. Because while I don’t decoy that often, I’ve still had great success over the years. That tells me you could, too.
The Point of It All
Decoys work for different species for different reasons. Fake ducks and geese are effective because those birds are gregarious and associate other flocks with safe places to feed and rest. A migrating flock might never have seen the pond your spread is on. They’re relying on other birds to tell them it’s a good place to land.
Of course, with a turkey gobbler it’s all about reproduction. Come spring a tom wants to mate, and few things ignite his passion the way the sights and sounds of a breeding opportunity do.
What we’re looking to do with a whitetail decoy is much closer to a setup for turkeys than for ducks or geese. Even during the rut, when many bucks roam widely, they likely know where the food sources and bedding areas are. They don’t need other deer to confirm it. But they do keep their eyes open for other whitetails, whose presence might signal a chance to reproduce.
If you’ve ever had a 3-D buck target mangled by a yard-invading buck, you know how strong the visual attraction can be. When a feisty buck sees what looks like a rival, there’s potential for an aggressive response. What influences whether or not he comes all the way in is more complex. But you need not be a master decoyer to make it work.
As with most other whitetail tactics, entire books could be written on this one. In fact, my friend the late Gary Clancy did just that a number of years ago. But you can have fun decoying, and fill tags with good bucks in the process, if you follow a few simple rules.
OK, “rules” is too rigid a term. Let’s go with “guidelines.” Which means go by them, but be willing to amend or even ignore them as conditions dictate.
Guideline 1: Buck vs. Doe
You might assume that for a rutting buck, a doe standing by her lonesome, waiting for him to join her, would be the hottest ticket to success. Every nerd’s dream at the school dance, right?
That setup can work. In those rare places where the sex ratio is super tight, resulting in a short window of breeding, every doe is getting checked constantly. There, when the time is right a standing/feeding doe decoy is a real attraction. I’ve seen one of these work on mature bucks even without a buck decoy as part of the setup.
But a doe isn’t what I normally use. Most of the time, I feel, you’re better off with a buck decoy. Maybe with a doe in the setup, but often not. I’ll use a lone doe only if I don’t have a buck available.
The main reason I don’t like lone-doe setups is that real does don’t like them. Put a fake doe in a food plot or field and when the old herd doe arrives, she’s likely to freak out. She’ll often stomp around indignantly, then try to lead the rest of her clan back off the plot. If they don’t follow, she’ll become even more agitated. Prepare to listen to “blowing” for a while, as that doe prances around with her tail hairs flared. She just doesn’t like having a strange lady on her turf.
Replace the doe decoy with a buck and things tend to go better. Yes, it’s still a “new” deer, but the matriarch seems to accept that he’s an outsider just passing through. That sort of thing happens during the rut. In many cases, the boss doe quickly calms down and goes on about her business.
You might feel there’s no harm in letting that old doe lead her pack out of the area. You aren’t trying to shoot a doe anyway. But having live deer around can be helpful. They’re living decoys. Yes, too many does present can distract a buck that otherwise might have come to your decoy, but that’s when a little calling and/or rattling can come in handy.
So in most cases, I feel a lone-buck decoy is best. And in most places, a 30-day window starting around Oct. 25 often is the time to try it. After that the libido of most bucks begins to drop, with less aggression displayed.
I know of a few big deer shot over buck decoys right before velvet shedding and of a few others shot deep in the post-rut. I assume a blend of dominance and curiosity explains those approaches, as it’s unlikely they were related to breeding interest. But we can never be sure just what any buck is thinking.
Maybe because it’s often a chore to lug two decoys, few hunters use the deer equivalent of a “spread.” However, I’ve arrowed two bucks while using buck decoys standing over doe decoys. One of the fake does was a full-bodied model, minus legs and antlers, mimicking a bedded doe in heat; the other was a standing cardboard doe silhouette.
Guideline 2: Positioning Matters
Just sticking a decoy in front of a stand is a good way to educate deer. You’ll get educated too, but it could prove costly. So let’s try to get it right the first time.
Does it matter which way a buck decoy faces? I think so. Young bucks often sheepishly approach from the rear, but a big deer rarely will. He wants to intimidate this intruder, not simply gouge him in the ham. So most big bucks will come in from the side or swing around in front. Position the decoy so that either of these approach angles eventually will result in a close broadside shot.
I always have a buck decoy face me. Maybe not straight at me, but within 20 degrees one way or the other. While broadside can work, I’d rather not set it that way. One thing you’ll never see me do is face a buck decoy away from me. Again, I want to encourage a buck to see the decoy, swing around it to make eye contact with it and, in so doing, offer a good shot angle while looking away from me. Folks, that’s about as easy as bowhunting big whitetails ever gets.
How far? I like to put a buck decoy at least 22 yards out. If picking an ideal range, I’d say 25-27. But what matters most is that it be several yards inside maximum comfortable bow range. We can’t control from where a buck will come or which line he’ll take. If he goes a few yards behind the fake and stops, it might be the best shot you’ll ever get. Make sure that distance isn’t too far.
On the flip side, if the decoy’s too close to you, there’s not much room for a buck to get in front of it. If he starts in from somewhere beyond the decoy, with a tight setup he might never turn broadside until he’s right under your tree.
Be extra careful to avoid this “too close” error if you’re on the ground, as I often am on hunts for North American Whitetail TV presented by Quick Attach. Sure, I want a chip shot if I can get one — but at eye level with a mature buck nearly in my lap, all sounds and movements are magnified. I really don’t want him close enough to spit on.
In general, the more open the habitat, the better for decoying. A roaming buck might be hundreds of yards off when you spot him, and at that point he might not yet have spotted your decoy. You can rattle and/or call to get his attention and hopefully get him to see the setup. Once I know he’s seen it and is showing interest, I call very little, if any.
Don’t assume that because a decoy is easy for you to see, it’s just as visible to deer. Not only cover but also small humps or dips in the terrain can hide it from passing bucks. Even an alert deer’s head is much lower than a person’s. When in doubt, I often kneel where I’m wanting to set the decoy, then just look around. If I can’t clearly see a certain corner or other spot from which I think a buck is likely to appear, I’ll assume he couldn’t see my decoy, either.
Is there such a thing as too open? I’m not sure there is. Naturally, it can help to place the fake so a buck will feel secure in approaching. But I’ve seen how much trouble deer often have picking up decoys in timber or brush. And when their first glimpse is at close range, it can spook them. I’ve watched even big bucks bolt upon spotting decoys they felt were too close for comfort.
Setup and takedown can be tricky. If you put up a decoy long before daybreak, you risk having it approached, and even attacked, as you wait for light. This also can happen if you leave it up too long at last light. So I cut both ends of the hunting day as close as I can.
When decoying a field or plot, I’ll wait until right at legal light to pop my decoy into place, assuming no deer are in sight. In the evening, I’ll use the same approach. (Escaping any feeding area at day’s end is easier if a friend bumps deer away with a vehicle as legal light ends.)
Guideline 3: Scent Solutions
I’ve never found that big bucks insist on getting downwind of decoys, as many do when coming to rattling. Still, I often put scent on the ground, to reinforce the ruse. I’ve had great results with Evercalm, from Conquest Scents — but I wouldn’t hesitate to use an estrus scent or buck urine along with it.
Wildlife photographer Mike Biggs once told me that when he began using decoys in his photo setups, he couldn’t tell handling them with bare hands was a negative. He made no effort to keep his decoys clean and still got a lot of great photos of big, hunted bucks coming right up to them. My experience has been similar. Of course, there’s no advantage to pushing your luck on human odor. You can clean a decoy with ozone, a spray-on odor neutralizer or even a garden hose.
Guideline 4: Don't Overdo It
Next to spot-and-stalk, decoying is the most exciting archery tactic of all. Once you’ve seen it work, I think you’ll be hooked. But that’s why I must caution you: It can take serious self-control to keep from burning out a spot.
As with rattling and calling, constant decoying in one location tends to grow less effective. Yes, often we’re trying to intercept bucks roaming a wide area, and that can extend the life of a setup; the buck you fool today might have been two miles away yesterday. But over time, resident whitetails grow leery of seeing the same “frozen” deer standing in the same spot. The young buck you educate to a decoy in 2018 could be the giant that keeps his distance in 2020.
Last Nov. 10, I decoyed a big 9-pointer into crossbow range on my Missouri farm. He came in from an unexpected angle, and grass blocked any shot before he reached the Dave Smith Posturing Buck. He then bumped off a few steps but didn’t bolt. At that point I was able to get on him with my TenPoint, and within seconds it was lights out.
I doubt that buck had ever seen a decoy. Why? Because nobody had used one on the farm since 2009. The deer I shot hadn’t even been alive then.Find a place where deer haven’t been decoyed much. Should you have an encounter there but not fill your tag, maybe tweak the setup or move on to another group of deer. At a minimum, rotate stands often. Try to keep things as fresh as possible for as long as possible.
If you have a big piece of land to hunt, or a number of smaller ones, in theory you can decoy a lot. But if you’re hunting one small property, take care to limit the technique to the times, places and weather conditions in which you feel it’s really likely to pay off. That won’t be every day, and it won’t be every stand. But it doesn’t have to work every time.
Some bowhunters still see decoys as gimmicks or too much trouble to bother with. But a decoy is a valuable tool. For the time, effort and dollars invested, no other tactic yields as many good shots. Around the rut, I’d far rather go bowhunting with one arrow and a decoy than a full quiver but no decoy.
Figuring out what the conditions call for is the art of all deer hunting, not just decoying. The details vary by time, habitat, weather, hunting pressure and more. But decoying isn’t just some fad. It works. So if you’ve been on the fence about trying it, hop over to the “unreal” side of whitetail bowhunting. See for yourself what all the buzz is about.