A decoy might make the difference in tagging a buck this season.
The giant 9-pointer was trudging across the huge Nebraska CRP field, no doubt looking for a willing doe. Although he was more than 100 yards away, his massive rack stood out clearly above the tall grass. I was able to glass the trophy from my perch, 12 feet up a twisted elm, longbow in hand, with my favorite buck decoy 25 yards in front of me along the edge of the field. The grass prevented the buck from seeing my facsimile, but I was about to change that.
Exchanging my longbow for a set of rattling antlers, I clashed the tines together violently just as the buck was about to disappear into a timbered creek bottom. Within moments, he appeared along the edge of the thicket, having clearly changed course. He was headed my way!
Stopping only once to tear up a large scrape and its corresponding licking branch, he seemed to be cruising, until he slipped out of the taller grass. When the buck entered the mowed strip along the field’s edge and saw the decoy, his legs stiffened, his ears went flat and every hair from the back of his neck to the tip of his tail stood at full attention.
As he began cutting the distance with the stiff-legged, sideways swagger of an angry buck, I gripped my longbow tighter and tried to melt back into the tree.
It’s been more than 20 years since my first attempt at decoying whitetails, and I’ve learned a thing or two about luring deer into range with both buck and doe decoys. Back then, commercial decoys weren’t even on the market, and I used a heavy 3-D target in those early attempts.
Beyond the obvious benefits of seeing more deer with decoys, the sheer excitement brought on by a monster buck swaggering in, grunting, wheezing and slobbering is more than worth the effort. I’ve taken several deer while using decoys, and I’ve missed other opportunities because I didn’t have a decoy. One such episode still haunts me.
It was a cold, gray November morning and I was perched on an open oak ridge in west-central Manitoba. Spits of snow and sleet pelted me from the north, perfect timing and conditions for a decoy. Unfortunately, mine was back at camp on the wrong side of a mile-long walk through heavy woods and brush.
Late in the morning, I rattled in a giant Canadian brute with tremendous mass, a seemingly impossible number of points and matching 10-inch drop tines.
The monster came in along the edge of the meadow behind me. He stopped to look around at 35 yards. With the open ridge in front of him and no sign of the combatants he thought he had heard, the buck became suspicious and circled downwind.
I don’t have to tell you what happened when he caught my scent.
I have no doubt I would have gotten a shot at that 230-inch buck if I had my decoy with me that morning.
A deer decoy will work any time. Deer are social creatures and are naturally attracted to their own kind. They are also curious and will almost always check out a decoy to see who’s new in the neighborhood.
I’ve successfully decoyed whitetails from September through late December. That being said, I do the majority of my decoy work during the pre-rut in late October and early November. That’s when deer travel most, and the more animals that see your decoy, the better your odds of success. Also, bucks are aggressive then, and they will often come in fast and furious.
On a late October hunt in Missouri a few years ago, I called a trophy 8-pointer out of a thicket into a picked cornfield. When he saw my buck decoy, he swaggered in, ears flat and head cocked, then lunged at the decoy with a scary attack. The buck exploded into the decoy and pushed it 20 yards across the field like a 300-pound lineman hitting a blocking sled.
I was so shook up, I forgot to shoot. When I finally mustered the courage to get down, it took 15 minutes to find all the pieces of my decoy.
The primary consideration when deciding where to set up for decoying is visibility. If deer can’t see your imitation, it won’t do you any good.
I learned that lesson on my first decoy attempt. I had set up in one of my regular ambushes in a thick shelterbelt and had a whitetail 3-D target about 15 yards in front of my stand. If memory serves, I had nearly a dozen deer pass by that afternoon, and only one spike buck ever saw the decoy.
Now I set up along the edges of open fields or in clearings in the woods. In fact, I prefer that deer spot the imitation from a distance. I’ve seen bucks and does spook from a decoy that surprised them at close range.
The position of your decoy is critical, especially when hunting with archery gear. How to position your decoy depends on whether you’re using a buck or a doe.
Both will attract whitetails of both sexes, and all decoys should be positioned upwind of your ambush.
This past fall, I put a Flambeau Boss Buck decoy in a food plot on my Minnesota farm. Expecting to lure in a big 10-pointer I had been seeing, I was surprised when a big doe and her fawn ran all the way across the field to check out the new man in town. Both deer slipped right up to the big decoy without hesitation and offered point-blank shots. Does will come in to a buck decoy just as bucks will respond to a doe decoy.
Buck or doe, a deer will approach your decoy from downwind 99.9 percent of the time, usually circling 10 to 20 yards out. I try to set my decoys directly upwind of my stand. That way, when the whitetail circles downwind of the decoy, it will be between me and my facsimile, creating a perfect shot opportunity at close range on a deer that has its attention focused elsewhere.
While filming a decoying segment a few years ago in Nebraska, I brought in a big 8-pointer that offered a perfect shot at 15 yards. The heavy wooden arrow blew through the buck so quickly that I thought I missed. I grunted at the deer as it rocketed back toward the creek bottom.
The buck was so engrossed with the decoy that it swung back out into the field and began posturing again, pawing the ground and shaking its antlers from side to side. Then it fell over stone dead.
Since I hunt exclusively with a longbow, I like my shots inside 20 yards, so I normally set up my decoys about 25 yards upwind of my ambush. That most often translates into shots of 5 to 15 yards. If you’re using modern equipment or firearms, set up your decoy farther away.
If you use a buck decoy, position it facing your ambush. A buck almost always approaches another male head-on.
Conversely, if you use a doe decoy, position it facing directly away since a buck will usually approach a doe from the rear. Watch real deer interaction, and you’ll see that’s true a majority of the time.
I also like to add a touch of scent to the setup. Of course, use scent appropriate to the decoy being used. Also, never spray scent directly on your decoy. Instead, hang scent wicks on an adjacent bush or stem of grass.
I like to keep things as scent-free as possible, so I keep my decoys clean and spray them with scent-elimination products regularly.
Decoying will spice up your hunting this fall, but it’s not a perfect science.
I blew an opportunity at a giant 11-point brute because I was using a decoy. I rattled the 160-inch buck out of heavy cover and onto the dike my treestand was guarding. When he saw the decoy, he came stalking in. Unfortunately, the wind had switched slightly and he got downwind of the decoy before offering a shot. I must have missed something when spraying it with scent-eliminator, and the buck spooked. I believe I would have killed that buck without the decoy.
Similarly, you just never know how far downwind a buck will circle a decoy, and if he decides to go downwind of your stand, you can forget it.
On the other hand, there have been many bucks I would not have tagged without a decoy. For me, the pluses far outweigh the minuses.
So what about the big Nebraska 4x5 mentioned in the opening paragraphs?
The buck eased closer and closer and finally stood, grunting and posturing nearly at the base of my tree.
Overhanging limbs prevented a shot, but I was sure he would walk those last few steps and present a 10-yard target ... at least until he became part of the .1 percent that don’t follow the rules and circled around to approach the decoy from upwind.
Looping well out into the CRP, and out of longbow range, the monarch circled behind the decoy, closing in until he had his nose between my imitation’s hind legs.
That buck obviously hadn’t read the rules of decoying, or maybe he was so near-sighted that he couldn’t see the antlers. Either way, diversion tactics had worked and provided an exciting encounter. Read Recent Articles:
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• Do Buck Limits Matter? If success rates are relatively low, why do we even have buck limits? This article was published in the October 2010 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Subscribe today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.