Who, What, When, Where, How and Why to use deer decoys
It was that gloomy period known as false dawn. I was perched on the edge of a huge cut cornfield in southeast Illinois, and somewhere out in front of me, well within the effective range of my weapon but invisible to me, was a Boss Buck decoy. The anticipation of seeing the sun rise for the first time in a new area had me straining to hear any sounds of life.
I felt the deer more than I saw or heard it. It was that sixth sense all predators have — a feeling of not being alone. Ours is still there; it’s just been dulled by centuries of civilized culture. I believe it remains strongest in hunters. Mine kicked in, and I knew something else was out there.
Eventually, I could make out the occasional click of what sounded like hooves striking the corn stubble. I tried to follow the sound. There: A shadow moved across a darker background. I’m repeatedly astonished at how the color of a deer’s coat renders it virtually invisible in very low light. Then I made out a whitish glow above what I presumed to be its head. Buck!
It was far too dark to do anything about it, but just knowing it was a buck was enough to get my heart racing. Night was begrudgingly giving way to dawn, and with the help of high-quality binoculars, I could make out the buck as its trot shifted to a slower, stiff-legged gait. Approaching the decoy, it lowered its head and laid its ears back. “He’s mad as hell!” I thought. I hoped his aggression would hold him long enough, and I prayed for the dawn’s early light ... but it was not to be. The buck walked away at a pace that seemed to match the waxing daylight. It wasn’t until it reached the woodline 85 yards away that I could clearly see it was a shooter. “Dang!”
In journalism school, they teach that the best way to get the full story is to use the Five Ws concept, asking: “Who?, What?, When?, Where?, How? and Why?” I realize that’s six, but just as the three musketeers were actually a quartet (Athos, Porthos, Aramis and D’Artagnan), the five Ws have an uncounted partner. What follows is a look, using the five Ws, at decoying deer.
We can dispense with a couple of Ws fairly quickly. The “What” is, quite simply, using a decoy to lure deer into range. In most cases, that’s bow range, but the tactic can be used by gun hunters, too.
Another What is what type of decoy to use. In general, there are 2-D and 3-D decoys. Silhouettes, or two-dimensional decoys, offer the advantage of portability. You can fold them up and carry them easily, which is handy when hunting remote stands. They work, but my experience has been that they’re not as effective on deer as on antelope. Three-dimensional, or full-body decoys, are more realistic but considerably less portable.
Another What is what sex of decoy to use. Here, the answer can vary with circumstances and conditions, which we’ll address in the How section. One of those conditions is timing (When), and another What is what you’re trying to lure. Most of what we’ll cover will be directed at bucks. However, you can use decoys to attract does as well.
The “Why” is to lure deer into range. That can be expanded to include: Why use them at all? The short answer is because they offer an advantage in some circumstances. When used properly, decoys can provide an edge. However, like scents and calls, they won’t make up for what you lack in terms of knowledge, experience and woodsmanship.
Where should you use decoys? Let’s pick the low-hanging fruit first. Decoys work better in high-use areas such as along travel corridors, in staging areas near food sources, or near buck sign like rubs and scrapes. Also, because a decoy is a sight stimulus, it should be placed where it can be seen by other deer.
In fact, decoys can be particularly effective when they can be seen from a distance. Many of you who hunt large food plots or agricultural areas have experienced the frustration of watching old Harvey Wallhanger enter the field and feed casually along, well out of range. You change locations the next day, but the buck doesn’t enter from the same location. Or maybe the wind is wrong and you can’t get close. The solution is simple: Give your buck a reason to go where you want him. Offer either companionship or competition in the form of a decoy. The decoy should be placed within your shooting distance, which will depend on your weapon of choice and habitat. In the woods, you might want it a bit closer and in a shooting lane.
Wind direction is always important, but more so when hunting with a decoy. A deer approaching a decoy will be on full alert, with eyes, ears and nose in overdrive, scanning for peril. It’s not just waiting for scent molecules; it’s specifically looking for them. For that reason, you should always place your decoy upwind.
Travel routes are good locations for decoying, but it’s not a good idea to place the decoy directly on a deer trail. You don’t want it to be an obstacle. Some deer, particularly older does and younger bucks, will be “freaked out” by decoys. Their alarm stomps and snorts could end up burning your stand for the day or even the season. Set the decoy so it’s visible to any passing deer but still offers nervous deer a way around. This also keeps you and your scent farther from high-use areas, reducing the chance of being detected.
Another important consideration is where not to use decoys. The top answer is public land, at least during the firearms season. Safety must be your top priority when using decoys. Consideration for other hunters should be number two. Some decoys are quite realistic and could attract unwanted attention from other hunters, particularly in heavily hunted areas. You might get away with it during the bow season, but it’s best to leave the decoys at home when hunting public land during any firearms seasons.
The best way to deploy your decoy(s) depends on time of year, location and your specific objectives. Sometimes one is enough; other times, you’ll want a pair. Some conditions call for a buck, while others might work better with a doe. Let’s start with placement.
How you position your decoy is important. Remember, these are guidelines, not rules, which means they hold true more often than not. When a buck approaches another buck, or a buck decoy, it typically does so head-on; it is more likely to approach a doe from the rear. Consequently, if you’re using a buck decoy, it’s better to have it broadside or quartering toward you. Similarly, you should face a doe decoy broadside or quartering away. This prevents the buck from looking directly at you. More important, it gets him lined up for a shot. Again, this is crucial for bowhunters.
So which sex should you use? Decoying deer is a lot like decoying turkeys. During the breeding season, they’re hopped up on testosterone and their behavior is driven by two things: companionship and competition.
Both deer and turkeys seem to react more strongly to competition. Put out a spread of turkey decoys, and a sex-crazed tom will weave his way through a maze of hens to get at the one and only male decoy. Once there, he’ll either go into hyper display mode, or he’ll simply drop the gloves and wail away at his perceived rival. Bucks are quite similar. Even during the peak of rut, they might or might not approach a doe; add a buck decoy and they’ll come with fire in their eyes.
From a behavioral standpoint, it makes sense. When a mature buck approaches a doe during the rut, he’s looking for subtle visual clues. The way she stands and the way she reacts to his approach influence how he will respond. In most cases, unless she flees, he won’t charge in. Add a buck decoy, however, and you’re essentially telling the buck, “I have what you want. What are you gonna do about it?” If it’s a mature buck, he’ll usually let you (or, to be more accurate, your decoy) know in no uncertain terms.
Adjust the “level of competition” to match your objective. Your decoy should be slightly smaller than your target. Big-bodied decoys work great on big bucks but might intimidate younger ones. Rack size is particularly important. Evidence suggests that a buck’s antlers play an important role in demonstrating his age and vigor to other deer.
Timing is, of course, a factor, too. The competition card is best played during the peak of rut. A solo buck decoy has a wider area of opportunity because bucks fight well before the rut. In fact, sparring and fighting is probably second only to eating as a pre-rut activity. The closer to rut you get, the more intense it gets, and the more effective your decoy is.
Very early in the season, a doe decoy might be a better option. Deer are social animals, and that’s when they seek out others of their kind. A relaxed, feeding or bedded doe is more likely to attract other deer than an alert or aggressively postured one.
You can also use more than one decoy. In fact, during the peak of the rut, using a buck and a doe can sometimes tip the balance on skittish deer and send dominant bucks into fits. The only thing a buck hates more than a rival is a successful rival, and if it sees another buck with a doe, it’s likely to charge in.
Under almost any circumstances, a decoy can be made even more effective by adding motion. Deer, especially does, don’t always react positively to decoys. How many times have you watched one deer suddenly come upon another one, or a group? The heads go up and there’s a staring match that can last several minutes. Finally one deer breaks the stalemate by flicking its tail. It’s a very subtle body language signal that essentially says, “Everything here is okay.”
Add that capability to your decoy, and it could well mean the difference between success and failure. Some decoys actually have that function on a remote control. You can fashion one with a white rag and a piece of fishing line, or simply add some toilet tissue and let the wind do the work.
Another way to enhance your decoy’s effectiveness is with calls. Calls attract attention to your location and then to your decoy. Second, they add more realism. During the peak of rut, tending grunts work well, particularly if you’re using a buck-doe combo. Aggressive buck grunts and growls are also effective, as they enhance the challenge aspect of the decoy.
When do you use them? We’ve already covered much of this above. Decoys can be used any time. Deer respond out of curiosity to any new deer in their area by investigating. They might respond at dawn and dusk near feeding areas, simply because that’s when they’re there. Bucks respond well during most phases of the rut, especially when used in conjunction with calls, scents and rattling. Decoys work best when used with these other attracting techniques because they complete the illusion of a real deer.
If you haven’t figure this one out yet, the answer is “you.” If you follow the aforementioned guidelines, reminding yourself they are just guidelines, you might be pleasantly surprised with the results. Think safety first and use common sense in deciding when, where, how and why to place your decoys. They won’t make you a better hunter; but if you’re smart, they could make your more successful.
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This article was published in the October 2008 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Join today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.