By Dana R. Rogers
When using a decoy, you’ve got to set the stage if you want to drag more than a plastic buck out of the woods.
As I approached my camera setup, I could see the GlenDel buck lying flat on its side. The frozen ground had given way, and the rebar stakes were bent. The target’s legs were twisted and cracked – and that’s exactly what I’d been hoping for. I couldn’t wait to check the pictures.
It was time. The rut was going hard, and at least one buck didn’t like seeing this interloper at the edge of his food plot. Under the right conditions, a decoy can make the difference in luring a boss buck into bow range.
It’s also true that I’ve seen decoys send a buck running in the opposite direction.
Why are they so effective sometimes and so frightening others?
Decoying isn’t new, but there are a lot of nuances that can make it more effective.
Timing – the days just prior to the rut are best – and location – decoys are more effective in areas where the ratio of bucks to does is tight – are key.
The more bucks vying for receptive does, the more competition and testosterone-charged encounters you’ll see.
Where you set up a decoy in relation to terrain, cover and your stand or blind is the most important part of decoying.
A decoy placed in the right place can be dynamite and provide some fantastic close encounters. One placed in the wrong place or at the wrong time can spook deer and hurt your chances.
I hunt a lot of open and broken country in the West, Great Plains and Midwest that lends itself to visual tactics like decoying. I believe using a field edge or inside corner works best for setting up a decoy because a buck can examine the setup and see the decoy from a much longer distance.
I like to set up in an open field that runs between two blocks of cover. Bucks that travel along the edges of these sheltered areas can easily spot a decoy and often work in close to investigate.
Avoid thick cover or heavy woods. If deer walk up on a decoy at a very tight distance without seeing any movement, it tends to spook them.
Garrett Roe, owner of Heads Up Decoy, agrees. “Deer do not like to be taken by surprise,” he said. “The biggest mistake people can make with decoys is putting them where they take a deer by surprise. Make sure the decoy can be seen from a distance.
“It’s easier to fool a buck from far away,” Roe continued. “They come in more relaxed or, in the case of a rutting buck, fighting mad.”
If you must set up in timber, place your decoy where it can be seen – logging trails or two-tracks – somewhere deer can see a long way. Look for an open funnel or feeding area. Stick to the high traffic areas used by cruising bucks during late October to early November.
Once you’ve picked a location, it’s time to create the setup, including careful positioning of your stand or blind and the decoy.
You don’t just want a buck to come in; you want him to come in, stop and present a perfect shot.
Most of the time when a buck approaches another buck, he does so head on. Position a buck decoy facing toward your stand or quartering toward it about 20 yards upwind.
Doing so leads to quartering-away or broadside shots as the buck approaches the decoy. When a big buck is all bristled up and walks in sideways around your deer decoy with his eyes bugged out, you’d better be ready.
Know the distance to the decoy, as well as any noticeable landmarks around it.
Like any other hunting tactic, it takes time and experience to master decoying. Once you’ve got the basics down, consider adding more to the setup.
I’ve used buck decoys, doe decoys and buck-doe pairs. I use a single decoy most of the time, but If I use two, it’s always a buck and a doe together.
I start with a doe decoy in late October. When bucks start to get aggressive, I switch to the single buck decoy. A few days later, I add a bedded doe to the mix.
Having a small buck tending a doe is a surefire way to send a mature buck into a jealous frenzy. Put the doe bedded about 5 yards from the buck to set a realistic scene.
“My favorite time is the lockdown phase of the rut,” Roe said. “Most bowhunters dread that part of the rut. I love it! That is when a person or a two-person team can take a decoy like mine and move in and really challenge a buck. Even a smart, mature buck will often leave his prize to confront the challenger. We get some intense encounters during lockdown, often at point-blank range.”
SCENTS & SCENT CONTROL
When a buck comes to a decoy, whether out of curiosity or anger, he’s still going to use his nose. You must keep a decoy scent-free.
Wear gloves when handling your deer decoy, and make sure it’s clean. Once you set it up, spray it with your favorite scent killer.
Be as scent-conscious with your decoy as you are with your clothing.
While it’s paramount to eliminate human scent, you can always add a little deer scent to your setup. Sometimes it really helps when a buck can confirm what he’s seeing with his nose.
Use estrous doe or dominant buck scents, but don’t put them directly on the decoy. I dab scent-free cotton balls with estrous scent and place them on the ground next to the decoy.
I’ve also had great success using a tarsal gland from a previously tagged buck. I place it on the ground between the decoy’s legs, and the combination of sight and 100 percent real smell is too much for most bucks to take.
SOUND & MOTION
During the pre-rut and rut phases, every bowhunter should carry rattling antlers and a grunt call. When decoying, sound is often the first step in getting an old monarch’s attention.
I like to create a trap involving all of a buck’s senses. Once you get his attention by rattling or grunting, let the decoy do the work, but help it out with subtle motion like a tail flick.
A live buck tends to hang up out of bow range while studying a decoy. After a while, if there is no movement, it will sometimes spook or simply walk away. Motion adds realism, which translates into more punched tags.
I’ve used unscented toilet paper and strips cut from a white cloth to add motion to the ears and tail. A slight breeze will provide the movement needed.
Some decoys have movement built in to the heads or tails, but always be certain of your state’s regulations. I also use fishing line tied to a real deer tail. As with scent, there’s nothing like a touch of the real thing.
If you’ve never used a decoy, give it a shot. Decoying works, but it’s most effective when you create a setup that’s realistic, and when bucks are aggressive.
If you have only one or two spots to bowhunt, be very careful with decoys. If you use one too early, it’s likely you’ll educate your buck and make it nearly impossible to fool him again.
If you have plenty of land, experiment with different setups and get a feel for what works for you.
One thing’s for sure: If you get a buck’s attention at the right time, you might get a heart-thumping shot at an angry, bristled-up bruiser. At the least, you’ll have a ringside seat for a big buck beat-down on your decoy.
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This article was published in the September 2014 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Subscribe today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.