Decoys for waterfowlers and even turkey hunters have become as important to those sportsmen as their shotguns and calls. Yet when it comes to whitetails, while many decoy models and variations exist, relatively few hunters take advantage of the realism factor a decoy can bring to their setup.
For some, it might simply be a matter of size and transport. Deer decoys are larger and bulkier, making them a little trickier to tote if already saddled with hauling a bow, climbing stand or pack. For others, it’s just a matter of unfamiliarity-never used them before, so why start now? Or, being unfamiliar with them, they simply aren’t sure how best to use one so they don’t bother. Unfortunately, for the uninitiated, ignoring the benefits of using a decoy may be costing them shot opportunities at some of the biggest bucks they’ll encounter this season.
While a decoy certainly shouldn’t be used in every situation, they can provide that visual element to your setup that even calling and proper scent use can’t, and that, my friend, can make all the difference in the world just when you need that something to make a difference. Here are some tips that will help you create the perfect decoy setup within easy bow (or gun) range of your stand.
Regardless of who makes them, there are three basic types of decoys available. The most common is a lightweight, life-sized plastic design sold by companies like Carry-Lite, Flambeau and Primos. Montana Decoys are known for their photo-realistic, two-dimensional decoys that fold up for easy toting, yet lack any dimension from a straight-on or straight-behind view. Then at the opposite end of the cost spectrum, but the most realistic you can buy, are the taxidermied decoys now sold by Real Deal Decoys. They all come in both buck and doe versions, typically modified with the removal or addition of antlers on the taxidermy and plastic-body models, and the plastic models can be typically set up without legs to replicate a doe lying down rather than standing. Real Deal can make one that way if you choose.
Because of their size, toting a decoy a long way through the woods is usually not an option regardless of their lightweight and carrying cases. Thus setups in fields or open woods within a couple hundred yards of fields or paths is most common. Regardless, using a decoy where visibility is limited reduces its effectiveness. You want to place it in an area where a cruising buck is sure to spot it and come to challenge.
When To Use Them
While a deer decoy can be used anytime during the season given a whitetail’s natural curiosity, they work best during the pre-rut when bucks are challenging each other before real breeding begins. When mixed with scents and calls, such as rattling and grunting, they can bring a dominant buck in quickly. At this time of year, a buck decoy works best.
Hunter’s Specialties’ Alex Rutledge warns hunters however to try to determine what buck you are hunting through scouting and trail cameras before going all out with your decoy.
“Decoys will only work with aggressive bucks,” says Rutledge. “If you have a buck that isn’t aggressive, you risk spooking him more than bringing him in.” , Whether in trail cam pics or by glassing, bucks that are spotted with their ears laid back and head up straight when in the company of other deer will tend to be your more aggressive bucks. They are custom-made for decoy use as they are more likely to approach rattling and grunting and upon seeing what they think is the encroaching deer, will come charging right in.
“The pre-rut is my favorite time to use a decoy,” says Mike Mattley with Carry-Lite and Code Blue Scents. But they also have a place during the actual rut. With bucks changing gears and going on serious breeding mode, remove the antlers from your decoy, break out a doe bleat and some estrous scent and work a randy buck into range.
How To Use Them
When bowhunting, Mattley suggests setting the decoy no farther than 25 or 30 yards out assuming you are competent to shoot that far. Setting them too close can create a severe angled shot at an inspecting buck-a shot few hunters practice and thus suffer increased odds of missing.
“You want the decoy out to where you are most comfortable shooting,” says Mattley.
Gun hunters can set them farther out, but should make sure they are still close enough in order to get a clear, accurate shot to either side of the decoy, as well as make it appear that any calling you do is coming from near the decoy and not 100 yards away.
If possible, set the decoy crosswind from you as a buck will likely circle downwind and approach the deke from that direction. If bowhunting, you may be too close to the decoy and could get busted if you are set perfectly downwind of the fake. Gun hunters may not need to be quite as concerned with that, though they should always remain cognizant of wind direction.
Create or ensure that you have a clear shooting lane on either side of the decoy and place him (or her) looking perpendicular to where you are sitting. Turkey hunters tend to want a gobbler decoy looking past their setup since a tom will run in and face off on the fake allowing the hunter to position his gun for the shot. Bucks will likely do the same, but in this situation, you want to use the decoy’s presence to incite the buck to present you with a perfect broadside shot.
Look for him to march in and face off with the decoy if he doesn’t run right in and knock it to the ground. When using a doe during the peak of the rut, a buck will likely come in nose first and head low toward the rear of the decoy.
Again, to create the most realistic setup possible, you want to target all of the deer’s main senses-sight, smell and hearing-by using scents and calls as well as your decoy.
During the pre-rut and when using a buck decoy, use a buck’s tarsal gland, buck urine or even doe urine. The point at this juncture is to use a scent that is believable to an approaching whitetail for the time of season. The scent will put his mind at ease that he is dealing with another deer and nothing more. Even if it detects a whiff of your human odor, the fact that it smells like another deer is there or just passed through can all go to reassure him that the area is okay.
As for calling, rattle for 20 to 30 seconds every 5 to 10 minutes and mix the rattles with short, aggressive grunts. If you can rake the ground or leaves in the trees around you, all the better.
During the peak rut, just as you switch to a doe decoy, you should also change to a quality doe-in-heat scent mixed with some soft series-two to four-doe bleats. Repeat the calling about every 4 or 5 minutes.
Decoys have helped countless waterfowlers and turkey hunters fill their freezers and trophy rooms and with the right game plan and just a little more effort, there’s no need more deer hunters can make the same claim.