It’s been more than 30 years since I began decoying whitetails, and my only regret is I didn’t start it sooner. Not only is decoying deer very effective, but it’s a whole lot of fun, too. Whether your idea of a good bow-hunt is having lots of deer at close range, or just one mature buck, decoying can help on both counts.
But decoying isn’t fool-proof. Experience has taught me that whitetails are tougher to decoy than ducks, geese, doves, turkeys and pronghorns. So even when you do everything right, don’t expect every buck that sees your decoy to come tripping all over himself to get to you. Sure it happens, but just as often—usually through no fault of your own—the buck simply stands and stares at the decoy for awhile, then turns and walks away. Deer are not easily duped.
For many years, it seemed every article on the subject stressed that you should never face a decoy in the direction of your treestand or blind. The theory was whitetails to tend to look for danger in the direction a decoy is faced, so if you have the decoy facing in your direction, any deer coming into the decoy will look in the same direction and have a better chance of spotting you.
That theory sounds good but doesn’t work very well in the field, especially when using a buck decoy. This is because when a buck approaches a buck decoy, no matter which way he comes from, he’ll almost always end up circling around so he can approach the buck decoy head to head. This is only natural because a buck’s antlers are weapons for both offense and defense. I also think a buck can read the mood or the intentions of another buck by coming in face to face. This is why I replace the plastic eyes of a decoy with taxidermy-quality glass eyes whenever possible. I want a buck to see the same glint and gleam in a decoy’s eyes that he’s accustomed to seeing on live deer.
It’s best to position a doe decoy facing away from your ambush location. It can be quartering-away in either direction, but always facing away. When a buck approaches a doe decoy, he’s interested in the rear end of the decoy, not the head end. And if I have to explain that statement any further, you’re probably reading the wrong magazine.
ARE TWO BETTER THAN ONE?
One common myth is you should always use two decoys, a buck and a doe. Not true. There are times when a lone buck or lone doe decoy will draw more deer than a buck-and-doe set. For example, during the early season, especially if your archery opener is in September, a lone buck decoy will garner the most attention from bucks because they’ve hung out in bachelor groups all summer and know every buck in their group. When a stranger shows up, they can hardly help but check out the new guy. During this same period, a lone doe decoy attracts the most does. A buck-and-doe pair simply looks unnatural in September, when the sexes tend to be segregated.
I stick with this solo buck or solo doe strategy until mid-October when I switch over to a buck-and-doe pair. I use the pair right up until the breeding phase of the rut is complete, then switch off between a lone doe, lone buck or pair of decoys.
2D VS. 3D
I sometimes hear bowhunters say silhouette decoys scare off more deer than they attract. Not true, or I would have quit using them years ago. The first deer decoy I ever used was a crude, handmade 2D doe decoy I cut out from a piece of plywood and painted to look something like a deer on both sides. That was either the second or third year I hunted with a bow, and I was amazed and excited when I decoyed in five deer that year. Four of them were nubbin bucks, which of course are the most curious of all deer, and the other was a little forkhorn. I was so shook up I could barely get that old Herter’s compound back to full draw and managed to miss them all. But I was hooked on decoying.
Probably 10 years later I was writing quite a bit for the bigger magazines, and a guy by the name of Mel Dutton from northwest South Dakota invited me to bowhunt pronghorns with him and use the new fold-up decoy he’d designed. So I drove to South Dakota, met Mel’s family and he and I went out and had a blast decoying pronghorns. Around the supper table one evening, I encouraged Mel to build a fold-up deer decoy; turns out he was already working on one. He sent a proto-type to me, which I hunted over for years with good success. And then when Montana Decoys came out with their lightweight and very authentic-looking silhouette deer dekes, I began using them and have been ever since.
Primarily, I use 2D decoys when hiking a good distance from the truck and don’t want to carry a full-body model—or if I don’t know for sure I’ll use a decoy but would like one handy if I decide the situation is right.
My typical set up—2D or 3D—is to position the decoy 20- 25 yards in front of my stand, with the wind blowing from the decoy to me. If everything goes according to plan, when a buck responds to my calling or rattling, or maybe just shows up on his own, he’ll spot the decoy, close the distance and then circle between my stand and the decoy, presenting me with a close broadside shot.
But one lesson I’ve come to realize when it comes to decoying deer is that it doesn’t always go down as planned. The most recent buck I killed over a decoy was a prime example. I’d been sitting in a pop-up blind since before first light, and it was nearing last light. So far, nothing but a couple of curious nubbin bucks, a coyote and a flock of turkeys had visited the buck and doe decoy I’d set up 20 yards in front of the brushed-in blind.I was starting to gather up my gear when I heard deer running hard in my direction. Moments later, a big doe and 8-pointer came tearing past the front of the blind between me and the decoys. I doubt they even noticed the fakes as they thundered by.
The pounding of their hooves hadn’t yet receded when I heard another deer running toward me. By the sounds of it, this deer was on a mission as well. Hoping that it might be a bigger buck chasing the same doe—a common scenario during the rut—I drew my bow just as the buck bolted into view. I was ready to give him a loud baah to try to get him to stop, when he put on the brakes and skidded to a stop on his own, maybe seven steps in front of the blind’s mesh-covered window.
I couldn’t count his points, but I could tell from the mass of his antlers and the shape of his body that he was mature. I’m sure he thought the pair of decoys in front of the blind was the buck and doe he’d been chasing. When the familiar Mathews in my hands launched that arrow with a barely audible thud, my hunt was over. No, the decoys hadn’t worked in the scenario I’d laid out in my mind that day, but they had darn sure worked, and that was good enough for me.