When the rut’s on, common dogma is for hunters to sit passively in wait of a buck either cruising in search of a doe in estrous, or with his nose on the tail of the same. While you can certainly kill a big buck like this, there is a better way.
For those who want to be a bit more aggressive, a bit more proactive—there is another option. One which involves fakery and deception. While it might not be as hokey as the old Statue of Liberty play in football, using deer decoys can be either magic (or poison).
Therein lies the rub. Decoying deer is a lot of work, but when it all comes together, a buck will come charging in, eyes bugged out and hackles standing on end, blowing snot and ready to rumble. When it doesn’t, deer may simply skirt your stand, or hop away on stiff legs, never to be seen again.
Over the years I’ve learned that, while there are several nuances to using decoys successfully, six things are key.
- Use the most realistic decoy(s) you can afford. The more realism, the better—and this usually means more expensive. Decoys from manufacturers like Rinehart will improve your odds greatly over cheaper decoys.
- The setup is critical. Make sure the wind is always blowing from the decoy to your stand. I always face a buck decoy towards or slightly quartering-to my stand but turn a doe decoy away or slightly quartering away from my stand.
- Strategically turning a decoy usually means when a buck approaches a buck decoy, it will almost always circle the decoy until it is nose-to-nose. That makes it facing away from you, making it easy to draw your bow undetected. Conversely, a buck deer will almost always scent-check a doe decoy from the rear. This positioning puts you at a drawing advantage too.
- Spray it down. Once you’re set up, spray everything down with an odor-neutralizing spray to remove all traces of human odor. Keep in mind the decoy will be nose-to-nose with live deer. No need to spook them with your odor.
- Add movement. All animals come to decoys more readily if there is some movement involved. I’ve used strips of an old white tee-shirt on the ears and tail, but the best thing is to save the tail from a real whitetail, cure it, then nail it to the decoy’s tail.
- When the hair flutters in the slight breeze it can be a game changer. Today, decoys are available with built-in motion. Some of it is conveyed simply, with parts that flap and sway in the breeze. Some decoys have electronic motors that allow the tail and neck to move on command from a handheld control (they are not legal in all states, so check your local regulations before using one).
Add scent. Once you get the decoy set up, spray it down with a no-scent spray, then add some real deer scent to the mix. If the decoy doesn’t have a place for scent, take a small stick, jab it into the ground underneath the deer’s belly, and place a scent wick on the stick, or attach the wick to the tail and/or hock of the rear leg. When using a buck decoy, I use both rutting buck and a doe estrous scent on separate wicks.
Don’t surprise them. The greater distance at which the decoy is visible, the more effective it will be. That’s why decoying seems to work better when hunting fields, food plots, logging roads, dry creek bottoms and sloughs, or open stands of timber then when hunting tight cover. In flat fields I try and place decoys up on a small hillock or mound, especially if you are hunting a depression or hollow, so it will be visible to deer no matter where they stroll by.
MORNING OR AFTERNOON?
Today’s full-bodied decoys are bulky, awkward and noisy. That makes them very difficult to haul into your stand site quietly in the dark before dawn, then set them up without waking the dead. There are a couple ways to alleviate this problem.
First, simply bring the decoy to the hunt area during midday, set the stakes up, and leave it lying on the ground nearby covered by a cloth (not noisy plastic) tarp, old bed sheets or burlap. A decoy glistening with frost in the morning will spook deer.
When you arrive for the hunt, you can quickly uncover it and set it up quietly before climbing into your stand or blind. Putting trail markers on the stakes makes them easy to find. The second is to haul the assembled decoy to your stand on the kind of wheeled deer carrier designed to haul out a dead deer. In the right terrain you can do this quietly as well.
That said, I find this hassle worth it since I’ve had my best luck with decoys in the morning, when bucks return to bedding areas after an unsuccessful night of seeking out does. However, afternoons can be good, too, when used in places like a field corner I know does are using regularly.
During midday, I like to decoy in a funnel area between two known bedding thickets, or between water and bedding thickets. Many whitetail hunters overlook the importance of water during the rut, but I really like setting up with a buck decoy near water at midday.
While I’ve used decoys at various times of the season, my experience has been that the chances of having a mature buck come visit a decoy are best during the 10- to 14-day period just prior to the first estrus.
During this time bucks are actively scraping and roaming, and seem to respond to both grunting and rattling, which is a very effective way to draw a buck’s attention to a decoy. During the peak of the rut, when most mature bucks have already found does to breed, bucks still come to a decoy, but I’ve mostly had immature bucks come then. A mature buck that is between does might also commit, but everything has to be “just right.”
I’ve found days with cool temperatures and a stable or falling barometer encourage deer movement, making them the best days for decoying as deer are up and on the move.
BUCK, DOE OR ALL THE ABOVE?
If I had to choose just one way to decoy, it would be with a buck decoy that challenges the manhood of the area’s breeding bucks. It seems like a cruising buck may often only give a doe decoy a passing glance, and while he might come for a look—he might not. But if he sees a buck that he feels is competition for breeding rights, when his switch is flipped, he’ll often come at a trot.
There are times when adding a doe decoy to your buck can make a big difference. Place the buck where it is most visible to cruising deer and where you want to make the shot, and place a doe decoy off to the side. Ideally this is on the edge of the woods, partially hidden by some flora or a bump in the landscape.
I often do some calling, doing everything from rattling to using grunts and bleats. How aggressively depends on my feel for how the deer are acting. Some days I’ll be boisterously loud, others soft and alluring. If I see a buck cruising out of range that obviously isn’t coming my way, I’ll call loudly enough that I can hopefully get him to stop and look my way. If he sees the decoy, then I’ve got a chance. And when you see a buck eyeball your buck decoy but not fully commit, I hit him with a snort wheeze. It can be a game changer.
For safety sake, remember life-sized full-body deer decoys have been known to attract gunfire. For this reason, they are best used during archery-only seasons or on private ground.