By John Dudley
One of my most memorable hunting experiences happened on a November afternoon while using a whitetail decoy. I was hunting at a friend's farm in Iowa and attempting to hunt a treestand along the edge of an alfalfa field. I had carried my archery gear, my camera and my decoy a long way into this spot my friend suggested, only to discover the old stand had all but fallen apart and was not safe to use.
I was furious, to say the least. This was a perfect November rut day and definitely not one you want to waste. I shook my head, bad mouthed my buddy, grabbed my decoy and stomped back across this wide-open field. While muttering a few choice words to myself, I looked back over my shoulder.
About 100 yards away, on the edge of the alfalfa, stood a huge buck where I was about to hunt. Go figure! I thought as I stopped to gaze at what would have been my biggest bow kill to date. While I was feeling sorry for myself, the buck stared at me, put his head down and started coming right to me!
Instinctively, I dropped to my knees to hide behind my decoy. My release was in my backpack, so I scrambled to get that off my back and quickly rummaged through it. As I was trying to prepare myself, I peeked over the top of my decoy every few seconds, expecting to see the buck running off.
Amazingly, he just kept coming closer and closer. By the time I got my release on my wrist and an arrow on the string, the buck was at 50 yards and still closing. I figured it was now or never, so I drew my bow from behind the decoy, just like I do when I decoy antelope bucks. The only difference is that an antelope decoy is normally staked into the ground in front of you.
As I drew, I was tucked up tight against my decoy that was just leaning against me. About halfway into my draw, my bow pushed the decoy and it fell over to the ground. I was totally exposed and panicked. I let my bow down and picked the decoy back up to shield me. After that stupid move, I expected the buck to be running the other way, but instead he pinned his ears down, raised his back hair and started licking his slobber.
By now the buck was less than 20 yards away, posturing and about to run me over. I decided to lift my bow over my decoy so I had enough space to draw this time. I got to about three quarters drawn and the decoy was pinned tight between my legs and my bowstring. No matter how hard I pulled, I couldn't get my bow to full draw.
So, I raised my release hand up alongside my eye so I could look down the arrow shaft. The giant buck's body was all I could see in front of my arrow. I aimed my broadhead behind his shoulder and hit the trigger. The arrow slammed into the side of the buck and I ducked back behind the decoy and braced myself to be rammed!
I heard the buck running and peeked around my decoy once again, only to see this Iowa giant stumble to the ground 40 yards away. "Thank you God!" I screamed out loud, raising my arms in triumph. Regardless of how crazy this story sounds, I promise you every bit of it is the truth. And while I will probably never experience anything like it again, it proves that decoying is an absolutely dynamite tactic for bowhunting rutting bucks. To be successful with decoys, I believe you really only need to focus on two things: timing and presentation.
The first step to being successful with a decoy is using it at the right time. Used at the right time, decoys can significantly increase your odds of coaxing a buck into bow range. Used at the wrong time, a decoy can reduce your odds and even spook deer. The best time for decoying is about a two-week window that starts at the tail end of the pre-rut phase and goes into the peak rut. The further into the rut you are, the more likely it is that a fully mature buck will respond to your decoy. It has been my experience that keeping the decoy out of sight until conditions are just right increases its effectiveness.
What made my Iowa story possible was that the buck was in the right mood. It was the peak of the rut, and this dominant buck had obviously already spent several days breeding and protecting his area from outside bucks. He had probably just left a doe and was eager to find another one.
Bucks are in a daze during this period when they are fighting and running does constantly. They lose their attention to detail and almost turn into zombies just going through the motions. In my case, my decoy looked like a roaming buck that had wandered into his area. That was all he needed to see. His zombie mode caused him not to pay attention to what was behind the decoy. The timing was perfect!
Most deer hunters know the time of year that the rut gets in full swing in their area. You can tell the rut is close when does become less visible in the fields, because that means smaller bucks are starting to chase and harass them. Once the first doe comes into estrous, the mature bucks will appear. Rattling starts to become more effective and the bucks will react to sounds of other deer chasing in the woods. When these things are happening, get the decoy ready.
There is one more important consideration when picking the perfect time to decoy. You need a day when the wind is consistent so that once you set up your decoy, you will be able to utilize the wind to position approaching bucks for a perfect shot.
Many years ago, I was fortunate enough to travel with Gary Clancy, an expert in decoying deer. On that trip, we swapped stories about our decoying experiences and agreed that aside from timing, a successful decoy hunt boils down to presentation.
I am confident that if you apply these tips on your own hunts, you can bring bucks inside 20 yards for an easy chip shot. On my best day of decoying, I had 22 different bucks standing broadside, right in front of my stand, looking at my decoy. Granted, it was an exceptional day, but using it at the right time in the right setup were crucial factors. Here's what you need to know:
First of all, the decoy you use is important! I have a shed full of decoys, and I've tried everything from simple silhouettes to taxidermy-quality deer mounts. In my experience, the more realistic the decoy, the more effective it is. Among the commercially produced decoys, I personally prefer the Posturing Buck Decoy from Dave Smith Decoys.
What I like about this decoy is that the "posturing" position indicates a buck that is protecting a hot doe. Some decoys look like a deer that is on full alert, and in my experience, a deer in this position will put other deer on alert, possibly even causing negative reactions such as stomping and snorting.
In addition to having a good decoy, you need to pick the right place to put it. I look for three things: an area with high deer traffic, a perfect spot to place a treestand and favorable wind direction. Decoying works best when deer can see your decoy from a good distance. If you know your hunting area well, you have a good idea how deer travel there.
The places where "deer always seem to cross" are the perfect spots for decoying. I have two such locations where I can count on great decoying action each year. They are both on small, wooded points that jut out into open fields, and deer naturally cross the fields there. The bottom line is you need to be in an area where you know the deer will come and see the decoy.
After finding the traffic, find a spot where you can place a stand against something that makes it difficult for deer to circle behind you. You want the deer in front of your stand where you can easily shoot, and you don't want them to get downwind of you. Set your stand against a thicket, steep slope or creek bank so approaching bucks are forced to stay in front of you.
The most critical part of decoying is the wind direction! Your stand must be in a position so that the wind will be blowing from the main travel area towards the stand. The one thing that is very predictable about decoying a buck is that he will always try to scent check the decoy first. Bucks trust their noses, and in decoying this is a benefit to hunters. By knowing they will circle to the downwind side of the decoy, it allows you to position the decoy for an ideal shot.
When a buck approaches a decoy, it wants to scent check the deer and also prefers to look at its eyes. So, you always want to face the decoy toward your stand, with the wind blowing directly from your decoy toward your stand. It is equally important to set the decoy 25-30 yards from the stand.
Bucks will typically maintain a safe distance from the decoy at first, and with this presentation, you are likely to get the buck to come roughly 15-20 yards from your stand and offer a broadside or quartering-away shot as he sizes up the decoy. In addition to offering a good shot angle, the fact that the buck will be looking toward your decoy also gives you a great opportunity to shift into position and draw your bow.
There are a few other things that can help you be successful with a decoy. Many people wonder whether they should set their decoy as a doe or a buck. I have found that by making my decoy a one-horned buck, I have much more success luring all kinds of bucks in close while keeping wary does away. It seems that smaller, subordinate bucks aren't intimidated by a one-horned buck, and the bigger bucks see it as an easy target. Since the does are getting chased to death by young bucks during this time of year, they tend to stay quiet and avoid the one-horned buck. It's the perfect setup, in my opinion.
You also need to be careful to avoid contaminating your decoy with human scent. Wash your decoy with scent-free soap before the season and then store it in a scent-free environment until you use it. Remember, the one thing you can be certain of is that any bucks that respond to your decoy will want to scent check it.
You need to be ready to take your shot before the buck gets a good sniff of your decoy, as chances are they won't stick around long if they don't like what they smell. Be aware of exactly where your decoy's scent is blowing. Once the approaching deer is reaching that area, you need to make your shot.
The last thing I want to mention is calling deer while using a decoy. It is advantageous to call while using a decoy. However, you need to know that all eyes will be on your decoy once you start calling. It's easy to mess up a decoy hunt by calling too much, so pick your times wisely.
If you see a wandering buck and it hasn't seen your decoy, a simple grunt may be all you need. If things are quiet and you know there aren't any bucks close by, then it can be a good time to try rattling. Rattling combined with a decoy can provide fast action! Bucks come in for a fight and will instantly lock eyes with your decoy.
All hunters have their favorite time to hunt. For some, it may be the predictable patterns of the early season. For many, it is the rut. And for others it may be the late season. Honestly, I find it hard to beat a day in the woods where buck after buck comes in and puts on a show in front of my decoy. When you time it perfectly and you set everything up just right, you get to watch some of the best displays a whitetail buck can offer. I have total confidence in this method and have always been offered shooting opportunities throughout each season.
If you haven't had much luck decoying deer in the past, try this method and see how your luck can change!