The key to bowhunting whitetails into bowhunting range? Faith in the system.
"The crazy buck charged my decoy--sending it flying 20 feet through the air and breaking off a rear leg." This is how Mark Jost sparked my interest in decoying whitetails. "It really works?" I asked. "It works so well I don't think I'll ever enter the woods without my decoy again," he replied.
Mark Jost has been decoying for the past five years. He describes the action as intense, heart-pounding and as hilarious as bowhunting can get. "It really works once you believe that it can," Mark explained.
Believing it can work is a big key to success at decoying. Too often a bowhunter becomes frustrated after he actually spooks a deer with his decoy. If you spook a deer from decoying it's because you made a human mistake. I too witnessed some pitfalls in my first couple of tries. You must not give up, but instead you must believe!
After trying a decoy and spooking a doe I conversed with my friend Mark, a longtime golfing and bowhunting buddy. In 1997, Mark arrowed two Pope and Young bucks that he feels he would not have taken if not for his decoy. I asked Mark, "Why would my decoy cause a doe to snort, stomp her foot and retreat in the direction she just came from?"
It turns out there were several possible reasons for my mishap. I'm addressing these problems with every new setup I make, and the pendulum has started to swing in my direction. Here are some beginning problems and solutions.
Scent: Deer live by their sense of smell all day, every day. When they come in contact with another deer, as with a decoy, they shift their sense of smell into peak performance. Carrying and hugging your decoy during transportation or while setting it up (installing the legs, tail antlers) contaminates the decoy material with human scent. Any human odor will cause abandonment by a whitetail deer. Foam decoys may act like sponges to human scent. Using a hard plastic body will help, but it will not cure the contamination. Mark believes in scrubbing the decoy with baking soda and water prior to taking it afield and then never touching it again without wearing clean rubber gloves. This is the start to decoying success. Mark likes to stash a pair of gloves in the woods with his decoy just for this reason.
Movement: When a decoy has no movement and stands stiff-legged, it actually is sending a message to other deer: An alarm message; something is wrong. A simple flick of a tail is all that is needed to pull the air right out of a nervous deer. I found that draping three attached sections of toilet paper under the tail with a pushpin will offer that flicker of movement with the slightest breeze. If the air is dead quiet you will need to take the time to rig up a tug line with monofilament fishing line to move an ear or tail from your ambush spot. Movement is a big key in decoying. It actually is humorous to watch a nervous deer when the tail finally flickers. The tense muscles relax instantly, just like releasing the air from an inflated balloon.
There are companies building mechanical tails that flicker from eight- to 16-second intervals, such as the one by Tail Wagger. They work exceptionally well and are quiet, but they require some installation to fit a decoy. They can also be pressed up against a tree to look like the trailing end of a deer. Just the slightest movement is all that's needed. Currently in several states the Tail Wagger is illegal because they are considered a mechanical lure. Personally, I like to shy away from mechanical devices as much as possible. But for the modern mechanical-minded bowhunters, this battery-operated Tail Wagger really works well. As I mentioned before, movement is perhaps the single biggest key to decoying success.
This past season I had good luck placing a turkey decoy in front of my deer decoy. I would use one of the wind-turban-style turkeys about five to 10 feet in front of the deer.
Now your decoy is staring at something, which will help justify the stiff look of your decoy. The turkey would move in the slightest wind and bob back and fourth quite well in a stronger gust. If you can afford more than one deer decoy you may want to place a bedded doe out in front of your buck decoy. This can drive a rutting buck mad, and I mean mad.
Adding two or more decoys to your setup can increase your success. When the rut is on and you have every detail in order, the bucks will usually charge with frenzy. First you will notice the buck standing very stiff-legged, then the hair will protrude high off the body like a porcupine ready to do battle. The buck will then charge the decoy and send it crashing to the ground. This is what makes decoying so exciting. If you're a seeker of big bucks you may want to scare off the little bucks before they destroy your expensive decoy. If you let the little bucks attack every time, you might spook the big boy when reconstructing the set.
Buck Deer: Like most first-time decoyers I raced to my stand with a doe decoy. It seemed obvious to me; a doe decoy would lure a buck quicker than a buck decoy. In most cases this is wrong. The buck decoy is the answer. Throughout most of the year a buck secludes himself from the does except during the short rut period. The bucks have mixed with other bucks and cannot resist checking out the new kid on the block. Your decoy is that new kid. In many areas a deer will recognize every deer in the section because they have mingled with them throughout the year. The new decoy presents an urge to investigate the invader. Another good reason for a buck decoy is it may be expected that a buck deer will stand stiff-legged for longer periods of time than a doe. A doe decoy that doesn't move is broadcasting a danger sign to other deer.
Scent Type: For the same reason a buck decoy is used, buck urine may be the better choice over doe urine. Bucks are lustful part of the time but aggressive or forceful most of the time.
Building a scent line or making mock scrapes with buck urine may raise a buck's curiosity. If the doe urine you are using isn't fresh, the bucks will have little interest. Using a scent line of buck urine at the same time every day may trigger early movement of an otherwise nocturnal buck. The whitetail's curiosity is very strong, and deer may be able to tell the approximate time an adversary has traveled through the area by the freshness of the urine. You may want to refreshen your scent line for a couple of days prior to setting up your decoy. You should arrive at your stand a little early, place your decoy and sit quietly for the duration of daylight.
Visibility: If a deer can't see your decoy until he steps into bow range, you have wasted your time decoying. The deer traveling the trail into bow range are the same deer you are going to see without decoying. Setting your decoy in the open will bring more deer by your stand. Therefore, decoying in heavy timber, at least most of the time, is against the objective of the art of decoying. Setting up a decoy in the open, yet within range of your blind or stand, will attract deer from all angles. This can obviously increase your action by simple exposure.
Today, Mark believes in decoying so strongly that he sets his decoy up in the open at every stand site to try and lure in a buck from hundreds of yards away. It has completely changed his stand placement in a given valley or side hill. Mark owns four different decoys, so he can leave them stashed out of sight by his stand overnight. He believes in handling the decoys with rubber gloves and as little as possible. (Caution: It may be illegal in your area to leave a decoy behind, especially on state-owned ground, and you open yourself to the risk of theft.)
Decoys: Poor-looking decoys will only diminish your chances at luring in a wild deer. Just as important as cleanliness, which was mentioned earlier, the realism of the decoy is critical. This past year I used a plastic decoy made by Carry Lite. This design is shaped proportionally to a real deer and has a texture that looks like actual hair. The decoy, like many others available, can be used as a buck or doe.
The decoy is, however, somewhat noisy to assemble as the head, legs, tail and ears remove for easy transportation. The decoy sells for about $130 and comes with a fluorescent bag for transporting in and out of your stand.
Perhaps the Cadillac of decoys is made by Harry Brunett. Harry makes the smallest details anatomically correct. The decoy has testicles visible from the backside, and Harry uses real deer tails that he collects from locker plants. Harry believes in using taxidermy eyes to create that natural reflection a deer sees when staring into the eyes of its adversary. Harry and longtime friend Tom Storm, who wrote a terrific book called "Decoying Whitetails," will hand-paint some of their eye features to change the appearance of their decoy. By painting eye features they can make a decoy look older or just different than one used previously.
Antlers: As mentioned earlier, the buck decoy should be your choice more days in the woods than not. Tom Storm likes to switch the size of antlers. He believes that bigger bucks in an area may not care to investigate a much smaller newcomer. By adjusting the size of the antlers to the bucks in the area, curiosity, along with some aggression, will trigger a reaction from mature bucks. A deer learns very quickly what he can fight and what he doesn't want to fight. If you have an area with small-racked deer, playing to their size would make more sense than scaring them with a set of 140-class butt kickers.
Decoy Placement: Setting up your decoy may make or break your attempts to get off a shot. Tom Storm believes that you never want your decoy facing your stand. This may cause other deer to look the same direction. He recommends angling the decoy broadside to your position. Tom also believes in placing what he calls cribbing behind the deer.
This may be natural brush, or it can be simulated with one or two branches. Tom recommends not overdoing the cribbing because it will hide the decoy. Placing the cribbing at the rear end of the deer will cause the live deer to approach from head-on. This almost always presents an excellent shot position. Tom also recommends wearing rubber gloves when constructing the cribbing.
A neat trick I learned this past season was to remove one antler from your decoy. This creates a weak side for a deer to approach. Using this weak side, you can select where a deer will attack your decoy. Having this much control may offer that window for executing the shot. If at all possible, try to determine which direction the buck will be traveling when approaching your setup. Place your decoy toward this direction. Deer like to stare each other down, and this gives reason for the deer decoy not to move.
Decoys can be used in conjunction with other hunting methods. You may wish to hunt a favorite trail that leads to a feeding field. Often the deer will wait until the dim hour of the day before entering a food area. Placing a decoy in the feeding area may calm deer down and bring them out into the open several minutes earlier while good lighting exists.
Rattling: Rattling to get the attention of a deer works very well. If you have decided to hunt more in the open, you may see more deer at greater distances. Both rattling and raking of trees can be productive in luring in a buck. Rattling works a lot like calling mallards to a decoy setup. Grunt calling can offer the same results, but it is becoming over-used in many areas. I would consider limiting the amount of grunt calling from a decoy setup if you spook two or more deer in a season. After the shot is made, a blast on the grunt call may stop a fleeing deer to take that last look at your decoy. I've heard of bowhunters bringing a wounded buck back into the setup after being mortally hit with an arrow.
Timing: Depending on your area and the amount of time you have available to hunt, the use of a decoy may be somewhat limited. In some areas you can decoy bucks in early October well before the rut. However, in a prime area, you may want to save your opportunity. Once a trophy buck spots a decoy, he may never approach again. If it's too early in the season, he may not attack like he will in November. You probably will never decoy a mature buck twice. You will have to experiment in your own area, because there are no set rules in decoying.
Safety: Carrying a decoy is dangerous--you must cover it with fluorescent covers in and out of season, especially during gun season. It becomes your responsibility when decoying to assume that you will fool a hunter as much as a deer. Don't risk exposing yourself as a target.
Like predator calling, decoying whitetails doesn't produce action every time. But if you use the basics described above I think you will come to believe as I have that decoying offers a whole new reason to be in the woods.