I have a love/hate relationship with deer decoys – but the more I understand where and when to use them, the more I love them.
By Bob Robb
Back in the Dark Ages of whitetail hunting, before food plots and sophisticated trail cameras and quality deer management and YouTube videos and a plethora of hunting TV shows on cable and all of that, I learned a lot about deer hunting from friends who spent more time in the woods than most sane folks would consider healthy. One of them was Gary Clancy, an outdoor writer and deer hunter extraordinaire from Minnesota who was taken from us far too early, in 2016, by a cancer caused by Agent Orange exposure when he served as an Army point man in Vietnam.
Clancy was a soft-spoken, down-to-earth guy who loved to laugh. When he talked about whitetail hunting, I listened, because he knew his stuff. He was one of the first men I know of to start using decoys seriously for deer hunting. His classic 200-plus page book, Rattling & Decoying Whitetails, became a sort of bible on the topic. Gary was killing bucks over decoys that were crude by today’s standards, learning, as he went, the old-fashioned way, through trial and error. What he taught me back then still applies today, and his simple yet effective techniques are even more deadly when using modern decoys.
Three Keys to Success
While there are several nuances to using decoys successfully, Clancy stressed three things above all else: placement, scent control and distant visibility.
Decoy placement is the most critical part of the game. “The wind must always be blowing from the decoy to your stand, for obvious reasons,” Clancy said. “Also, always face a buck decoy towards or slightly quartering-to your stand, and a doe decoy away or slightly quartering away from your stand. Never mind all of that ‘sage’ advice that says to never face a decoy towards your stand. Those guys have never decoyed deer. When a buck approaches a buck decoy, it will virtually always circle the decoy until it is nose to nose. When that happens, it is facing away from you and giving you the shot angle you need. Conversely, a buck deer will almost always approach a doe decoy from the rear, checking her for estrous.”
Always remember that a buck will most likely approach the decoy from downwind, so setting the decoy upwind from your stand just makes sense.
After setting up the decoy, spray it down with an odor-neutralizing spray. “Using a decoy that smells like a human won’t cut it,” Clancy said. “If you can, wear rubber gloves when handling the decoy. After it is in position, spray it down liberally.”
The more visible and the greater distance at which the decoy is visible, the more effective it will be. “The farther away a deer is when it first sees a decoy, the better the odds it will commit to the decoy,” Clancy said, adding, “Decoys in heavy cover scare more deer than they attract.” Field edges, dry creek bottoms, sloughs and fence lines are great decoy spots, as are open stands of mature woods. In fields, place the decoy 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 enter the area.
Best Time for Decoy Use
Though I’ve used decoys at various times of the season, like Clancy, 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 does’ first estrus. During this time, bucks are actively scraping and roaming, and they seem to respond to both grunting and rattling, which is a very effective way to draw a buck’s attention to a decoy it might otherwise not see. During the peak of the rut, when most of the 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 between does might also commit, but everything has to be “just right.”
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. I also like using decoys in the afternoons, especially if I can set up in the corner of a field I know does are regularly using. This sometimes means I might hunt a stand in a funnel or known travel corridor between food and bedding areas from sunup until early afternoon, when I might then move my stand location to be near a food plot or other agriculture area.
Setting It Up
One of the problems with using some of today’s full-body decoys is hauling them into your hunting area quietly in the dark, then setting them up without sounding like a marching band, for a morning hunt. This is especially true for big decoys that have to be assembled before they’re set up. There are a couple ways to help alleviate this problem.
The first is to simply bring the decoy to the hunt area midday, assemble it, drive the stakes into the ground and leave the decoy lying on the ground nearby. When I leave mine in the woods, I carry them a little way from the stand and stash them in a blowdown, brush pile or small depression. (If it is cold enough for frost, be sure to cover the decoys with an old sheet, a burlap sack or brush—I tried plastic tarps, but they’re just too noisy—because a decoy glistening with frost in the morning will spook deer.) When you go back to your stand or blind for that afternoon’s hunt, simply uncover it and set it up quietly before climbing into your stand.
The second strategy is to haul the assembled decoy to your stand sight on the kind of wheeled carrier designed to haul out a dead deer. I’ve also used a wheelbarrow. In the right terrain, you can do this quietly.
Once I get the decoy set up, I 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, I take a small stick, jab it into the ground underneath the deer’s belly, and place a scent wick on the stick. When using a buck decoy, I use both a rutting buck and a doe estrous scent on separate wicks.
Using more than one decoy can be a major hassle, especially if you are hunting solo, but there are times when adding a doe decoy to your buck can make a big difference. When I do this, I generally like to place the buck where it is most visible to cruising deer and where I want to make the shot, then I place a doe decoy off to the side. Ideally, this is on the edge of the woods if I’m on a field, partially hidden by some flora or a bump in the landscape. One killer set-up is using a rutting buck standing near a bedded doe decoy.
Add Some Motion
All game animals, from ducks to turkeys to deer, are more readily drawn to a decoy that exhibits some motion. In the old days, I used a number of things to try to impart movement to my deer decoys, including toilet paper, strips cut from a white garbage bag and fluffy white cloth strips hanging from the ears and tail of my full-bodied decoys.
Today, of course, there are decoys with built-in motion. Some of it is conveyed simply, with parts that flap and sway in the breeze. Others have electronic motors that allow the tail and neck to move on command from a hand-held control; they are not legal in all states, so check your local regulations before using one. There are even heads and tails that can be moved with a string pulled by the hunter.
One thing I do today is take a real deer’s tail—one that I cut off last year’s deer, skinned and fleshed out and cured with salt and Borax—and attach it to the decoy’s butt end with a small nail. That tail wiggling in a breeze really seems to get them going! Adding motion adds realism, and that translates into more effectiveness.
Speaking of Realism …
The more realistic the decoy is in terms of how closely it resembles a real deer, the better it will work. Top decoy manufacturers today include Come Alive Decoy Products, Dave Smith Decoys, Flambeau, Montana Decoys, Primos, Rinehart, and Renzo’s. Don’t forget that sound is part of the act. When using decoys, I also do some calling, everything from rattling to using grunts and bleats. How aggressively I call depends on my feel for how the deer are acting on a given day. Some days I’ll be boisterously loud, others soft and alluring. The one time I’ll always call boisterously is if I see a buck cruising out of range that obviously isn’t coming my way. If I’m loud enough and get him to stop and look my way to see the decoy, then I’ve got a chance.
When decoying works, it’s like calling in a big bull elk or a strutting tom turkey: The excitement is unparalleled. But it doesn’t always work, and sometimes it can scare off deer. Which is why I love it and hate it, all at the same time. But I still do it. A lot.