PUT A WHITETAIL DECOY beneath your bow stand and one of two things is apt to happen: A buck that spots your fake will walk stiff-legged right into range, looking for a fight. Or he’ll turn himself inside out trying to get away. The difference often lies in your setup. Below, a pair of deer-decoying experts explain exactly how to stage the sham in two types of habitat.
Quaker Boy field expert Ernie Calandrelli has been using decoys in Midwest farm country since the fakes were introduced. “Where I hunt in Iowa and Missouri, the next buck I see could be a world record,” he says. “So I work hard to get my setup just right.”
RUT PHASE: Pre-rut
TIME OF DAY: Late afternoon
WHERE: Cropfield edge
DECOY TO USE: Standing subordinate buck
THE SETUP: Most hunters blow it by failing to observe precisely where deer enter and leave cropfields. Spend an evening or two glassing the opening to learn this. At midday, put your stand downwind of the approach trail, just inside the woods. If the wind isn’t perfect, don’t hunt the stand. On these afternoon ambushes, deer will be entering the crops from the woods.
Field-edge rubs and scrapes confirm that the rut is imminent and the timing is right for this tactic. Mature bucks, establishing their place in the hierarchy, pay more attention to other bucks nearby than to does. They’re eager to put subordinates, like your decoy, in their place. Stake your fake in the field, within bow range, preferably in a spot visible to deer coming from unexpected directions. Bucks may trot clear across a 1- or 2-acre field to check out the competition. Expect real bucks to challenge an antlered decoy from the front, and angle your deke to set up a broadside or quartering-away shot.
John Kelley, a 35-year Pennsylvania bowhunting veteran, doesn’t have farm fields nearby where he can hunt over decoys. But it can still be a killer tactic, says Kelley, if you scout out a hotspot. “Find the hard mast deer are using and set up right there.”
RUT PHASE: Early season through pre-rut
TIME OF DAY: Early morning, late afternoon
WHERE: White oak or beech flats
DECOY TO USE: Feeding buck, bedded doe
THE SETUP: In hill country, oak or beech flats are prime early-season feeding areas and decoying locations. Whitetails seem to prefer certain ridges, flats, and even individual trees. Scout for tracks, droppings, and bits of chewed mast to determine exactly where they’re feeding the most right before you hunt. Game trails tend to be less noticeable in this terrain, but they do exist. You must identify the most frequently traveled routes to the flat. Ideally, trails will enter on each end, letting you set up two stands (such as Stand 1 and Stand 2, at left) to compensate for the changing winds so common to hill country.
Comparatively low deer densities here mean both bucks and does approach dekes for socialization as much as for sorting out a pecking order. Set your feeding buck within 30 yards of your stand; the bedded doe, slightly closer. Use social grunts and bleats, plus light antler rattling, to bring a buck within sight of your fakes. They will bring him the rest of the way.