Deer Decoy Mistakes

By Ben Leal

As a hunter, I’m always looking out for ways to improve opportunities to fill my tags every year. I know that everyone reading this piece that has purchased a deer tag has had, at some point in their hunting career, tag soup. And, if you’re like me, more than one helping and in some cases it’s slow cooker tag stew because you have a couple years’ worth still in your backpack.

In recent years deploying deer decoys has become more and more popular with hunters. While these can and do help attract and bring in those big bucks and curious does, they also add an element of error, namely you the hunter. So what can we do to limit these “errors”, well I’m glad you asked because we’re going to answer, or at least attempt to answer that very question.

Let’s tackle one very obvious and important aspect of using any kind of decoy or attractant when it comes to deer hunting. I took some time to visit with an Iowa Department of Natural Resources conservation officer while visiting the State Fair this year. He referred me to the IDNR’s Hunting Regulations seasons which states the following:

A “decoy” is a likeness of a bird or animal used to lure game within shooting range. Decoys are prohibited on all game management areas from one hour after sunset until midnight of each day. Decoys are considered removed from an area if they are in a boat or other container at an approved access site.

You may not use dogs, domestic animals, bait, radios, handguns, rifles, and crossbows (except as described below), automobiles, aircraft, electronic calls or any mechanical conveyance or device to hunt deer.

I wanted to emphasize the mechanical conveyance part of what’s listed in the regulations since the conservation officer I spoke to did, in fact, mention that any kind of mechanical deer decoy is illegal to use. So here’s tip number one and a mistake that you can avoid…don’t use anything that has moving parts that might simulate a deer feeding or looking around.

You Bought the Decoy… Now What?
Ironically enough here is a true fact and or question. How many of you, whether you’re hunting or fishing or for that matter any outdoor activity, have gone out and purchased something that you knew you needed only to have it sit in its original container in the garage or storage shed unused. Yup, I’m right there with you. Every outdoors man or woman has done that. Some of you are actually trying to think of what you have in the garage that’s gone unused since last season aren’t you?

Take the time to set up and get familiar with your decoy as soon as you’re home. Most are easy to setup and with some practice can be done quickly. If you buy one, take it with you when you head out to hunt. There’s an old saying, better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it…an adage to live by. Not every situation you’ll find yourself in will be ideal for a decoy, but if you’ve done some practicing and can get things set up quickly, it could mean the difference between filling your tag or, having tag soup.

Invisible Decoy
That’s a decoy that can’t be seen by the quarry you’re after. A quick setup is great, but if the deer can’t see the decoy then you’ve wasted time and effort and in some cases can hurt rather than help the hunt. Public land can be especially hard since you may not have the luxury of going in and cutting some shooting lanes. If you’re limited to maybe one or two options, try setting up the decoy close to a natural trail where a buck that is investigating the decoy will walk into an open area offering you a shot. You also want to select a spot where the decoy can be seen at a greater distance, like the top of a ridge or edge of a field. A couple snorts of a call or rattling the antlers will garner great results if the buck you’re talking to can see the decoy. It’s also possible that the deer may see your decoy before you see him.

Odor – Good or Bad?
So let’s first talk about the bad odor and I’m pretty sure we can all take guess at what that is likely to be. Yes, it’s us, the human factor in the hunt for whitetail deer. The whitetail deer’s sense of smell will astound you!

Researchers at Mississippi State University found that a deer’s sense of smell, like a dog’s, can be anywhere from 500 to 1,000 times more acute than a human’s. Furthermore, scientists say that whitetails have thousands of sensitive receptors in their nostrils, which they use to sort out up to six smells at one time.
For more than 50 years Leonard Lee Rue III has observed, researched, photographed and written about deer. He has done more to educate the American public and hunters on the ways of the whitetail than anyone.

Rue observes that a day with high humidity (between 50 and 70 percent), temperature between 50 and 70 and with a light breeze makes for ideal scenting conditions for a buck.

“Under such conditions, I believe a deer could detect a human’s scent from at least one-half mile, or more,” he says. How do you defeat the whitetail’s awesome nose? You can’t. You can only stay in the game by playing the wind and practicing good scent control on every hunt.

When you’re handling and setting up your decoy make sure you’re wearing latex gloves and that your decoy has been stored in a scent-proof bag or container. Spray your decoy with scent killing product frequently.

Once you’ve mastered the human scent factor to some degree an effective means of attracting bucks are to add doe-in-heat urine to your decoy. Keep in mind that this kind of scent is specific to the rut and will be unnatural during other phases of the season. Place the attractant on the ground below the decoy or use a wick and hang it upwind of the decoy. The scent will bring those bucks in from greater distances. Combine the scent with a decoy and you may hit pay dirt!

Think about the Setup
This is where scouting and effective preparation will pay off. As we’ve noted before, placement is important but along with placement is where and when to set up. Determine when and where the deer are moving based on the season. If it’s the rut, finding active scrapes and rubs and setting up along those routes are effective. If you’re in search of does, maybe take time to figure out where bedding areas are and set up along an approach or for morning hunts where they might leave bedding areas to feed. Believe it or not, does are just as inquisitive as bucks are when it comes to decoys.

Though I was not hunting with a decoy I watched a doe and two yearlings walk a few hundred yards into my hunting area. The doe was sampling the air all the way in and the only thing I had was a wick soaked in doe-in-heat urine. Maybe she wanted to know who was in the neighborhood.

If you’re hunting for a specific buck, pre-planning the setup and attractant will go a long way in giving your best chance at success. You can’t simply walk in, throw out the decoy and “hope” that the big boy you’re after comes by. He didn’t get to that size and maturity by being overly curious but rather incredibly cautious.

Don’t Overdo it
Finally, don’t overdo it. It’s easy to get wrapped up in trying to attract and fooling the deer by using decoys, scents, and calls. But sometimes less is more. Remember that deer have an amazing sense of smell, they can hear a lot better than you and I can and they can see movement a lot better as well. Use doe bleats and grunts sparingly and you can sell your strategy to apprehensive bucks.

Take time to enjoy the resources we have here in Iowa and whether or not you have a deer walk up to the decoy and say howdy do, remember it’s not just about the hunt. Some of the best times are often those that don’t include a doe or a buck, but rather taking in the wonder of fall and the change of the season. Take someone hunting that’s never been; pay it forward and good hunting!