Fake Out: Decoying Tactics for Rutting Whitetails

By Noel Gandy

Counterfeit, fraud, hoax, phony: all are words that may be used to describe the art of decoying mature whitetail bucks into archery range. If one can effectively trick the senses of a whitetail buck by using decoying tactics then the odds of having an archery chip shot increase dramatically. Not to mention, decoying whitetail bucks can occasionally provide the proverbial fireworks display as a rutted-up bruiser destroys his plastic challenger.

Let’s talk set-up! In doing so, let’s discuss three of the five major senses that a whitetail possesses that need to be deceived in order to successfully decoy a buck into range.

The Eyes
It’s safe to assume that the eyes and the nose of a deer are his two most powerful senses. It can even be argued that one is not more important than the other. However, for the sake of this article, let’s assume that the eyes are the first thing that we need to worry about. After all, we are using a “visual aid” in the form of a decoy.

A decoy is only useful if it is seen. Therefore, field edges and very open portions of timber are likely the best places to begin when thinking of decoying. Open timber is recommended only if the decoy can be seen from a distance. Experience leads me to believe that if a deer is startled by suddenly seeing a decoy then the outcome is not generally favorable and will likely spook your game. Therefore, placing your version of a fake deer in an open area to be seen from a distance is a great jumping off point.

Next, as it pertains to the visual element of a deer decoy set, let’s consider the type of decoy to use. Some say use a buck, some say use a doe, and some say use a buck and doe together. I say: yes! I firmly believe there is a time and a place to use any number of decoy spreads as the deer in your area go through the different phases of the Fall and Winter. Understanding the timing of the rut in your area should help you decide on which set to use.

Let’s work our way through different scenarios.

Suppose it’s late October and you’ve noticed some rutting activity as you’ve been in the field. Mature bucks have likely already asserted themselves as dominant specimen within the herd and the pecking order has been established. As the excitement toward breeding ramps up, some bucks will feel the need to continue establishing dominance in order to win the first hot doe of the season. In this scenario, a lone buck decoy can work wonders if it is used along with some calling such as rattling and grunting.

As an extra bonus, use a buck with one antler. In an article written for Realtree Outdoors many years ago, Bernie Barringer suggests, “A buck approaching this decoy moves towards his weakness- the side without the antler- which is a big advantage that causes the buck to turn broad sided for a shot.” He noted that with 20 years of experience using this technique he could confirm it worked more times than not for buck positioning.

While we’re discussing the set-up, let’s discuss the distance from your stand/blind to use in positioning your decoy. Many would suggest placing a decoy at the 20-25 yard range from your set. This would give you a chip shot bow shot if the buck confronts the imposter. Most would even go so far to say position the head of the buck decoy quartering to your position so that a challenger would have to circle and offer a broadsided shot as he met the decoy head on. None of these suggestions would get you laughed away from the campfire if you were sharing them with your buddies. However, as my daddy likes to say, “There’s more than one way to skin a cat!”

Good friend Jeff Danker with Buckventures Outdoors recently explained his buck decoy set-up to me and I found it contradictory to everything I’d ever known about decoying. He stated, “I put that decoy 5-7 yards from the base of my tree. This does two things: it helps me leave less ground scent (more on this later) and it keeps a buck from hanging up at 50 yards if he’s spooked by the decoy. I’d much rather him hang up at 30-35 yards. I’m still in the game that way. Also, I don’t believe in quartering the deer to me. I quarter him away from me because almost every buck I’ve decoyed in always approaches the decoy from the rear as he tries to get his scent. It’s not till the last second that they turn their heads to fight. Every fight I’ve ever seen has been this way. They approach from the rear and, like rams, turn heads at the last second to fight. So, if a buck is approaching my decoy from the rear then I can get a quartering away shot on him if the decoy’s quartering away. If this doesn’t work, then he’s only 5-7 yards and I can figure something else out in the meantime. Also, go ahead and use a pretty good rack if you’re trying to kill a big buck. A giant isn’t going to try to fight a dink because he knows he doesn’t have to. Why would a college kid try to fight an elementary student? This keeps dinks from trying to knock my decoy over and I have to go set it up and it also encourages the big guys to fight. Deer all have a personality. You just have to put that decoy in front of the right buck that likes to fight!”

Now, suppose you’re into the middle part of November. Maybe it’s time to try the buck decoy standing over a laying doe. We all dread lockdown. This is the time that mature bucks cut does away from the herd and stay with them until they are at peak estrous and ready to breed. If you’ve ever had the chance to witness a buck with a doe during this phase then you will agree that other bucks can be tenacious in attempting to “steal away” the doe. Big bucks will meet apparent rivals who are approaching. Your goal with this setup would be to intercept one of these rivals as they attempt to come and steal your bedded doe decoy from your buck decoy.

This setup works best in close range as well. If you can use a field edge, use a field edge. Place the bedded doe half-in and half-out of the field bedded looking toward supposed deer traffic. Have a buck decoy, preferably a subordinate, 10-15 yards away looking on. If a challenger arises, he will likely try to cut the distance between the two and you’ll be there to capitalize.

Finally, the lone doe. Admittedly, I’ve never used this setup personally. However, from research and campfire chatter, I hear it works best in the late season after rutting activity has begun to wane. Imagine a weary buck that has experienced a long rut. Imagine that he’s almost out of the notion to breed, but alas, there stands a lone doe. Maybe he has enough gusto left to give it one more shot and approach the female counterpart.

This tactic should be presented with a word of caution as with all decoying setups. Often times, does are not as fond of decoys as bucks. Inherently, bucks will be a little more curious during the rut because their minds are on one thing: breeding. Proceed using a decoy with the mindset that you may upset some deer with its’ use. Be prepared to weigh the options and decide if the risk is worth the reward.

Next, let’s talk about the nose.

The Nose
As we consider using a decoy you need to consider his other major weapon: his nose. Two different scent measures need to be factored into a decoy spread. These factors are human scent and deer scent.

There is no telling how many deer that are never seen by a hunter because they have already been alerted to danger in the area due to human scent. When placing decoys, be sure they are upwind so an approaching shooter doesn’t smell you after he sees the spread. Naturally, a deer will try to circle to the downwind side in order to catch the scent of the deer he’s checking out. Using structure to discourage circling downwind too far is key here. Set the spread up near a fence and set up just on the other side of the fence when possible. The deer might be less likely to jump a fence to get the scent. Or, perhaps try setting up the decoy spread near a blown down tree top on the field edge while you lay in wait just on the other side. This could also discourage a buck from making a wide loop around and thus getting your human scent. While these scenarios are not always possible it should be noted that when you can discourage “looping downwind” naturally you should try.

I tend to agree with my friend Jeff in regard to setting the decoy spread closer to your stand site than farther. The less ground scent you lay while placing the decoy spread the better. Also, the less human scent that is left on the decoy itself the better. When possible, use latex or rubber gloves to handle your decoy. Always leave it outside for a few days before deploying it to get rid of some plastic odor that could be attached. Spray scent killer liberally onto the surface of the decoy. All of these things help make sure that the deer doesn’t smell you before he sees you.

As for using deer scent with a decoy: go for it. I would hesitate to advise placing a scent directly onto the decoy because after a while they break down chemically and can leave it smelling very unnatural. Consider placing a scent wick at the base of the leg or attach it to a fake tail that can be removed or clean. Again, as with anything, be prepared for some deer to not care for the setup whether due to sight or scent.

Finally, let’s consider the ears of a deer.

Decoying can be another weapon in your arsenal for visual reasons but sometimes the deer need to be encouraged to look your decoy’s way. This is when deer calling can work wonders when paired with a well-placed decoy. Sometimes, calling won’t work because the bucks can’t see what’s making the noise. That little visual effect could be all that’s needed to trip his trigger.

I’d be remiss, however, if while talking about the hearing of a deer I failed to mention the realism factor when it comes to a decoy. First, if it doesn’t look much like a deer to a human then it probably won’t look too good to a deer either. Realism in the appearance of a deer is important but so is the sound. If your deer decoy has a bobble head that clanks and bangs it will probably scare a buck away rather than attract him. If the wind is rattling your setup every time it blows because it wasn’t staked down very well then you’re probably in for more heartache than joy. Be sure that your decoy is secured and there are no extra non-deer sounds being emitted. It might trick a love-struck buck that has nothing else on his mind, but it does you no good if that cranky old doe blows everything out of the woods beforehand.

As with all things, safety must be considered when deploying something that takes on the appearance of a deer. Not all hunters are ethical and not all hunters take time to identify their target well before shooting. When transporting your decoy to the field it is recommended to have some form of hunter’s orange attached. When you set your spread it’s not a bad idea to hide it from a roadway where it can’t be seen by a passersby. Not only will hiding the spread keep vehicles from slowing down to take a peep and potentially ruin your hunt, but it will keep those who are without ethics from firing into your flock. Stay safe!

Decoying can be a very useful tool in the belt of a hunter in the Iowa deer field. There is certainly a high-risk factor but the reward can be unreal as well! If all goes to plan you can pick up the pieces to your destroyed decoy soon after you pick up the trophy that was harvested over the spread!