Decoy Do's and Dont's

By Jordan HowellOctober 21, 20123 Comments

LAST UPDATED: May 1st, 2015

Scenario Number One
It’s November 5th. You are perched in your favorite stand on the edge of a field as daylight begins to wash over the landscape.  A light fog hangs in the low lying areas all around you. Just as it is getting light enough to see, you notice a deer walking the opposite field edge.  You throw up the binoculars and see a tall white rack with lots of points; easily the biggest buck you’ve ever seen.  So, you grab your grunt call and let out a loud “uurrrppp”.  The buck turns and looks towards you; intrigued by the noise.

He stares for a few seconds trying to pinpoint the source then turns and begins walking away from you. The rattling horns come out next. You bang them together and when the deer stops you let out the loudest, nastiest snort-wheeze you can muster. He stands there, locked in on your direction. You think to yourself “He’s gotta come in now….there’s no way he can resist all that.”  But, to your dismay he carries on, walking away and disappears into the timber. 


When it all comes together, hunting over a decoy can be an experience unlike any other!

Have you ever had something like that happen to you?  Having a big buck hang up out of range is very frustrating.  Are these deer just spooked from a previous experience and thus exceptionally wary? Is there any tricks a hunter may be able to use to bring in a wary buck close enough for a shot? Well, consider this…..

Scenario Number Two
It’s the same day, same conditions, same deer. The only difference is this time when you grunt at him he turns his head and spies the decoy you placed only 25 yards from your stand.  Thinking it was the buck who just challenged him with a grunt, the big buck begins making a beeline for your stand. He cautiously stops a couple of times and appears to hang up, but each time a short grunt from your call convinces him the buck is real. 

As the buck approaches, his hair seems to stand on end, and he begins walking very stiff legged.  His ears pin back as he nears the decoy, and he circles around to challenge this new “intruder” buck.  He stops for a brief moment, and then its all over. Your arrow zips behind his shoulder, and moments later… are kneeling beside the biggest buck of your life.

Game Changer
The two scenarios are identical in every aspect except for one thing.  The buck in scenario 1 heard the call, but did not see the deer that made it.  Since he was out cruising for does, he doesn’t have time to go search for a subordinate buck he can’t see. In scenario 2 however, when the deer heard the grunt and turned his head to look he was given visual confirmation of what he just heard.  He could see (in his mind) the deer that just grunted.  His ears and eyes both agreed that there was an intruder buck in his territory, so he had no choice but to investigate.  The strategic placement of the decoy made the difference in killing the deer and having it slip slipping away.

Decoys are a subject that I am personally very passionate about.  Using decoys is an aspect of hunting that is often overlooked, and in my opinion, not utilized nearly enough.  Some have used decoys without much success and given up on them; thinking they are not worth the hassle of carrying in and out of the field.  However, decoys are like any other tactic bowhunters use.  Its takes knowledge and practice to use them effectively.  There are times when a decoy may be the only way to get a big buck within range. Other times using one may actually hurt your chances of success.  So, we are going to take an in depth look and the do’s and don’ts of using a decoy for bowhunting.


A decoy can help draw in even the cagiest bucks.

The DO’S
First of all, to be successful with a decoy, you have to use one. So finding a decoy that is right for your situation is the first step.  Many companies offer quality decoys.  When I search for a decoy that will be effective, there are several things that I look for.  First, I want to portray a subordinate buck; one that will not intimidate bucks passing by, but rather peak their curiosity or even enrage them. For this reason I tend to shy away from the really big bodied decoys.  Some giant bucks have very non-aggressive personalities which, for many, allows them to become live longer.  However, a small, subordinate buck with the nerve to challenge a mature buck is something not many bucks will just shake off. 

I also want one that I can take off the antlers easily and move the ears, so that I can use it as both an aggressive buck or a submissive doe. I really like the ones by Carrylite. I have had a buck completely destroy one of them…twice! Even though most decoys come with a bag to carry them into the field, I prefer to assemble them at home or at the truck and carry them in fully assembled.  This makes setup much quieter and quicker.  In fact in most areas where I know I will be using the decoy multiple times, I will lay the decoy down close to my stand when I’m done hunting and cover it with brush to hide it. That way I don’t have to carry it in every time. 

If you have a long hike in or are hunting “run and gun” style, this doesn’t mean that decoys are out of the picture.  Companies like Montana Decoy make some really nice silhouette decoys.  These are color images of a deer printed on both sides of a plastic cutout of the deer.  They fold down and are very packable.  I have had success using them in a pinch in the past as well.

Decoys will produce the best results when used  at precisely the right time, and in the right fashion.  For example, I like to leave the decoy at home until about October 20th.  Bucks are generally not that interested in either does or other bucks until at least this time.  When I do decide to start using it, I pick how I will do so according to where I will be hunting.  What works in one area may not in another. 

For instance, in most areas I hunt, a buck decoy works best.  However, on one particular farm I used a buck decoy extensively last season and had very little success.  I realized that this particular property has a tremendous amount of does.  So the bucks do not feel very threatened by other bucks.  So I switched the decoy to a doe. I positioned it with ears perked up and tail raised like she was ready to be bred. The very first evening I used the doe decoy, A 1 ½ year old forkhorn  ran straight up to it and mounted it, only to be ran off by a gorgeous 120 class  2 ½ year old 8 point.  A simple change hade made a huge difference. 

In general, I will use a buck decoy in an aggressive posture. That is, ears pinned back and tail tucked low.  This position will grab the attention of any aggressive buck.  When positioning decoys, I always place a buck decoy quartering towards my stand at a distance of  25 to 30 yards.  This is because most of the time a buck will circle to the head of a buck to challenge him, thus ending up facing away from me at 20-25 yards, allowing me to draw my bow undetected. 
The opposite is true for a doe decoy.  I place her quartering away from me, as a buck will usually walk straight in to the tail end. This setup allows me the greatest chance of getting a shot at a deer that comes in to determine whether or not she is in estrus.


Putting decoys where they can be seen from a distance will increase your chances for success.

Hunters who have not had success using decoys in my opinion are usually doing something wrong.  I have used decoys in the South as well as the Midwest, and had equal success in both areas.  The most common mistake I think is when the decoy is placed where the deer cannot see it until they are close to it.  If the deer cannot see  the decoy from a long distance away, it will likely startle the deer if it suddenly walks up on the decoy.  For this reason I always place my decoys in open areas like fields, pastures, or larger food plots, and avoid putting them in thick areas like inside the timber or fields with tall grass like CRP.  I want to be able to pull bucks in closer that are cruising by just out of range. To do that, they need to be able to see the decoy long before they are in range of it, otherwise it will catch them off guard and they will likely spook. 

Also,  never put out a decoy without making sure you keep it as scent free as possible. Scent will linger on a plastic decoy for a long time.  So, scents from your hunting shed, basement, etc. as well as your human scent from carrying and setting up the decoy, all need to be kept to a minimum.  When storing decoys,  keep them as far away from items  that will create scent as possible.  It is also a good idea to air them outside for a week or more before using them.  When carrying a decoy, try not to let it brush up against you too much and always wear gloves when handling it.  The last thing you want is for a buck to walk up to your decoy and get a good whiff of human scent.  I also like to spray down the decoy with scent elimination spray such as Tink’s Btech to help contain odors in the field.


When a decoy is placed perfectly, the results can be explosive!

Additional Tips and Tricks 
There are a few things that can up the ante even more; increasing your odds of success while using a decoy.  One of these is appealing to an additional buck sense……smell.  Sure, he has already heard your grunt and saw the decoy, but if you really want to “reel him in” your decoy needs to smell like the real thing as well. 

I will sometimes place a Scent Bomb filled with Tink’s Dominant buck urine on a buck decoy.  In addition, for a doe decoy I will often use Tink’s #69 estrous.  This simply serves as extra verification to a buck that the decoy is a real deer.  Another tactic  I like to use, is what I refer to as the One-Two punch. 

Essentially, I put out two decoys….one buck and one doe, in a breeding scenario. It is the ultimate attraction for a buck.  If I can, I will even take the legs off the doe decoy to make her appear bedded and then have the buck decoy standing guard over her; just like a mature buck will do when he is locked down with a doe.  This combination is lethal because it tells other bucks that this doe is in estrous right now.  They will almost always come in to see if they can steal the doe away.


Using both a buck and a doe decoy can be a deadly combination.

Of course we must remember that no tactic is set in stone, and nothing works 100% of the time.  But when executed correctly, decoys are a deadly weapon in the bowhunters arsenal.  If you have not tried it, get out there and do so.  Nothing compares to having a buck come in and charge your decoy!  If you have tried in the past with little success, don’t give up.  Putting a decoy in the right place at the right time can produce some incredible results. Best of luck!!

Jordan Howell
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