Fundamentals of
Deer Hunting over a Decoy

Deer DecoyWhile a deer's sensory experience may be dominated by smell and hearing, they are highly visual creatures as well. If you want to attract deer to you, adding a decoy to your deer hunting tactics can provide an element of realism that can close the deal and bring animals within range. In this article, we'll cover the most important things you need to know about deer hunting over a decoy, including the pros and cons uf using decoys, choosing a deer decoy, when to use deer decoys, choosing a decoy location, and how to set up your decoys.

Decoys can be very effective for attracting deer to your position by providing the visual cue deer need to feel comfortable. Like other techniques, it's worth noting that decoys are no substitue for developing solid hunting skills or for putting in the necessary scouting time and other preparation. A decoy is not a shortcut to success. However, when used correctly, it can provide you with a definite edge.

Deer decoys are largely the domain of bowhunters (in fact, most experts recommend avoiding their use during gun seasons for safety reasons). For bowhunting, they offer some distinct advantages. In addition to their primary purpose of bringing the deer to you, decoys can also:

  • Take the deer's focus away from you, making it easier to draw your bow undetected

  • Allow you to position the deer at ideal shooting angles

  • Stop deer long enough to get a shot

At the same time, decoys do have some pretty significant drawbacks. First and foremost, they score low in the portability department. They add weight and bulk to your hunting gear and can be difficult to pack if you're walking any significant distance.

Second, they add complexity to your hunting experience. They can detract from a simple "lean and mean" approach, so it's important to ask yourself if they fit with your personal hunting style.

And third, they can attract unwanted attention from other hunters. If you're bowhunting in an area with lots of hunting pressure, they may not be the best choice. And using them during any firearm season can be borderline suicidal.

However, there are many situations where the pros of decoys far outweigh the cons, creating opportunities for success you may not get otherwise.

Choosing a Deer Decoy

There are two main types of deer decoys on the market today: 3D and 2D. 3D decoys, as their name implies, are three-dimensional, full body representations of deer. They are more realistic looking and effective than 2D decoys, and they're visible to deer from all sides. They usually come with detachable antlers, so they can double as buck or doe. However, they are heavy, bulky, and cumbersome to transport.

Then there are the 2D models, which, also as their name implies, are two-dimensional cutout silhouettes with photos of deer printed on them. They are lightweight and extremely portable, making them much simpler to pack and transport than their 3D couterparts. However, while they can get the job done as far as fooling the eyes of deer, they're generally not as convincing as 3D decoys. And, because they're flat, they're not effective when viewed by deer from the side or the back.

While out-of-the-box decoys will work just fine, there are a handful of small customizations you can do to increase their effectiveness. Here are three ways to pimp your decoy:

  • Add Movement - Probably the number one reason deer get suspicious of decoys is lack of movement. One simple technique to remedy this is to attach a thin strip of white plastic, a rag, or a feather to the ears and tail of your decoy. A slight breeze will make these items move, which can put the deer at ease.

  • Add Scent - Because a deer's dominant sense is its sense of smell, when a deer comes into your decoy, you can bet its top priority is going to be inspecting the decoy with its nose. You can help complete the illusion of a real deer by applying an attractant scent such as urine around the decoy. For more information on choosing the right scent, see our article on deer scents and lures.

  • Add Real Parts - This one is a bit more labor-intensive, but if you have the time and dedication, it can be a deadly addition. Try attaching real deer parts, such as a tanned deer hide, a mounted tail, or real antlers to your decoy (obviously, this is only applicaple to 3D decoys). These parts add an undeniably realistic look, increasing your chances of fooling those wary deer eyes.

It's important to keep your deer decoys free of human odor. Make sure you store them in a place where they will absorb the smallest amount of odor possible. Then, a few weeks or even a month or more before the start of deer hunting season, set them outside where the elements will help neutralize any remaining odors.

When to Use Deer Decoys

You can use deer decoys any time of the deer hunting season to great effect. However, you should expect different types of results when using them at different times. And, as you'll see below, there is one time of the year that is widely considered the "best" time for decoys.

  • Pre-Rut - During this phase of the season, deer are not yet focused on mating and typically stay in fairly predictable patterns. One workable technique here is to place a doe decoy in a feeding area. This can give the illusion that it's safe to start feeding, and it can potentially lure them out into the open earlier than usual.

  • Peak of the Rut - The two weeks leading up to the peak of the rut through one week after the peak is the real hot time to break out the decoys. Bucks are focused on sex, and you should expect to attract higher numbers of them now than any other time. Try starting with a single buck during this phase.

  • Post-Rut - Lower numbers of bucks will respond to your decoys during this phase, but it can be a great time if you're after a mature buck. Using a buck and doe combo can work wonders now.

Now that we've covered the different phases of the season to use decoys, the next question is: what time of day is best? The answer actually depends on which phase of the season you're hunting.

Outside of the rut, decoys are most likely to work near dawn and dusk because that's when the deer are most generally active when they're not breeding. During the rut, all bets are off, and bucks may respond to decoys at any time of the day because they are constantly on the move searching for does.

Choosing a Decoy Location

In general, because they are a visual attraction tactic, decoys work best in areas where deer can see long distances. They excel in farmland and other places where the landscape includes open expanses. They will also work in thicker areas like big woods. Just look for meadows or other open pockets in the woods where deer can see farther. Deer densities in deep woods tend to be lower, but deer that encounter a decoy are probably more likely to investigate it.

If you're using decoys during the rut to attract bucks, you'll tend to have more success in areas that have a low doe-to-buck ratio (the closer to 1-1, the better). As the doe-to-buck ratio climbs (say, 5-1 or greater), you'll start to see a decrease in the effectiveness of decoys.

Also, decoys tend to work better in areas with lower hunting pressure. That's not to say they won't work on heavily hunted land. But it may be harder to get results, and decoys have a tendency to attract undesirable attention from two-legged creatures as well as the four-legged ones you're after.

When it comes to selecting a specific spot in your hunting area to set up a decoy, there are a few important factors to consider:

  • Visibility - You want your decoy to be visible over a long distance -- the longer, the better.

  • Predictability - Set up where deer are already likely to go, such as heavily used travel routes or food source staging areas.

  • Activity - Areas with high levels of deer rut activity are ideal locations to set up. You'll have to rely on your scouting efforts to locate places with lots of rut sign, such as buck scrapes and rubs.

Setting Up Your Decoy

After you've chosen a good location to set up, now it' time to move on to the art of actually setting up your decoy. And it really is somewhat of an artform. The number of different decisions you're faced with can present you with almost infinite possibilities, and it's all too easy to get overwhelmed. To help you get started, here are some of the basic guidelines to follow:

  • Range - Make sure you set your decoy up at a distance from your ambush position that is within your comfortable maximum shooting range.

  • Wind - Your ambush position should always be either downwind or crosswind of your decoy.

  • Scent - Always wear rubber gloves when handling and setting up your decoy. When you're finished setting it up, spray it down with an odor-killing product.

  • Orientation - If you're using a buck decoy, set it up so it's facing toward you, quartering toward you, or broadside. If you're using a doe decoy, set it up so it's facing away from you, quartering away from you, or broadside.

Speaking of buck and doe decoys, which one should you use? In general, If you're hunting does, you'll want to use a doe decoy because does can be hesitant to approach a buck, and you don't want to scare them off with a buck decoy. You can also add realism by using use two does and have one looking at the other.

If you're hunting bucks, you have multiple options. Here are some ideas for decoy setups you can use:

  • one buck with antlers slightly smaller than your intended target

  • one buck with a single antler to simulate a broken antler

  • two bucks facing each other to simulate an aggresive encounter

  • one buck and one doe -- try having the doe bedded down with the buck standing above her

  • one buck and one doe -- another trick is to position the doe holding her tail straight away from her body

Be sure to remove your decoy(s) when you exit your hunting area. If left in place, deer can get used to decoys, reducing or eliminating their effectiveness. Also, stories abound of rut-crazed bucks attacking and demolishing innocent decoys.

Decoys are not for everyone. But if you decide they fit with your deer hunting style and you're willing to commit to using them, they can create a lot of action and opportunity. To take your decoying to the next level, try combining it with one or more of the other attraction tactics: calling, rattling, and scents and lures.

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