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Decoying Deer

A Deer Hunting Article

Written by T.R. Michels


Deer decoys have been around in some form for a long time. There is evidence that Indians used hides to cover themselves to avoid detection and attract deer at the same time. In modern days deer silhouettes have been used for many years. Hunters successfully use full mounted deer, archery targets, fiberglass, plastic and collapsible foam decoys. Because I guide and carry a lot of gear any product must meet certain requirements. It must work, be lightweight, compact and portable.

I first got the idea for a collapsible deer decoy when I saw a hunter promoting the use of a full mounted bedded doe decoy at the Minnesota deer Classic in the early 1990's. He said he'd been using the decoy for about a year, and had good success luring bucks in to it during the archery season. While I thought the idea was good I foresaw a few problems with it. A full mounted deer would be hard to get to many of the places I hunted, which was in the bluff and coulee country along the Mississippi River. It would be to heavy, to bulky and too noisy to carry any farther than a few yards. And most of the places I hunted I had to walk more than a quarter mile to get to. What I needed was a lightweight compact decoy, one that could be carried in a backpack or over my shoulder.

Since I had already come up with the idea for a full bodied goose decoy for Feather Flex, I called them and told them I wanted them to take a deer taxidermy form, make a mold out of it, and use the cross-linked foam they used on their turkey and goose decoy to make a bedded deer decoy. I told them I'd also like to see detachable antlers on it, so it could be used as either a buck or a doe. And if they changed the color and pattern of the decoy they could use it as a mule deer, elk calf and a pronghorn. Although it was a bedded decoy it easily made up for lack its lack of high profile in its portability and ease of use. What good is a decoy if you can't get it there?

Six months after I came up with the idea I received three of the first decoys, so that I could field test them. After using the decoys for a year, I learned when, where and how to use them. During my research I encountered a couple of areas where the decoy should not be used. I placed it directly on a deer trail, where deer would not normally bed. A six point buck that came to a grunt call really checked out the doe decoy. He stayed within fifteen yards of the decoy for ten minutes. I could have easily taken him several times as he walked around the area. But he never came closer than ten yards. He came closest when he smelled the doe scent from downwind, but was reluctant to come closer because the decoy was in an unnatural area. For best results put a bedded decoy in areas where a deer might normally lie down. Standing decoys can be used on or near trails.

I also placed the decoy just off the trail, near a scrape, in a bottleneck leading to feeding area. The first deer to see it was a doe with two fawns. When I first saw her I grunted to get her attention. She looked up, spotted the decoy, stared, then slowly fed toward the decoy. It took her fifteen minutes to cover twenty yards, all the while stopping to look at the decoy. I was on the ground, not ten yards from the decoy, when a big bodied, 140 class 8 point buck came up behind me. Before I heard him he was within ten yards of the decoy and staring. Then I heard more movement and five does and fawns moved up behind the buck. They all looked at the decoy then moved around it before approaching the doe with her fawns coming from the other direction. Then they ran through the bottleneck avoiding the other doe.

It was obvious the five does and fawns had avoided the bedded decoy and wanted to go through the bottleneck but were reluctant while the other doe and her fawns were on the trail. They were passing through the home range of the first doe, which was one of the dominants in the area and she had priority. They avoided the decoy because they couldn't identify it but they were not alarmed and approached within ten yards of the decoy.

Does were not as curious as bucks and seldom came closer than ten yards. The decoy did not threaten them but did not arouse any dominance or breeding activity as it did in bucks. Eventually all these deer passed within ten yards of the decoy, none came close. But most of them stopped long enough and close enough that I could have taken every one of them. Although the does showed little interest other than curiosity the buck stood long enough to get a good whiff of the estrus scent. Because he was with an estrus doe he decided to attend to the business at hand. I watched later as he drove the fawns away and began chasing the doe.

When the decoy was placed in other areas bucks would come up and kick the decoy to initiate breeding. On one video the buck actually rolled a decoy with small antlers twenty yards. But even if these "close encounters" didn't happen it wouldn't have mattered. The decoy brought deer close enough to shoot, positioned them for a clear shot, and stopped them long enough to get a shot. At the same time it distracted their attention from my position so that I could easily raise my gun or bow and shoot.

Many of the hunters I talk to at my seminars have reservations and questions about the use of deer decoys. Their questions include: Are they legal? Do they work? Where do you put them? When can you use them? When should you use them?

Are They Legal
As far as I know decoys are legal everywhere. There was been talk of regulating them in some states, but I don't know of any state where they have been banned. I think one of the major concerns has been safety, and that can be addressed by hanging a red cloth or orange flagging near the decoy. Do they work? The answer to that question is an unequivocal "sometimes." When used in the right area, at the right time, and precautions taken that no unnatural sight, scent or sound is associated with the decoy they can be very effective.

Why Decoys Do and Don't Work
Deer respond to calls, scents, rattling and decoys, and may come into range, because they were going in that direction anyhow; they were attracted by a sight, scent or sound; or they were just plain curious. When deer respond to scents, calls or rattling, but hang up out of shooting range it's often because they don't see another deer. In order to survive the deer have to rely on their senses. To attract deer you have to convince them that one of their own kind is where you want them to be by using the "3 S's", Sight, Scent and Sound. The addition of a decoy to calls, rattling and scents completes the total illusion of a real animal in the area. The reasons deer don't respond to decoys or come into range are: they smell, hear or see something that is not natural, they don't want to go to the area where the hunter is, they hear or smell another deer but don't see it. When you use a decoy be sure to keep the decoy free of any unnatural odors, use products to reduce all unnatural odors on you and your clothing, and wear rubber gloves and boots when you setup you decoy, so you do not contaminate the area. If a wary buck is traveling through the area where you hunt, and hears your grunt call or rattling, smells your deer scent, and is in the mood - it may come in to investigate. But, if it doesn't see another deer it may not come into range. If it comes to the decoy just because it is curious and wants to find out what this new "thing" is it may present a closer shot than if you were not using a decoy. And that is why you use any product that attracts deer, to get the animal into range, no matter what the reason.

Play the Wind
As with anything else in deer hunting you should always play the wind. I've found that bucks often respond to scents, calls and rattling by trying to come in from down wind - if they can. The same can be said for decoys, bucks often want to scent check a decoy before they come in to it. For this reason be sure you set up in an area where the buck can approach the decoy without scenting your from directly downwind. I like to set up where, if the buck wants to come in downwind, it has only one way that offers cover, and because I am right handed I like the cover (or the route the buck is most likely to use) to be on my left side.

Where and How to use Decoys
Decoys work best in high use areas where deer are seen on a regular basis. If you hunt bucks then the decoy should be placed along buck travel routes, in bottlenecks, in staging areas near food sources or near the dominance areas of rubs and scrapes bucks frequent on a regular basis. The decoy also needs to be within the hunters shooting distance, in a shooting lane and preferably not in a line from the deer to the hunter. When it is placed away from your stand site the decoy can actually distract the deer's attention from you, giving you the opportunity to move and shoot.

I've found that mature bucks often "hang up" on the far side of the decoy, often out of range. But, if I place a decoy 10-15 yards slightly behind my shooting position, and the buck dos hang up a few yards from the decoy, they are still in range. Since I am right handed I prefer to place a decoy off to my left side, because it is easier for me to shoot in front and to the left than it is to the extreme right. I also like to place the decoy either directly to my left of slightly behind me on my left side.

When to use Decoys
When do you use decoys? Decoys can be used any time of the year. Both bucks and does may respond to any new deer in their area by out of curiosity, often wanting to get within a few yards of a new deer or decoy on the downwind side - so they can scent check it. Any deer may respond to a decoy at dawn and dusk along travel lanes, in bottlenecks and near feeding areas, simply because that's where the deer are at those times of the day, and that is when they are most active. Bucks may respond to decoys anytime during the day between the time peak scraping begins until the end of the primary breeding phase, because they are often active all day long during those phases. They may be active all day long again during the late breeding phase.

Which Rut Phases
Bucks respond well to doe decoys during most phases of the rut, especially when the decoy is used in conjunction with calls, scents and rattling, because bucks are interested in breeding as long as they have hard antlers. Bucks of all ages respond best to buck decoys with small antlers during the pre-rut/rubbing phase, dispersal/fall home range shift phase, early breeding/scraping phase and primary breeding phase, because they want to know what other bucks are in their areas. If you want to know when these rut phases occur in your area log on to the Trinity Mountain Outdoors web site at and log on to the Whitetail rut Dates Chart.

Positioning Buck and Do Decoys
You may be able to position a buck for a shot, because bucks often approach other bucks and does differently. Since bucks often approach does from the side or rear, to check the doe for breeding readiness, you should place a doe decoy with its rump toward you or facing to your right or left. This should present you with a side shot of the buck when it approaches the doe decoy. Because bucks often approach other bucks cautiously from the front, you should place a buck decoy with its head toward you or facing to your right or left. This should present you with a side shot of the buck as it moves toward the front of the buck decoy. You should not place the decoy in a direct line between you and where you expect the deer to come from, because the deer may see you as they come in. Place the decoy off to one side of your stand to distract the deer's attention from your position.

Large or Small Antlers
If you are interested in bucks with any size antlers you should not use decoys with large antlers, because large antlers may keep younger or small racked bucks from responding. Conversely, if you want to attract only older, large racked bucks you may want to use decoys with large racks, so the decoy won't attract younger bucks.

You can increase the visibility of the decoy by placing it in open areas or on a log or bush. I use it because it can be rolled up and transported in a daypack or under my arm and easily carried a couple of miles into my hunting site. You can also use one of the standing full bodied or silhouette decoys offered by such companies as Delta Decoys, Flambeau, Carrylite etc. You can also use full body and bedded decoys at the same time.

T.R.'s Tips: Decoying Deer

  1. For safety use a decoy with blaze orange, hang fluorescent tape nearby, or hunt from an elevated stand.
  2. Don't get human or unnatural scent on the decoy. Use gloves when carrying and positioning the decoy, then spray it with cover-up scent.
  3. Place the decoy in a high use area: near trails, rubs, scrapes, bedding, staging or feeding areas with nearby cover.
  4. Don't place bedded decoys directly on trails. Deer don't usually bed on trails.
  5. Place decoys upwind of where you expect the deer to appear. Bucks like to approach downwind from cover if they can.
  6. Place decoys within your personal shooting distance in a clear shooting lane.
  7. Place a doe decoy with its rump toward you. Bucks often approach does from the rear or side, presenting you with a shot.
  8. Place a buck decoy with its head toward you for a shot. Bucks generally approach another buck cautiously from the front.
  9. Don't place the decoy in a direct line between you and where you expect the deer to come from, the deer may see you. Place the decoy off to one side of your stand to distract the deer's attention from your position.
  10. To get the buck’s attention on the decoy, tape a small piece of white plastic to the tail area, so that it can blow in the wind, or use one of the new tail motion decoys.
  11. To keep the bucks attention focused on the decoy place a few drops of deer urine on it: doe in estrus for doe decoys, buck in rut for buck decoys.
  12. Use buck or doe scents, and calling or rattling to create the illusion of another deer in the area, and to initially attract bucks to the decoy.