7 Secrets to Using Deer Decoys Effectively

By Judd Cooney

If decoys don’t work for you,
you probably haven’t tried these
deer hunting strategies!

The monstrous ten-point buck, moving silently up the well-used trail, caught the bowhunter completely by surprise. He stopped fifteen yards from the treestand, hair standing on end and ears laid back. His attention was riveted on the phony forky at the edge of the field twenty yards through the timber.

The bowhunter’s arrow slipped off the string and tumbled noisily through the branches to the ground, but the buck’s attention never wavered from the decoy. The second broadhead-tipped arrow slid through his ribcage, broke his concentration and sent him lunging across the open field on his final run.

Setting up a deer decoy

Always take care to set up your decoy in proper relation to your stand.
(Photo: Judd Cooney)

Deer decoys can be an extremely effective tool in bringing bucks within range. Several of the largest bucks killed on our Iowa hunting operation, including a monster scoring 198 2/8″, were taken as a direct result of the visual attraction of decoys to seduce trophy bucks within range. Decoys should be a part of every deer hunter’s equipment cache – but make sure you use them properly.

1. Sound, Scent and Sight

Sensory perceptions reinforce one another, so combining the sound effects of rattling and grunting with the olfactory attraction of deer scents, plus the sight attraction of one or more deer decoys, can be the difference between success and failure.

Adding scent to your decoy setup in the form of urine, buck lure or smoke scent sticks will give it another dimension and make it even more effective. The more of a skittish trophy buck’s senses you can overwhelm with your setup, the better your chances of luring it within range.

2. Positioning the Dekes

Deer facing off with a deer decoy

A buck will come in facing a buck decoy. He will approach a doe decoy
from the rear. (Photo: Judd Cooney)

I utilize both buck and doe decoys and will often use a small buck and doe at the same time, especially during the peak of the rut. My favorite setup is a buck decoy in the open to maximize visibility, with a doe and/or fawn decoy set broadside to the field at the edge of cover.

I often use the Feather Flex soft foam fawn decoy as a confidence decoy. Its lightweight construction and staking setup allows it to swing back and forth in the slightest breeze, imparting vital realism to the setup. I bracket the hindquarters of the fawn with two sticks about 15″ apart to let it sway in a light breeze, but not spin around if the wind picks up.

Decoy positioning is one of the many important deer hunting tricks for bowhunters. An incoming challenging buck will generally circle a buck decoy and approach head on for an eye to eye confrontation. Position your deer decoy so a circling buck will present several shot opportunities. A buck aggressively facing off with the decoy will provide a nice broadside shot.

Deer decoy in corn

A doe decoy “feeding” on the edge of a cornfield is deadly! This doe decoy has photographic reality.
(Photo: Judd Cooney)

3. Location, Location, Location

For bowhunting in thick cover I generally set a doe decoy at 20 yards, angling away from my stand or blind. Don’t set a decoy where a deer facing either the front or rear of it will be looking directly toward your stand.

If you’re a right-handed bowhunter you should offset the decoy to your left to facilitate ease of drawing and shooting with minimum movement. The opposite would hold for left-handed shooters. A buck will usually approach a single doe decoy from the rear quarter. Position it so that a circling buck will pass between the decoy and your stand and present a broadside or quartering shot.

4. Visibility Rules

I prefer to set decoys along the edges of fields or clearings where they have maximum exposure to draw distant deer. A decoy spotted at a distance piques the deer’s curiosity. Reinforcing that with judicious rattling, bleating or grunting is deadly for bringing bucks close in. A brushy dense background behind my stand helps keep a wary trophy buck from circling to pick up scent. Even when in heavy cover I try to keep the deer decoy as visible as possible. When a wary buck or doe is surprised by a decoy, it can spook them enough to nullify any curiosity.

If possible, place the decoy where an approaching deer will give you a shot opportunity before it’s too late. This is easier to accomplish in open areas than in heavy cover, but can play a major part in putting a responding deer in the best position for a clean shot.

Bowhunter with deer decoy in the field

A decoy can be very effective when a buck can see it from a long way off.
(Photo: Judd Cooney)

5. Movement Adds Realism

Decoy movement adds a lifelike dimension to your setup, and I’ve tried just about everything imaginable, from toilet tissue taped to the underside of the decoy’s tail, chin and belly, to fringe material velcroed along the ears and tail. For me, a stationary head-down, feeding decoy spooks a deer more times than not. It’s unnatural for a deer to remain immovable for extended periods of time.

Hunter with deer decoy setting up

One reason hunters don’t use deer decoys is that they’re bulky and hard to carry. But a well-placed decoy can do wonders for your overall deer hunting experience.
(Photo: Judd Cooney)

6. Planning Ahead

Full-bodied deer decoys can be a pain to transport and haul around, and for this reason they are often ignored by hunters – a big mistake. I often take a decoy to a stand or blind location well in advance of the hunt and cover it with a camo net or brush. This makes it easier to get the decoy in place, lessens disturbance and eliminates scent contamination.

7. Gun Season Caution

Decoys can be very effective at getting deer into range during firearm seasons when pressured deer in the area are ultra-spooky. However, I only do this on private leases where I have absolute control, and then only under the right circumstance and with extreme caution. I keep a blaze orange cover on the decoy when moving it and until I get it set. Here again I often leave the decoy in the field and simply set it in position when I have a client for that location. I place the decoy about 100 yards from the blind or stand location where it has maximum visibility.

A little experience in the tactical use of deer decoys will increase your success at putting a buck right where you want him. Once you have a trophy buck respond enthusiastically to a decoy, whether bow or gun hunting, you’ll be hooked on this aspect of deer decoy deception forever.


judd-cooney-head-shot-457x542About Judd Cooney:

For the past 30 years Judd has been writing and photographing full-time in addition to running his guiding and outfitting operation, spending 18-20 hours a day trying to avoid working an 8-5 job. He says, “I wouldn’t change it for the world!” He has articles or photos in many of the outdoor magazines every month, covering bowhunting, muzzleloader hunting, big game, small game and predator hunting, plus turkey, waterfowl and upland game hunting. He can be reached through his website, www.JuddCooney.com.


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