Using decoys to help lure animals into range goes back almost as far as our hunting history does. In fact, early man and Native Americans were the first to employ many of the same strategies we still use today to kill animals. I am sure our forefathers learned a lot of their hunting strategies by watching other predators that may have used multiple attackers, stealth, camouflage, cover, terrain, knowledge of their prey, and strength among other things to take down animals. When I am hunting, I often think to myself that every tactic we use today has probably been used before.
Our ancestors must have taken advantage of any method they could to help lure their prey in range. From cave drawings, artifacts, and old fossils, we have learned that those who came before us occasionally hunted from elevated positions, built blinds, and learned to kill animals with spears, then atlatl’s, and then bows. They also used snares, deadfalls, and even fish traps. Decoys of some type were often used for birds, animals, and even fish. Some decoys were live animals used to lure in others of their kind. Other decoys were as simple as a hide thrown over someone’s back. Some, like the duck decoys found in Lovelock Cave in Nevada in the early 1900s, were intricately made. Those duck decoys were determined to be approximately two thousand years old and were mostly made of reeds and feathers tied with a cord made from reeds. In pictures I have seen, they looked as good if not better than some of my store-bought plastic ones. Even back then, hunters realized the importance of realistic decoys.
What’s interesting to me is that waterfowl decoys and calls have never gone out of style and continue to be used by modern hunters. What did seem to go by the wayside for generations was the skill of decoying and calling other game animals besides waterfowl. I feel this was because the need to get super close just wasn’t as important because of advances of hunting weapons.
Over the last hundred years, bowhunting has grown in popularity thanks to men like Will and Maurice Thompson, Art Young, Saxton Pope, Ben Pearson, Howard Hill, Fred Bear, and countless others. Once again, the desire to get within bow range has become a priority.
As recently as the 1970s, the first manufactured turkey decoys hit the market. The addition of manufactured turkey decoys helped increase the number of turkey hunters. It also helped boost the success rate, so much so that many of us wouldn’t dream of going turkey hunting without a turkey decoy. Hunting turkeys with a decoy seemed like a new way to hunt them, similar to the new method of decoying turkeys called “fanning”. I am all for both methods and have used them both to take turkeys with my recurve. However, I am pretty sure that Native Americans were using both of these methods long before anyone sent their new idea to the patent office.
It wasn’t that long ago that men like Larry D. Jones, a traditional shooter himself, helped bowhunters everywhere by coming up with a manufactured elk call in the early 1980s. It’s also been relatively recently since companies like Montana Decoy started offering big game decoys. Today we have all types of calls and decoys to help us get closer to the game we hunt. I wish I had the talent to make my own decoys and calls as many of our ancestors did, but I learned after some trial and a lot of error that I am way better off buying them. I enjoy knowing that even if I didn’t make any of my hunting gear myself, I was still mimicking methods that hunters used long before me.
I started using decoys to hunt big game around fifteen years ago, and I was pretty skeptical at first. After using them to kill antelope, whitetail deer, mule deer, and elk I quickly became a believer. They didn’t work every time, but they worked often enough that I rarely don’t have one with me. For a traditional bowhunter, just a few steps can often mean the difference between success and failure. I am all about close encounters, and decoys and calls have helped me take more animals.
I enjoy decoying and calling all types of game because of the interaction with the animals and the crazy things that can happen. My favorite though, is decoying elk. The close encounters and things that have happened to me while decoying elk definitely make it one of my favorite ways to hunt them.
While I don’t consider myself an expert, I have learned a little about decoying elk for myself and my clients. Here are a few things I have learned to look for in a decoy as well as some things I learned while using decoys for big game.
What I look for in a decoy. Most importantly, I want a decoy that looks like the animal I am trying to fool. If it doesn’t look good to me, I figure it probably doesn’t look good to the animals either. I want decoys that look as realistic as those 2,000-year-old duck decoys found in that Nevada cave. I also want a decoy that is lightweight, quick to set up, and easy to carry. I learned when I first started using decoys that if they were heavy or ungainly, I didn’t take them with me. I like decoys in realistic positions. I am not a big fan of a feeding decoy for example, even though that is a natural position for an animal to be in. My reasoning is that when an animal sees another animal it reacts to it, often by lifting its head to look at what’s approaching. I think that is a more natural position. I just seem to have more success with a decoy in a head up, semi-alert position. I use doe, cow elk, young buck, or bull decoys, because I like shooting any legal animal that comes in range and I don’t want to intimidate the young, tasty ones whether they are male or female.
Will it work where you hunt? Terrain, weather conditions, and soil can vary greatly depending on what species you are hunting and where you hunt it. Make sure the decoy you get will work where you hunt. How does it set up? How is it staked or tied down? Is it tough enough for the conditions? I have had legs break off decoys when they fell over, and I have had decoys that couldn’t hold up to wind on a Wyoming prairie. I experimented with quite a few decoys and was often frustrated. My barn still holds the skeletons of a few of my poor investments. I actually called one company and complained about an elk decoy that I often couldn’t set up in the field because the stakes often wouldn’t go in the rocky ground when I tried to set it up. I explained that most elk are found in the Rocky Mountain states, which should be a dead giveaway regarding what the soil is like in many places. Despite my honesty and humorous “my opinion” example, my complaint ended well, and I ended up with a new decoy and a new way to set it up that worked. I also ended up with a new friend from the phone call, who was also a traditional bowhunter.
When to use and when not to use decoys. I have the best luck with decoys during the rut. Of course, pre- and post-rut can be good as well, but the rut is when big game decoys shine. Since I brought up shine, I rarely use decoys on bright sunny days, because almost all the big game decoys I have seen look fake in direct sunlight. I also try not to use decoys when it’s snowing hard because they can get covered up, iced up, or sag unnaturally. I prefer using a decoy on an overcast day, in the early morning, late evening, or in the shadows, if it’s a bright day. Besides the rut, I will often use a decoy as a confidence builder late in the season. If I am hunting pressured animals, especially on public land, a decoy or two in an opening will often be all it takes to make other animals try to join them. Sometimes a lone elk decoy in a mountain meadow is just the ticket for luring in other elk. At other times, they aren’t the ticket. For no apparent reason that I could figure out, I have had almost every species of big game react negatively to a decoy as well. When they work, they seem to work great. When they don’t, you wonder why you even brought one.
Placing a decoy: I look at placing a decoy a lot like hanging a tree stand. It requires some thought and strategy. I always check line of sight to the decoy so I know that an approaching animal can spot it. I also try to position my decoy so it can be seen from more than one angle. I like to place it in such a way that an approaching animal will walk by me broadside as it closes in to investigate. Most animals that approach a decoy are coming to fight or to breed, so the action can be fast and furious. Sometimes they approach with caution, but that’s part of the fun. You never know what is going to happen. One of the advantages of using a decoy is that seeing one will often dupe an elk or deer into coming directly to it without circling and winding you. I try to keep my decoy as scent free as possible, and often use my favorite animal specific scent on it for when they close the distance to a few feet. It takes some forethought, but by placing your decoy properly you can have more encounters that lead to more success.
Safety. Always think safety when using a decoy. Many of them look so realistic that other hunters can mistake them for the real thing, which can obviously be hazardous during hunting season. I witnessed a hysterical stalk once when another bowhunter thought my decoy was the real McCoy. Well, I thought it was funny, but he didn’t. Hunting from an elevated position may be the safest way to utilize a decoy, but always be safety conscious and aware of other hunters’ locations. I try to set up in a position where if another hunter approaches I can see them before they see the decoy.
When I am bowhunting, I feel a connection to the past. It’s a combination of what seems innate inside me and my own nostalgic way of thinking that connects me with the days of old. When an animal is in close and my heart is going double time, it is partially because I have a wild animal in bow range and partially because, like those that have gone before me, I have managed to fool an animal with my calls or my decoy, even if I don’t have the skill to make either of them myself.