In the early 1970s, when I started hunting whitetails in Nebraska (we didn’t have them in Colorado then), I was hunting them on the ground as I did mule deer here in the high mountains. It didn’t take me long to find out that everyone I knew who was taking good whitetail bucks was doing it from trees. I built some tree stands, made some tree steps, and started climbing. At first, I was following the steps of successful Nebraska hunters and going eighteen to twenty-five feet up. Gary Ginther, a good hunting friend, told me I didn’t need to be that high. I didn’t like hunting that high at all as the shot angle on an animal was bad, and I didn’t like being that far off the ground in the first place. So I started moving down, first to twelve feet or so and then lower. I liked that a lot better, but I did see one great disadvantage right away. A lot of the deer would spot me, especially if they were coming directly at me from the front. I would get caught rattling horns, and they’d spot the movement instantly. Using a decoy helped a lot, as the bucks would be eyeing the decoy and not looking for danger in the trees. Still, being so low created problems.
One day in the mid-1980s, I was eight feet up in my stand along the Platte River in western Nebraska during the first week of November. Deer were moving well, and I was getting responses to my rattling. I had just spooked a buck that saw me trying to get my longbow off the hook when I saw a two-point buck and two does headed right to me. As they approached to fifteen yards, the doe saw me, jerked to a stop, and stared. For some reason I just turkey clucked with my voice, as my good friend Jim Dougherty had taught me to during turkey hunting escapades. The reaction was instantaneous as the doe looked away, then at the other two deer, and then back at me. When I clucked again, she dropped her head and the deer all proceeded to walk right under my stand. I was shocked to say the least, and I know my jaw had dropped to my shirt collar as I wondered how that deer could think I was a 210-pound turkey!
That afternoon I had the decoy set up, and a buck ran in with his hair standing on end and butt-kicking on his mind. He charged right up to the decoy and was about to hit it when I shot him. I should have had my camera ready and taken photos of him beating up my decoy. I didn’t get a chance to try my turkey fooling on him, but it wasn’t long before that chance came.
The following year I was back in the same tree, again about eight feet high, when I heard a buck grunting from a swamp to my right. I grunted back at him. He came busting out of the cattails and slammed on the brakes at fifteen yards, looking right at me. I clucked, and he instantly relaxed, looked around, and then back at me. When I clucked again, he really relaxed. I was about to fall out of the tree trying to keep from laughing out loud! How could that buck think I was a turkey? He turned to walk in front of me, and I put a broadhead through both lungs. Not only had I taken a nice buck, but I had really pulled the wool over his eyes!
I decided to take my turkey fooling a little further. I built a 24-inch-long fold-up decoy holder with a tree step screw so I could screw it into the tree just under my stand. I put a hen decoy in the bracket so that it was right in front of my feet, sticking up just above the stand platform. I reasoned that would really fool those deer. I used it several times and it seemed to work. The only problem was that if I took the holder and the hen decoy, I had too much gear to carry into the woods when I went very far.
So, the next time I went in I didn’t take the turkey decoy. I started carrying a diaphragm turkey call in my jacket pocket, where I could get to it quickly. Sometimes when I voice cluck I get a catch in my throat and it sounds like a squashed bird! Sometimes I start coughing too, so I felt more confident with the call in my mouth.
Later, I was rattling and grunting and had a small buck come in. He looked at me, and I could see his eyes widen as if he didn’t like what he was seeing. I clucked, and he relaxed. I clucked again when he looked back at me, and he just calmly walked off. I knew then I had really hit on something. I was fooling those whitetails really well.
Late the next afternoon I did it again on a really nice buck that was chasing several does around the woods below me, but I never could get a good broadside shot at him. First he was behind one of the does when he looked at me, and the second time the doe spotted me while the buck stood behind some brush. Both times I calmed them by clucking. I was really excited about how well that was working. I shot several more bucks that never looked at me in the tree because of the decoy, so I didn’t need to fool them.
Later, I was on a friend’s place in Kansas and had to walk to one of his stands. He was using ladder stands that were really narrow, which made it hard to shoot my longbow from them. I saw some deer using a trail forty yards behind me on the other side of a creek, so I went out to my rig, brought in my own tree stand and climbing steps, and set up on that trail. I soon heard a deer running behind me, turned, and saw the back end of a deer disappear into the creek bottom. When the deer came running up out of the creek bottom, I could see it was a really good non-typical. As I drew from eight yards away, he saw the movement, jerked up, and looked at me. Having just started to draw, I was in a bad predicament. I clucked, and he relaxed. My arrow was in him in an instant and, I had just shot my best whitetail!
The following year I was back in Kansas, in the same area. I picked a tree just to the north of the one I had taken the big deer from the year before. It was at a pinch-point in a horseshoe creek bend and two trails crossed the creek in front of me twenty yards away. I’d sat for several hours when I heard a buck grunting in the field above the creek bottom. I grunted, and two bucks came down a trail into the bottom thirty-five yards away on the other side of the winding creek. When I saw the trail they were on, I knew this was turkey fooling time since the first buck that crossed would be looking right up at me when he came out of the creek on my side.
Sure enough, when he came up onto the flat I was on, he slammed on the brakes and looked right at me. I had the call in my mouth, and I clucked at him. He relaxed and looked around at the second buck on the far side of the creek. Then he looked back at me, and I clucked again. He looked around, and I clucked again. When he put his head down and walked past me at twenty yards, I hit him through both lungs.
I wear a light colored Blowdown King of the Mountain wool jacket and pants when it’s cold, and in warmer weather I wear my KUIU tan pants and vest. I always have a net facemask on, as deer will spot a white face like a spotlight. I wear full gloves on my hands for the same reason. I have turkey fooled at least thirty or forty whitetails this way and only spooked one. I still laugh every time, and wonder why they can’t tell I’m a man instead of a turkey. I think deer know that a turkey is very wary, and realize that if they hear one clucking they are safe from any nearby predators.
Here I confess that I have told some hunting buddies about this technique, but have been reluctant to write about it before. I know what happened to elk bugling from overuse of calls and huge amounts of advertising and promotion on television. It never ceases to amaze me how people will watch these programs and then go into the woods and try to walk and call in full view of the animal. I do believe that whitetail hunters can benefit from this turkey fooling method, but I hope it doesn’t get out of hand. I have certainly enjoyed fooling whitetails and have arrowed quite a few deer this way. Now I never venture after whitetails without my turkey call handy. It’s a lot of fun to turkey fool deer.