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The Delights of Decoys

For photography and wildlife viewing, try a hunter’s trick: deception.

By Russell A. Graves

It is mid-December and I am deep in the South Texas brush country, searching for white-tailed deer. This is my first foray into the brush during the breeding rut and my timing could not be any better. A high buck-to-doe ratio means that I’ll see plenty of heavy-antlered males. I am in whitetail utopia. But I am not here to hunt with a gun.

I plan to capture the rut on film.

To help me in this endeavor, I place a life-sized decoy buck in an opening for high visibility, and I build a small brush blind in which to hide, 20 yards away. Then I wait for dawn. When the sun dapples the land, I rake a couple of shed antlers together and wait. Within five minutes, a yearling buck sneaks in and walks between the decoy and me and stares suspiciously at the intruder. Soon, a substantially bigger buck slips from the brush and creeps towards the decoy, only to stop and stare from a few feet away.

Inside of 15 minutes, half a dozen bucks appear within camera range, and even though I don’t get a shot of an angry, rut-enraged buck attacking the decoy, I shoot my best series of deer photos ever. The decoy did the important job of diverting the bucks’ attention away from me, allowing me to burn a lot of film.

With such a productive encounter behind me, I had an idea. I set out to discover how hunting decoys might work for photography and wildlife watching. Using decoys that can be purchased from any well-stocked sporting goods store, I tested a few of them to see how well they work in attracting wildlife close and keeping it close. I discovered that hunters are on to something: Decoys really work.

In one form or another, decoys have been around for thousands of years. Early hunters constructed fake animals from wood and straw. Now, decoys are made of plastic or high-tech fabrics, and the technology associated with decoy construction continues to evolve.

For decoys to be effective in attracting game, you have to understand each species’ biological needs. Deer decoys work best during the breeding season, since bucks are looking for does to breed or other bucks to fight. Turkey decoys, like those for deer, also work best during the breeding season.

Waterfowl and predator decoys, on the other hand, appeal to an animal’s hunger. Ducks congregating in shallow water draw other hungry ducks, and the sight of a rabbit in an opening is a strong visual feeding cue that coyotes find hard to ignore.

Turkeys

Because of their keen eyesight and sensitivity to the smallest of movements, turkeys are one of the most difficult game animals to see up close. Some experts contend that if turkeys could smell, they would be nearly impossible to successfully hunt. Boss tom turkeys do have one serious weakness, though: hens.

In the spring, male turkeys strut, making flamboyant feather displays to attract females for breeding. Strutting toms are single-minded in their approach to females. I have seen toms follow hens for an hour or more, with their feathers fully extended, jockeying for position against other males as they compete for the hen’s attention. If you are interested in photographing or watching turkeys, get a decoy and place it in a highly visible location. Since turkey hunting is increasing in popularity, a number of manufacturers offer decoys in such different positions as strutting jakes, breeding pairs, and feeding and alert hens. Although I cannot say that one works any better than another, I can say they all work well in attracting a tom’s attention.

Early in the spring strutting season, just as breeding begins, hens are more receptive to the males and the toms largely ignore decoys. However, as the season progresses and receptive hens become scarcer, decoys become more effective. If you have trouble attracting turkeys in the morning, try your setup at midday. Hens sit on their nests during the middle of the day and are unavailable to the toms. If a tom sees a lone hen, he is likely to investigate.

Tip: Decoys work great for holding toms in an area close to your photography or bird-watching blind. The trick is to figure out the travel patterns as the turkeys move to and from the roost.

Predators

Predators such as coyotes and bobcats are a challenge to decoy. Their super-tuned senses make them naturally wary, and getting them into camera or even binocular range is a difficult task. It’s essential to disappear visually. A camouflage pattern that matches the surroundings helps mask the visual signature, while a cover scent such as commercially available skunk spray or raccoon urine helps mask the human odor.

Next, invest in a good predator call. For do-it-yourselfers, a myriad of mouth-blown calls are available. Manufacturers such as Johnny Stewart or Cass Creek Game Calls make electronic callers that play CDs or microchips. Electronic calls are great for delivering a consistent sound repeatedly, but you cannot customize the sounds with voice inflection.

The last step in successful predator calling is the decoy. Predator decoys range from commercially manufactured decoys such as Lohman’s Predator Decoy, to a stuffed animal that you take from your child’s bedroom. The combination of an appealing sound coupled with a visual stimulus is often too much for a predator to resist. A great side benefit of using decoys with predator calls is that you are likely to call up a of host of other animals such as songbirds, owls and hawks.

Tip: Place predator decoys in a low-grass clearing so an incoming coyote will spot it easily. The trick in predator calling is to redirect a predator’s attention so it will not spot you sitting in the bushes. To add a little movement to your decoys, tie a bit of monofilament string and occasionally give it a tug — especially as predators start to home in on your location.

Deer

In the long chronology of decoying, deer decoys are a fairly new phenomenon. Manufactured primarily for bow hunters, decoys offer visual stimulation that complements the antler rattling that hunters sometimes use to attract deer. Made in full-body and silhouette styles, deer decoys are effective at holding deer in an opening. The first time I used a deer decoy, it kept a huge, free-ranging, double-drop-tine buck in an opening for 10 minutes staring and circling the fake doe. He never approached the decoy any closer than 10 yards, but the decoy fascinated the buck to the point that he completely dropped his guard.

Although deer decoys might sound cumbersome, many decoys, such as Flambeau’s Redi-Doe, have detachable head, limbs, and antlers, making them easy to carry to and from the field. Some companies, such as Montana Decoys, manufacture a photo-realistic decoy that folds up small enough to fit in a backpack and weighs just a few ounces.

Since deer have an acute sense of smell, spray your decoy down with commercially available scents such as doe-in-heat spray or scent eliminators. When you get back home, you can hose the smell off plastic decoys with water.

Tip: Because deer decoyS are so realistic, avoid using them during deer hunting season. If you decide to use a deer decoy during the season, wrap it in fluorescent orange tape while you haul it to and from the field. That way, you and the deer are highly visible to others.

Game Birds

One of the most amazing decoys I used this past year was the Mojo-Dove, a battery-operated mourning dove decoy with wings that spin. The wings are white on one side and gray on the other, and when they turn, they create the appearance of the flapping of a landing dove.

The first time I used the decoy, a hundred doves turned and flew past it. A bunch of doves landed beside the decoy and a few even tried to land on it. The Mojo-Dove also attracts a host of other, non-game birds. While I crouched in a blind a few feet from this decoy, meadowlarks, sparrows, grackles, and other non-game birds landed near it. The reason, I presume, is simple: When doves land on the ground, they feed. Other birds recognize the feeding posture and come to join in.

Static decoys (such as dove decoys that clamp onto limbs) also work well for attracting doves and other birds. For fun, I made my own quail decoy out of a block of pine and had a friend paint feathers on the wood. I was curious to see if the decoy would work well to attract bobwhite quail, but discovered that the homemade bird acts as a “confidence” decoy. I have seen quail, turkeys, doves and a host of other birds land beside my quail decoy and feed with complete confidence that the area is free from danger.

To build my quail decoy, I glued three pieces of 2 by 6 lumber together, traced a quail pattern obtained from a woodcarving supply house, and cut the decoy out using a band saw. I spent half an hour cutting and shaping.

Tip: Dove decoys work great around food sources such as sunflower or milo fields. If you are into birdwatching or photography, set a motion and some static decoys up next to a deer feeder. Although hunting migratory birds over feeders is a crime, watching the birds come into feeders is not.

Waterfowl and Shorebirds

If you enjoy watching waterfowl or shorebirds, decoys are a great way to bring them close. Scores of manufacturers produce a huge variety of duck and goose decoys. Historically, most duck decoys have been of the full-body variety, with keels that keep them upright on the water. First made from wood, manufacturers now create virtually all full-body duck decoys from molded plastic. However, flat, photo-realistic decoy silhouettes are a growing trend in the duck decoy industry.

Goose decoys also come in full-body varieties, including rags, shells, and silhouettes. For waterfowl, one or two decoys are not sufficient. Instead, create a large spread of at least a dozen decoys and mix with decoys of different species. If you are willing to spend a little extra money, motion decoys that mimic ducks feeding or landing, add realism to a spread that ducks can’t resist.

When you decoy for ducks and geese, you will often attract shorebirds as well. While hiding next to a duck decoy spread, I have seen killdeer, avocets, and herons land and hang out along the shores nearby. Shorebirds feel comfortable around other birds, and you will be surprised at the different species that show up.

Tip: When laying out a duck decoy spread, a good general rule is to place the decoys in a semicircular pattern leaving a “hole” in the middle of the decoy spread. Incoming ducks will land in the hole before fanning out to feed. To add even more realism to a duck spread, add one or two heron decoys. With geese, a mix of shell and rag decoys work great. The shells give a realistic dimension to a spread, while the rags add movement and increase realism.

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