Combine Tactics To Bring Whitetails Close
By Todd Amenrud
(reprinted from NBS Outdoor)
The big Minnesota buck stood at the edge of a picked corn field about 250 yards away, and even from that distance I could see he was a definite shooter.
Rather than skirting the field and coming by my stand just off of the corner, he cut straight across the middle. What to do? I picked up my rattle-bag and cracked it as hard as I could. He stopped and turned his head toward me. I hit the rattle bag a second time and he came on a steady trot in my direction. Once he reached 100 yards he slowed to a fast walk and started to swing downwind.
Long story short … he stood 80 yards downwind of me hardly moving a muscle for almost 5 minutes. The only movements were his ears searching for the two bucks he had just heard and his nose waving in the breeze scanning for other supporting evidence. He turned and disappeared slowly over the ridge.
What makes a situation seem real to you?
Sight, sound, scent, feel — the more senses we appease the more realistic a scenario seems to us. And that’s also true for whitetails. A hunter can use a combination of techniques to appeal to multiple whitetail senses at once. On that day, I sure wish I would have set up some scent or placed a decoy to draw his attention and coax him in the final 80 yards.
Does, fawns, and young bucks often will ramble straight into a well-placed decoy, a scent that’s been placed out properly, or a vocalization that sounds authentic. Mature bucks, though, almost always needs confirmation from more than one source before they plow forth into the unknown.
The nose knows.
If you can fool a whitetail’s sense of smell, you’ve almost got it made. Just like sight is our most believable sense, (“seeing is believing”) a whitetail’s most trusted guide is his nose. That doesn’t only mean that hunters must use scent to draw them in, it also means that hunters must practice a strict scent-elimination regimen. Actually, when it comes to fooling the whitetail nose, the most important step is probably to keep foreign smells completely out of the picture — by using Scent Killer, for example. If a mature buck smells the sweet smell of estrus, intermingled with an unfamiliar “danger” smell, his instinct for survival will win out and your work will go for naught.
The eyes have it.
Scent (or thereof) can con a whitetail’s sense of smell. But you can help seal the deal by addressing more than one of their senses at a time. Lately, I’ve been experimenting with the art of using decoys to fool the whitetail’s sense of sight.
The first step is to start with the correct decoy. Pay special attention to the decoys’ posture and movement. Decoys that are in an alert posture typically will bring in deer in an alert, edgy temperament. They may come to within 40 to 60 yards, snorting and stomping the ground at your decoy, or at whatever has caused your decoy to be so alert. A decoy with an alert, intimidating posture is useful at times, but for most deer throughout most of the season you’ll be better off with a decoy displaying a more serene pose.
Movement is important too. When is it natural for a standing deer to be totally motionless? The answer is, when it’s alert, when something is wrong or out of place, or just before it’s about to bolt. None of those scenarios evoke the emotions you want your whitetails to feel.
There are all kinds of ways to add motion to decoys — from tying a string to a chicken feather or white hanky, taping the string to the hind end or ear of the decoy and letting the wind move it; to tacking a real whitetail-tail to the hind end of the decoy and operating it with monofilament line. Granted, in a 15-mph wind, the chicken feather flutters so fast it looks like the decoy is about to take flight. But I believe extreme motion is better than no motion at all. You can also purchase a decoy kit that’s designed to convert standard decoys into motion decoys, or purchase a decoy that has moving parts.
One of the three biggest whitetails I’ve ever seen in my life showed up to a small central Iowa alfalfa field one December day. I had a doe decoy in front of my ground blind about 30 yards and I had just rattled, imitating my best “two bucks fighting over a hot doe” possible. When this guy made the scene, I rubbed my eyes in disbelief. He was a perfect 6×6 with 14-inch tines, mass throughout, and an inside spread exceeding 20 inches. This buck easily would have scored over 200 inches. He was a sight to see, even though I didn’t get a shot.
He hopped the fence in a shelterbelt about 120 yards away, and once he reached the alfalfa he stood staring at my motionless decoy. Although he stood in one spot, his ears were scanning and his tail swung occasionally — motion that my decoy lacked. The big guy suspected something and wouldn’t come any closer. Another 135-inch 5×5 showed up in the opposite corner of the small 20-acre field. He wouldn’t come closer either, because he knew where he ranked in this social standoff. In the span of about an hour, I brought the mammoth buck as close as 60 yards three different times by rattling and smacking the antlers on the ground as hard as I could. But, each time he stopped short to stare at my motionless decoy. In this case, multiple stimuli worked great to bring the animals in, but the lack of movement on my decoy prevented me from closing the deal. (I did manage to kill the smaller 5×5 the next morning at a mock scrape set-up.)
Sometimes an alert posture will work. Sometimes I prefer an alert, aggressive posture. If I’m after a mature buck, playing the “competition card” by using aggressive tactics has worked great for me. I wish I would have had that scenario ready to go for that Iowa buck! When you’re targeting any deer, the most important detail is to give that particular deer a reason to interact with your set-up.
What time of year is it? Are you after a specific buck or doe, or will any deer do? What age-class buck are you after? Think about what that deer would want at that time of year, and give it a reason to close the distance. For any deer, any time of year, a decoy in a feeding, greeting, or bedded posture works best.
To combine scent and decoying, first you must eliminate foreign odors. First clean your decoy with Scent Killer soap, then touch it only while wearing gloves, and always store it someplace where foreign odors will not transfer onto it. If you need to transport your decoy, first place it in a garbage bag or something that will seal out odors.
When choosing lures and scents, again, think about what the deer you’re after wants at that specific time of the season. Early season, you might use plain buck or doe urine … just something to add realism to the scenario. Closer to the rut, you might scent your buck decoy with a combination of Active Scrape and Mega Tarsal Plus: the first provides a full-spectrum scrape aroma and the other is a territorial-intrusion scent. This helps create the illusion that your fake buck is moving into his breeding territory. Consider how and why a buck might interact with your set-up, and give them a reason to close the distance.
When dispersing scent, I prefer to place it on a Pro-Wick or a Key-Wick near the decoy rather than applying it directly to the decoy. The simple reason is that a week later, your decoy won’t smell like last week’s pee and you won’t have to constantly scrub it down.
Calling all bucks.
Calling can be a lethal weapon in your arsenal. What works will vary depending on the situation: add soft, social grunts during early season while using a buck decoy; add an estrus bleat combined estrus lure during the rut … it all depends. One of my favorite tactics just before and after the peak of the rut is to place a small buck decoy over a bedded doe decoy, then try to create the illusion that two bucks are fighting over the fake doe in estrus. Between rattling sequences, I might imitate an estrus bleat. Special Golden Estrus helps pull off the ruse.
Taking the decoy out of the picture and using scent and calling/rattling together happens much more often than adding a decoy to the list of tools. But even minus the decoy, the combination of calling or rattling and scent works great. They hear “deer sounds,” then circle downwind and smell “deer smells,” which gives them the confidence to close the distance. Where a decoy requires some forethought, calling and scent, whose tools are easily carried in your pack, can be spontaneous.
When I specifically venture forth in an attempt to rattle in a buck, I almost always use real antlers. Their true-to-life resonance and the extra subtle sounds you can create with them, like scraping a tree or smacking the ground, can’t be achieved with a rattle-bag or plastic gadget. Still, I’ve called in the most bucks with my rattle-bag simply because it’s with me all the time.
Decoys are fun to use, but it’s really that “one-two punch” of calls and scent that produce the most consistent results. Last season, calls and scent helped me harvest a wide 4×4. It was November 7, the first day of a hunt on my Ontario property and I had just laid a scent trail of Special Golden Estrus right down the logging road that leads past one of my blinds. After parking the ATV downwind I got into the blind, looked over my shoulder, and saw a doe rounding the corner on the logging road. There was no chance to ready my equipment because there was more movement on the other side. When I looked back, a buck we had named Patches (because of the white piebald spots on his shoulder) was already 60 yards away coming down the trail with his nose to the ground following the scent. He caught me getting my equipment ready and we did the “Mexican standoff.” I lost. He turned around and bounded out of view. I grabbed my rattle bag and popped it, gave a loud vocalization with my voice, but I figured I had just goofed that one.
Thirty seconds later a doe and a fawn rounded the corner and 5 seconds later another doe was being pushed around the corner. I realized Patches was doing the pushing, and I was thankful for the second chance. The buck must have thought one of those does was the source of the enticing Special Golden Estrus; he wasn’t going to leave even though he had just seen me moments before. Because I’m always very careful about scent elimination and scent transfer, he never cold confirm that I was dangerous. Special Golden Estrus plus the great timing of a couple of does saved me on this hunt.
Some hunters think that trying to appeal to more senses leaves you prone to making more mistakes. Details are important whenever you hunt whitetails, but if you use common sense, keep human scent out of the picture, and present the most natural set-up possible, results will follow.
Remember: Why would a specific deer want to interact with your set-up? How he might interact with the scenario you’ve presented — to socialize or to compete? The more realistic you can make it seem, the better your results will be.
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