Elk Decoys: They Work!

It’s ironic that range game — elk, muleys, pronghorns — are routinely credited with excellent eyesight, yet the whole truth is that their vision can be their biggest weakness. I have learned the hard way bowhunting that when a bull responds to my bugle, he is generally coming in to find an excuse to leave right away. Most often he finds that excuse — no “video” to match the “audio.” But when you include the visualization of an authentic-looking decoy, it’s confirmation that the bull wasn’t hearing things.

Today’s elk decoys are lightweight, packable, and easy to take on a hunt.

More importantly, for some reason elk tend to look past a decoy rather than at it like whitetails do. Pronghorns are the same way. Mule deer are even less coy and more decoy-able. This leads to the second reason to never underestimate the value of an elk decoy: distraction. You won’t have to bowhunt very long to learn that getting the draw is as important as getting the shot in the first place.

A third reason decoys are so effective on elk is the same reason decoys often fail on whitetails: movement, or lack thereof. Most deer decoying takes place from a fixed position, typically from a blind or portable treestand, separated from the decoy. But elk hunting is the opposite. With the exception of a blind at a waterhole or treestand at a crossing, successful elk hunting is a “bow-and-go” venture. Since these animals are highly mobile and not evenly distributed throughout their habitat, you have to keep pace with them. While you’re at it, work a decoy to full advantage (more below).

Decoys Are Portable
Finally, decoying works because it’s practical. For example, rattling definitely works on bulls, particularly those seeking to increase their pecking order, but how many of us are inclined to lug around bulky, heavy antlers in thin mountain air along steep slopes? Conversely, today’s decoy models are lightweight (best measured in ounces rather than pounds), packable (fold up compactly), and extremely realistic (photo finish).

Which brings us to the main precaution of decoying elk on your own. Never place a decoy in front of you. This is how we’re trained to think when we try to deke out a whitetail buck. It doesn’t apply to bull elk. Instead, position the deke off to one side and behind you. From 20- to 50 yards will do. The former setup will invariably lead to head-on shots — if you’re lucky enough to get that far in the game — but the latter will generally result in broadside shots that also gives you the draw as the bull saunters past you.

Use an elk decoy to make yourself invisible and to give a visual of what’s making those calls.

Another common mistake when hunting by yourself is tucking the decoy in your pack and pulling it out only when you think you’re into elk. Wrong, wrong, wrong! Use the decoy from the time you see elk sign to the time you let an arrow fly. Anything can happen in September! To implement this, simply carry your bow with a comfortable bow strap and leave both hands free.

Likewise, never glass or use a spotting scope unless you’re hunched behind your deke. Elk can make out the slightest movement from surprising distances. Besides, you might luck out and encourage an otherwise hidden bull to step out into the open to investigate.

Finally, get into the habit of using the decoy to make you invisible. When poking along in black timber, for example, stick the deke in front of you as you negotiate the cover and terrain. I can’t count the number of times I’ve bumped bulls from their beds when I thought I was being sneaky. Using a deke like this, on the other hand, can give you a chance to make a swift shot. After all, elk are more like muleys than whitetails in how they tend to pause and look your way before deciding to retreat.

Final Decoying Tricks
Here are some random thoughts on this underrated and overlooked tactic:

* Don’t reinvent the wheel: Cover as much ground as it takes to find bugling bulls, or bugle (and/or cow call) to get a response. Then lock in on the most aggressive bull and starting thinking decoy, decoy, decoy.

* Sometimes the best setup is angling the decoy body to make it look like a wayward cow feeding away from the bull. If the bull bugles at the “cow” and she doesn’t lift her head in submission, he’s apt move in and try to round her up. I’ve seen this one more than once.

Elk expert Ralph Ramos uses many cow calls to make it look like a group of elk is in the area.

* If you employ the buddy system, you each should make liberal use of a decoy, especially while traveling and scouting for elk; however, never place the shooter in line with a decoy. Use the decoy to position the bull for a broadside shot. The best way to do this is with the caller calling behind his deke while he manipulates the other deke to move the bull past the shooter.

* Decoys and cow calling go together like backstraps and a barbeque grill. Take elk expert Ralph Ramos’ approach and tote along at least a half-dozen cow calls. Make it sound like your deke has plenty of company, and that she’s situated at the perimeter of the herd. Again, always try to lure the bull past you.

* Don’t forget about decoying over water holes. If there are no suitable trees for treestands, portable ground blinds are an excellent alternative — like turkeys, elk typically don’t pay much attention to a portable blind, especially if you erect a realistic decoy nearby.

Discover a fine selection of archery gear, including elk decoys at Sportsman’s Guide.

Mike Strandlund is editor of Bowhunting World Magazine and bowhuntingworld.com, and is a member of the National Bowhunters Hall of Fame.

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