BOWHUNTING WORLD
October 2006

Decoying Pronghorns By Bob Humphrey

Is it possible to lure one of the fastest and wariest of game animals into bow range, even without cover?

Before my Wyoming bowhunt last fall, my only experience with pronghorns was chasing them around Yellowstone National Park with a camera. I quickly learned just how sharp- eyed, wary and fast they were. Even my basic stalking skills and telephoto lens weren’t enough to get me close enough for a decent photo. Thus, I was pretty skeptical about the whole idea of luring them into bow range with a decoy. Still I’d heard enough stories about how effective and exciting the technique could be; so when the opportunity presented itself, I jumped.

My first chance came while bowhunting on the Medicine Bow River Ranch in southeastern Wyoming. Accompanying me were fellow outdoor writer Joe Byers, Ken Byers, of Byers Media and Mike DiSario and Teddy Burger, of Outdoor Expeditions International (OEI)- our hosts. Joe was was the only one of us fortunate enough to draw a non-resident “goat” tag, but was kind enough to invite me along to man the decoy.

It also didn’t take long for us to locate a likely band of goats. After formulating a quick plan of attack, Ken dropped Joe, Teddy, and me off behind a knoll, then drove on. The habitat consisted of low rolling plains , with topography providing the only cover. “We need to get as close as we can before we put up the decoy” advised Joe. And that’s exactly what we did, sneaking within a couple hundred yards of the herd, which consisted of a dozen or so does and three bucks. Once we were in position, Joe gave the word. Here goes nothing , I thought., as I hoisted the decoy, a Renzo’s two-dimensional buck silhouette into position.

The sharp-eyed goats immediately turned their heads in our direction, but I didn’t give us the reaction we’d hoped for. The bucks held their ground while the does, seemingly more antsy, slowly started walking away. Then the largest of the bucks made a feint in our direction, and my pulse quickened. Could this actually be working? I wondered.

The tense buck stared in our direction for several minutes, then glanced back
toward the herd, which had moved off a considerable distance. He glanced back
once more in our direction, then turned and trotted off after the herd. Strike one.
Our second attempt met with similar results. Strike two. “They’re just not in the
mood,” opined Joe. “We need to find a more aggressive buck. So off we went
once more. The ranch was overrun with goats, and it didn’t take long to find yet
another band.

The next group contained several does and one big buck. I wouldn’t know one from the next,
but I could tell by doe’s reaction it was a real good one. Even
better, he and several does were bedded near a pump station that provided ideal
stalking cover. Again we crawled as close as we could, Joe got ready to shoot, and l
propped up the decoy.

This time the reaction was much more what we had hoped for. The bedded buck
sprang to his feet and took several deliberate steps in our direction. But the does,
unnerved by his sudden movement, again started in the opposite direction. He held
his ground, then started slowly toward us, eventually covering l00 yards. Once again however,
the allure of the does prevailed over our decoy, and the buck turned and trotted
away. Strike three.

Joe did eventually manage to take a nice buck the following day, while l was
off hunting mulies. Though l wasn’t able to witness it, my experience from the
previous day was enough to whet my appetite for another try. Before I went back,
however, l wanted to learn more. So l consulted someone far more experienced.

Decoying: There’s More In It
“There’s a true art to decoying, regardless of what you’re after,” says Steve Bailey, of Renzo’s Becoys. “There’s a lot more to it than lust sticking a decoy in the ground. This much l’d learned already. What l wanted to know is what that “lot more” is; and
Bailey was eager to expound. “When decoying pronghorns,” he began,
“the first thing to consider is when you will be hunting. Prior to the rut you use a decoy
not so much as a stalking tool, but as a confidence decoy, around food sources and waterholes. In the early season,
I’m not looking for the same response as during the rut.
All I want is to give the animal a little curiosity, or make them feel more comfortable
and keep their focus away from me.” That all made sense. Pronghorn are social animals,
having others of their kind around might put them more at ease.

The next step, according to Bailey, is to decide the decoy’s intended purpose. “Do
you want it to be a billboard, or more subtle? You can set your decoy as a billboard,
out in the wide open where it can be seen from miles away, or just to get their attention
when they’re closer. Every situation is different, but if you’ve got animals visiting a
waterhole regularly, the subtle approach might be better. In either case, Bailey cautions
that it’s very important not to block entrance or exit routes—the way they want to come and go.
“I don’t want to spook them, so I may use a more subtle approach, with a decoy bedded or tucked into the brush”

The Rut
Decoying during the rut is when things can really get exciting, and it calls for different tactics. “What you get is a very aggressive buck that may cover a lot of ground, especially when he’s trying to drive out a rival or younger buck from the does he’s herded up. He may run in from a half-mile away,” says Bailey. Now you want your decoy to be a billboard. First you’ve got to locate a likely candidate. In general, Bailey looks for aggressive bucks that suit him in terms of size and age.

During the pre-rut, he looks for bachelor groups where bucks are either sparring or seriously fighting. “These bucks are probably a little more vulnerable,” he says. Later, during the rut, he looks for satellite bucks, which can be equally vulnerable. But he cautions not to be overly aggressive. “Use a decoy that’s smaller than him, or use only does. He’s probably been beat up a little and may be wary of a larger buck” He also advises against targeting mature bucks, at least for beginners. “An older buck with a big group of does is usually the hardest to decoy or pursue in any way. He’s not gonna wander too far from them or let that group get too far away.” This seemed to explain at least part of our failure in Wyoming.

Once you’ve located your intended victim, you can attack in one of two ways. Rather
than putting the decoy out right off the bat, Bailey prefers to stalk in as close as possible,
then go with the decoy. (At least we got that part right! “Once you do,” he says, “you don’t necessarily want to walk straight in and be too aggressive. Parallel him while slowly closing the distance. Often they’ll watch and study until they get tired of watching.”
That’s when things can get real interesting, according to Bailey. “It’s pretty hair-raising
and can be very dramatic. They may charge to within 10 or 20 yards then slam on the brakes, leaving a trail of dust behind ’em and making you wonder if you want to run or not.”

Circumstances often dictate how you set up and position. “When there’s sufficient cover, I’ll set up to draw the animal past the shooter and toward the decoy. It takes his radar off the shooter,” says Bailey. That’s not always possible, however, and in some cases the decoy is your cover. “When bowhunting in the open,” he recommends, “I’d have two guys and two decoys. This conceals them both and gives the illusion of more animals, for confidence. Bailey points out that movement can often be helpful. “One of the neatest tactics you can use is to mimic things going on in the wild. Use a doe and a buck decoy. Have your hunting partner or guide run one and you run the other, mimicking a buck running a doe.”

The Two Dimensional Advantage

Naturally, Bailey is partial to his Benzo‘s silhouettes, and with good reason. “The concept of our decoys is simplicity,” he relates. “Sometimes it doesn’t take much, and it doesn’t have to be three dimensional. You can use multiple decoys and take them into areas you wouldn’t have considered before. He also noted that it’s easier to sneak into decoying range with a two—dimensional decoy. “I just lay it down and go prone until I get myself out l there. Then I can push the metal rods into the dirt and the decoy is free-standing.”

Keep A Buck Call Handy
In addition to movement, you can sometimes boost your decoys’ effectiveness by
calling. “I use a call that simulates bucks being aggressive toward one another,” says
Bailey, “sort of a squeaky little snort-bark sound.” However, he advises caution. “I
don’t want to throw all my eggs at ’em at once, so I’ll save the call for last.” He notes
that a buck may charge, but only come part-way, then wander or race back to his
herd. “lf he’s not coming close enough, then I start calling to him.”

Long-Range Proficiency Helps
You also need a bow set up for Western hunting. “lt’s big country, it’s open,” says Bailey. “A decoy may only help you close the distance to 60 yards.” That calls for a fast, flat-shooting bow. Pronghorns aren’t particularly tough or thick-skinned, so you can also speed up your outfit by going to a lighter broadhead-arrow combination. More important is practice.

The goal of decoying is to bring a pronghorn into effective bow range, which out West may be more than you’re accustomed to. “Most guys are looking for a 20-yard shot. They practice at 20 and 50 yards and that’s what they’re used to.” If you’re going to try this
he recommends practicing until you’re proficient out to 50 or 60 yards. “It doesn’t take that much to fool a pronghorn,” says Bailey. “You just need a good decoy, some common sense, and a little knowledge about the animal.” He also notes that decoys won’t work all of the time. “It’s all about attitude. You gotta catch
the animal in the right mood. Sometimes it’s only a matter of a day, or even a few hours. When they’re in the right mood and everything is right, the decoy can totally fool them.” He also cautions it’s infectious. “You get to the point after a few successful stalks where if you don’t have your decoy, you don’t want to go.”