Turkey Season Bonus: To Decoy or Not to Decoy?

decoyzBy Brian Lovett

Video Courtesy of Shane Simpson and callingallturkeys.com

Depending on who’s talking, turkey decoys are the greatest turkey hunting tool since the yelper or the biggest scourge since blackhead disease.

No one can deny that in the right situations, decoys are an integral part of a turkey hunter’s arsenal. The trick is knowing when to use them, and the answers aren’t always obvious.
Turkey Decoy 101 goes something like this:

Early in spring, hunters typically use larger decoy spreads, which often mimics the social dynamic of birds at this time. Hens and jennies are still flocked up, gangs of jakes roam the woods and gobbler groups are common. During this time, decoys can spark social curiosity or interaction that might lure a gobbler within range. Birds are still sorting out their pecking orders and battling for dominance (actually, this never ends). A turkey that sees a decoy might charge in to kick a potential rival’s butt. However, if the bird has had its tail whipped, it might avoid the setup because it doesn’t want another fight. Standard early-season setups usually include two or more hens and a strutter or jake decoy.

As spring progresses, breeding commences, and gobblers tend to get henned up. Decoys can still be effective, but longbeards with hens typically won’t leave their harem and rush into decoy setups. Hens in peak breeding mode often avoid interaction with other hens, and they might walk away from decoys and even calling. Gobbler decoys can still spark strong confrontational reactions from toms — solo or henned up — but they might also send birds running.

As hens build egg clutches and eventually nest, decoys can still net results. Many hunters pare down their sets late in spring, preferring to use just one or two hens. Gobbler and jake decoys can still work, but again, much of that depends on the mood and social status of the bird you’re hunting.

Individual preference is the other big factor in the decoy question. Many modern hunters prefer to hunt from a pop-up blind in an open area. In such circumstances, decoys are almost a must. When you call to a turkey that’s visible from your setup, the bird instinctively knows it should be able to see the source of that calling. That is, it wants to see another turkey. If it doesn’t, the bird probably won’t come in. Ben Rodgers Lee described this as “the graveyard gobbler.” If you walked past a cemetery and heard a voice whisper your name but could not see a person, you likely wouldn’t walk into the graveyard for a closer look. The same holds true for turkeys.

On the other end of the spectrum, hunters who prefer to remain mobile and active usually tote portable decoys but might only use them in certain situations, preferring instead to find ideal setups where they can call birds within range.

That’s a brief summary of conventional decoy wisdom. Here’s the sticking point: Many turkey hunting situations don’t fit neatly into those parameters. As a result, hunters frequently debate whether to use decoys, and clear answers can be tough to find.

Here’s a rundown of some recent hunts in which decoys — or their absence — played a critical role. Hopefully, these real-life examples will help guide your decoy decisions this spring.

Camped in Kansas

I had joined Tad Brown, of Flambeau Outdoors and M.A.D. Calls, for opening day in Kansas. Our host, Todd Wilson, suggested that we begin the day by setting up a blind along a pasture fence row where turkeys liked to travel.

We set out two hen decoys and a full-fan strutter, and then settled in for the morning. After an hour or so, two longbeards and some hens popped over the ridge and worked steadily toward us. The lead gobbler assumed an aggressive posture and went toe to toe with the strutter. We enjoyed the show for a moment, and then I shot the gobbler.

It was a great start, but we weren’t finished. Wilson suggested that we stash the turkey behind the blind and continue hunting the spot, noting that birds used the travel area all day. I was skeptical but agreed.

About an hour later, another breeding flock appeared, and three hens slowly walked into range. Two gobblers followed, and after the shot, one stayed. My Kansas hunt was finished.

Conclusions: This setup was a no-brainer. We were hunting a wide-open pasture and needed to give turkeys visual reassurance. Also, it was early in the season and turkeys were still in relatively large groups. The breeding flock decoy setup was ideal, and it worked perfectly.

May Marathon

One mid-May morning, I slipped into a roosting area hours before daylight. Not wanting to make too much noise, I crawled to a pine tree and decided against setting out a decoy. If my plan worked, turkeys would fly down nearby, and a gobbler might already be in range.

Well, it almost worked. At gobbling time, it was evident that I was surrounded by turkeys. However, they flew down to the east, into a large depression between my setup and a swamp. A gobbler responded occasionally to my calling, but he was surrounded by girlfriends. Eventually, I spied him about 150 yards away, strutting back and forth near the swamp edge.

Finally, after a long cat-and-mouse game, I used some jake yelps, jake gobbling and aggressive hen cutting to fire up the bird. In fact, another gobbler joined in, and both started moving toward me. The problem, however, was the 70 yards of wide-open woods between me and a terrain rise the birds would crest. And because I hadn’t used a decoy, the gobblers wouldn’t see a hen where they’d heard all that calling.

Sure enough, the first longbeard topped the rise, stared for a minute and then eased off. The second continued walking but at a safe distance. I never got a shot.

Conclusions: I should have at least set out one hen decoy. Better, I would have used a hen and a jake to back up my late-morning ploy. Perhaps the gobblers would have seen the fakes and committed all the way into gun range. I’d assumed the hunt would be a flash fly-down deal, and that I wouldn’t be yelping in birds from long distances. That oversight cost me a turkey.

Roll Tide

Veteran turkey hunter Wade Atchley was exploring some new ground near Titus, Ala., when a bird gobbled in the middle of a clearcut. Not just any clearcut, mind you; a ground-zero clearcut with as much cover as a Wal-Mart parking lot.

Atchley dove to a tree and yelped. The bird responded again, but it soon became apparent the turkey wasn’t coming closer. Atchley then rolled to his side, grabbed a collapsible decoy out of his vest, slowly held it up above the cover and turned it back and forth.

The gobbler slicked back his feathers and broke into a headlong charge, stopping only when Atchley shot him — almost in self defense.

Conclusions: Brilliant. The gobbler would likely have stayed in the open clearcut all day, perhaps gobbling at Atchley’s yelping but eventually wandering off. The decoy maneuver made the longbeard think the hot little hen was nearby and ready to breed.

Some folks might shake their head at this tactic, pointing out that holding a decoy while hunting could be dangerous. True, but Atchley was hunting ground where only he had permission, and he hadn’t seen or heard any evidence of other hunters in the area.

Don’t Show Me

Steve Stoltz had roosted a gobbler in a big oak tree bordering a long pasture. The next morning, we slipped to within 100 yards of the turkey, set out a hen and a strutter decoy, and then nestled into some fence-line cover. As darkness lifted, the bird began gobbling lustily.

Daylight increased, and I expected to see the turkey soon. About then, the bird abruptly stopped gobbling. Stoltz and I agreed later that the longbeard had seen the strutter decoy and clammed up. He eventually sailed away silently, and we never heard him again.

We killed two other turkeys during the next two days, so it was all good. Still, we chuckled at the cowardly gobbler from the pasture.

Conclusions: Gobbler decoys, as the saying goes, bring ’em running or send ’em running. Unless you’re familiar with the temperament of a specific gobbler, you don’t know the answer until a tom encounters your strutter fake.

Final Conclusions

No turkey hunting tool or trick works all the time, including decoys. Often, they provide the visual evidence necessary to attract birds or seal the deal. Sometimes, they might prompt an adverse reaction.

My bottom line? I always bring a decoy or two to the woods. If I think the situation calls for it, I’ll use them. If not, I won’t. If I make the wrong call, I note it for future reference. And if my hits outnumber my misses, I’m a happy turkey hunter.

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