Are Decoys Magic, A Tool Or A Curse?
Over the years we have discussed on these pages the use of decoys, whether they be for ducks, geese, deer, coyotes or turkeys.
Each hunter has their own way of setting decoys.
There are basic rules to follow, goose and duck decoys should face into the wind because they generally land into the wind, deer decoys shouldn’t generally be used in heavily hunted areas and keep coyote decoys in your shooting lane but far enough where they can be seen at distance.
In regards to turkey decoys there are often no hard and fast rules.
Having hunted turkeys across this great country of ours, I have watched and studied how turkeys react to decoys in different areas. South of the Mason-Dixon line, hunters generally aren’t using a gobbler as much as their northern brethren. West of the Mississippi River, decoys are used to convince gobblers that all is good or often times they are left in the decoy bag. These of course are generalizations and each hunt calls for different techniques.
Some spring turkey hunters swear by decoys and yet others curse them because they have had a bad past experience of getting busted while using them. In most instances when a turkey hunter has a bad experience using decoys, it is almost always the operator’s fault — go figure.
Recently, I have picked up and been able to use with success a couple tricks that often go against tried and true methods. We have found that using a couple of these has been the difference from tag soup and fresh turkey dinner. When you can’t get a turkey to come, try placing your blind between decoys and the birds.
I was asked at a seminar recently why hunters get busted when using decoys?
My first question to ask them is where were their decoys set up at? The answer is generally right in front of the blind. Decoys are designed to distract a gobbler and have him focus his attention on something other than yourself so you can get positioned to shoot him. When you are behind the decoy, the approaching turkey is looking right into your portable turkey blind. Instead, determine where a likely gobbler will approach from and position portable hunting blinds between him and the decoys, ideally on your shooting side.
Know your range. You want your pop up blind close to your decoys or at least half the distance you can shoot. For example, if you can effectively pattern your shotgun out at 40 yards, you want your decoys out at 20 yards. The mistake many hunters make is their decoys are set out as far as they can shoot. What happens? A gobbler gets nervous and hangs up at 60 yards and you have blown your hunt. Keep turkeys close from ground blinds so you either have a close shot or at worst a shot that is within range.
Ground blinds should be concealed, but not your turkey decoys. Decoys should be placed in open areas such as fields, rights-of-way or open timber. Putting out a set of hen decoys in thick brush 20 yards from your ground blind so that you can barely see is a waste of time. Gobblers react well and are less likely to spook if they can see the decoy from far off. One of the main purposes of using decoys is to give a bird something to draw his attention in with and if your decoys are buried in the brush, you will never give him that chance.
Fall turkey hunting warrants more decoys because birds are flocked up as opposed to the spring where there is more one-on-one interaction between birds. Again, the purpose of using turkey decoys as part of your ground blind hunting toll bag is to create authenticity around your calling. A big flock of six hens and a jake set out in front of your pop-up turkey blind is not realistic in the spring.
In the fall spread your decoys out, often several different decoys are deployed outside your ground blinds like a hen and a jake or multiple hens. When you are using more than one decoy, make sure there is plenty of space between all of them. A gobbler approaching from a distance may not be able to recognize what you are trying to emulate if all the decoys are bunched together. Similarly, if your decoys are too close and a gobbler runs in, you may have a hard time getting a shot on him. A mature gobbler may also be unwilling to join in on the action and bypass you altogether.
Hunting ground blinds and turkey decoys should both be prepared for the weather. You probably have your ground blinds secured enough unless it is severe weather in which case you will not be out hunting anyway. However, even light breezes and hard rains — depending on the style of decoys you are using — can cause them to look unnatural. Be prepared with extra stakes to secure decoys or that whirling hen decoy in front of your portable turkey blind will be the only thing you see.
A gobbler’s desires change from week to week in the spring. Early on they are determining dominance in an area so aggressive decoy set ups work well to lure big, mature birds in looking for a fight.
Next, comes breeding.
Gobblers will move from fighting to breeding a few weeks into the season and be less receptive to aggressive decoy postures. Younger birds can be lured into jake decoys during this time because they feel they can take on a smaller bird for a chance at part of the breeding grounds. But strutters will scare these younger birds away as they have not forgotten previous losing battles to boss gobblers earlier in the year. Try a jake decoy matched with a hen as breeding moves into full force. Gobblers will look to break up the action if they catch sight of a receptive hen in their area with a young bird. After breeding is over and hens move on to nesting, use a single feeding hen to lure in receptive gobblers to your pop-up turkey blinds later in the season.
If you had no other decoy set up to use from your ground blinds, the jake and hen would be it. This set up works well early through late season up until hens start to nest. Early on gobblers will come in to fight away a jake while later on as breeding ramps up a big tom will come running in to displace what he thinks is a jake crossing into his territory and moving in on his hens.
The assumption with this turkey decoy strategy is that you are hunting mature gobblers. Sometimes if the area you are hunting is heavily polluted with jakes, you are better off just using a hen decoy. Remember to position the turkey decoys off to your shooting side and not have your portable turkey blind directly in line with how you expect a bird to come in. Otherwise, his full attention may not be on the decoys but rather on you and your blind.
If you don’t have feeding hen decoy in your bag, you should. When turkeys are feeding they are calm and relaxed. If you put out a hen decoy that is upright and alert, a cunning boss gobbler will get the sense that something is not right or that she is alert for a particular reason. A group of feeding hens, 2-4 of them, works well when breeding has picked up and gobblers are looking for hens. You can add a strutter behind the hens if it is further into the breeding season to spark some competition if you are hunting in areas that contain mature birds. Keep the strutter positioned behind the hens like he is trailing them, which is a typical situation in the spring. Turkey hunters are reluctant to put out a strutting gobbler decoy for fear that the dominant nature of it may make a bird hesitant to come in.
When setting a strutter, position it so the strutter face away from where you believe a gobbler will approach from. Early season birds looking to dominate will see an away facing gobbler as an advantage to taking him on.
When using a strutter don’t just use it for no reason. Understand where the birds are in the breeding cycle in which you are hunting. Strutter in your set works more effectively earlier in the season when birds are willing to challenge other gobblers for breeding rights.
Bottom line, turkey decoy strategies work effectively when planned out with ground blind hunting. Although it can happen, it is rare to throw up a decoy and make a few clucks and see a big gobbler running in. The more common scenario is having to plan your turkey hunting blind placement and decoy set up down to the last detail.
Speaking of detail, we haven’t spoken about the quality of the decoy. Now, I am going to say something that I seldom say, you get what you pay for. The quality of decoys has increased ten-fold in the past few years. I know you would never think about paying close to over $100 for turkey decoy but am telling you all this, you get what you pay for.
Today’s decoys are realistic and last much longer than foam decoys we started out with. For what it’s worth I have witnessed firsthand and looking at 100 hours of spring video each year how mature gobblers react to decoys and I am convinced that new top of line decoys are more than worth the extra coin.
As the weather seems to have broken here in our part of turkey country, it’s time to get ready. This year start your process with making sure your decoy bag is well stocked with quality decoys.