Decoy Tactics For April Gobblers

Adjusting the way you use decoys to increase your odds of fooling a late-season tom this year. These tips should make the process easier. (April 2008)

Using an innovative set of decoys can convince a late-season tom to make his last mistake.
Photo by Todd Pridemore.

As the first light of morning filtered over the vast crop field before me, gobbles began to roll off the timbered bluff behind me.

Instead of getting excited, though, I felt a sense of panic. I was facing the wrong direction!

Since I was hunting a new piece of property for the very first time, I'd chosen my setup location based on my conversation with the landowners a few days before the hunt.

According to the owners, the birds had been roosting near the west edge of their property -- the direction that I was now facing. Unfortunately, the vocal toms I heard had decided to change their roosting location. They were in a patch of trees about 140 yards behind me.

To make matters worse, I literally could not move. To position myself within shotgun range of the field, I had set up in the only suitable cover I could find: a small lonely cedar tree that sat in an otherwise clean fencerow! Thankfully, the cedar's dense branches prevented the gobbling toms from seeing my backside. Other than the protection of that small tree, I was sitting out in the open with nowhere else to hide.

On top of everything else, I had absolutely no way to look in the direction of the roosted turkeys without being seen. If a tom did approach my setup, I wouldn't see it until he was standing right next to my jake decoy. I made a mental note to never again put myself in such a visually impaired situation while turkey hunting.

That left me with two options. I could move around and certainly spook the toms that were gobbling behind me. Or I could sit tight and try to make the best out of this bad situation. I decided to try to make the best of things, and slowly pulled the calls out of my pack and prepared to begin calling.

After waiting for the gobblers to sound off a few more times, I produced the most seductive yelps my box call could muster.

For the next several minutes we talked back and forth. Then I heard the faint sound of gliding wings. Things were about to get interesting!

Looking out toward my hen and jake decoys that sat in the fresh earth of the crop field, I wondered -- would the unique decoy setup help me harvest a spring trophy once again?

I wasn't 100 percent certain that I was going to bag a gobbler that morning, but the positioning of those decoys had stacked the odds largely in my favor. That was even after I'd already messed up by sitting on the wrong side of the cedar tree!

After five minutes of yelps, purrs, clucks and gobbles, silence filled the air. I was almost ready to believe that the toms had followed some hens away, when out of nowhere, two longbeards appeared next to the jake decoy. (Continued)

Long ago, thankfully, I learned to have my shotgun up on my knee and ready to go for times like this -- when gobblers appear as if by magic. This hunt was just about over.

After one tom trounced the synthetic jake, I waited for the two birds to separate before pulling the trigger. As one moved toward the crouched hen decoy, I put the bead on his head and pulled the trigger. At 6:18 a.m. the 26-pound, double-bearded monster dropped!

Walking over to the fallen trophy, I glanced at the squatting hen and jake decoys that played a key role in my successful hunt.

WHY IT WORKS
If you've spent much time observing turkeys in the spring, you have probably noticed two key facts about their behavior.

First, when a hen is ready to be bred, she squats down on the ground and waits for a gobbler to come up behind her to mate. In fact, this courtship behavior often becomes a sort of dance between the hen and the gobbler. The tom approaches the crouching hen, which then jumps up and trots off right before being mounted. The hen runs for a short distance, and then squats again.

Eventually, if the tom continues pursuing her, the willing hen remains in the squatting position as the male advances, and the gobbler gets the opportunity to breed.

In the springtime, I've seen gobblers run across wide fields to get to a squatting hen. This past spring, in fact, moments after I shot that dominant gobbler, three other toms flew down from their roost trees and raced toward my crouching hen decoy only a few yards away from the dead bird!

When a tom sees a hen display this behavior, he doesn't waste any time getting to her. It's his visual cue that the hen is ready and willing. If he's not the first male to arrive, he might miss out on that opportunity to breed.

The second key is another commonly observed situation. It's a fact that during the mating season, the big mature gobblers are going to put the little guys -- the jakes -- in their place. If a dominant tom sees a jake too close to his girls, the jake better put some distance between himself and the "boss." Otherwise the jake is going to be in for a beating!

Pretty obviously, the older toms don't want the younger guys getting comfortable around hens. That can lead to a jake getting the chance to mate with a hen that's ready to breed.

A few years ago, with these two things in mind, I began positioning my decoys to take advantage of these natural turkey tendencies. I set up a hen decoy with its belly lying on the ground, as if ready to be bred. Then I position a jake decoy a few yards away, as if he's approaching the hen from behind.

I know, some people prefer to place the jake decoy right on the hen's tail feathers, as if the jake was mounting the female. I don't set my decoys up in this way -- for several reasons.

First, I don't want the gobbler to come in to the decoys on a dead sprint. If the gobbler sees some distance between the jake and the hen, he won't feel as rushed to get there. That gives me a little bit more time to prepare for the shot.

Second, I don't like my decoys to be completely motionless. If the air currents can give them just a little bit of movement, they'll appear more lifelike. Since the hen decoy is down on its belly, its movement is restricted. However, by positioning the jake to "stand," the breeze

can subtly move him, adding some realism.

Finally, it's not very realistic to see a jake sitting on top of a hen for minutes on end. By separating the jake from the hen, the decoys look as natural as possible to the real turkeys.

This decoy setup has worked for me on several occasions. Three years ago, when only a few days were left in the season, I used this strategy to bag a gobbler that had roosted with several hens.

The big tom had been gobbling for several minutes before I sent some soft yelps in his direction. That was all the encouragement he needed. He instantly flew down and began strutting toward my two decoys.

In fact, if the gobbler hadn't taken a few minutes for strutting on his way in, he'd have arrived before legal shooting light!

This decoy setup tactic is hard to beat throughout the mating season, but it's particularly deadly as the breeding winds down. This is thanks to the way the hens react to gobblers as the season progresses.

Deer hunters know how important it is for a buck to find a "hot doe" during the rut -- and how non-receptive does will do whatever they can to avoid being pursued by antlered deer. The same principle applies to turkeys in the spring.

As the season wears on, the hens shy away from toms, becoming more and more elusive as they disperse to their individual nesting sites. Meanwhile, the hot-blooded gobblers are searching tirelessly for another mating opportunity.

Near the conclusion of the spring season, fewer and fewer hens feel the need to be bred. This means that late-season toms focus all their efforts on trying to find that one hen that might possibly be interested. This usually leads gobblers to seek out and follow any lone hen they can find.

I witnessed this firsthand while hunting late in the season this past spring. As the daylight dawned, six different longbeards were gobbling within calling range. This morning -- unlike earlier in the season, when the receptive hens had been as thick as the mosquitoes -- only one hen entered the field where I was sitting.

It quickly became apparent that she wasn't thrilled about being the only available girl in the singles bar.

As soon as she flew down from her roost, she was quickly joined by three mature toms that shadowed her every move. Those big boys were going to follow her wherever she went, hoping for the opportunity to mate.

Thankfully, the hen moved toward my decoys, passing within 10 yards of my shotgun. Her boyfriends followed right in her tracks.

I tagged my gobbler that morning, not because I called the toms to my setup, but because I'd attracted that late-season hen. When she came my way, there was no doubt that the longbeards would follow.

As in the hunt I just described, using this decoy setup in the late season can also serve to draw hens to your vicinity -- which usually means a gobbler will be close behind.

Of course, if your goal is to attract hens, you have to alter your calling. This means calling loudly and aggressively. Oftentimes, a real hen will answer your yelps and clucks. When she does, mimic what she says.

There are several reasons why the hen might choose to come your way. She might walk in your direction simply for female companionship, or she may be looking to put an uppity hen -- actually, you -- in her place.

Personally, I wouldn't be surprised if many a late-season hen moves toward other hens' yelps because they hope that any trailing gobblers will turn their attention toward the new girls, freeing her to escape to her nest unnoticed.

Obviously, these decoying tactics I've described go a bit against the grain of conventional wisdom. That's because many hunters choose to use a full-strut, long-bearded gobbler decoy in their setup. Although such decoys are among the hottest items in turkey hunting right now, if I did own one, I'd leave it at home during the late season. That's when most hens are doing everything they can to avoid mature toms.

Moments after I shot that dominant gobbler, three other toms flew down from their roost trees and raced toward my crouching hen decoy, only a few yards away from the dead bird!

Before you use a mature gobbler decoy, imagine the scenario you're creating for the turkeys you hunt. For a late-season hen that's done breeding, you're staged the very situation that she wants to avoid. If she sees your strutting gobbler decoy, that gives her a reason to stay away from it -- and you. And if she has real gobblers tailing her, she'll draw those toms away from you also.

And what about the gobblers? I'm not convinced that a full-strut tom decoy attracts as many live gobblers to your setup as does a jake. Although the decoy could possibly infuriate --and bring in -- the one dominant male in the flock, it may also keep away any less-dominant birds.

So how do you get the most out of this special decoy strategy? First of all, this setup works best where it can be seen from a long distance.

Ideally, turkeys should be able to spot your decoys from their roost tree. If possible, place your fake birds in a large barren crop field or other wide-open place. If a gobbler sees the hen decoy squatting, he'll usually make a quick decision to come in.

Also keep in mind that this decoy setup works best at dawn, when the birds are flying down from their roost. Most of the hens are bred during the first hour or two of daylight, so it makes sense that a gobbler will respond quickly to any squatting hen he sees at first light.

In addition, it's important to temper your calling when using this decoy strategy. Once you have a gobbler's attention, don't call too aggressively.

"Live" squatting hens call softly, if at all. As soon as I have a gobbler moving toward my decoys, I call very softly and sparingly, usually using more purrs and soft clucks than anything else.

Of course, the exception is if you are trying to draw in a hen that's being trailed by one or more toms.

Finally, make sure your setup directs the approaching gobbler to stand in the best position for you to get off a shot without being busted. Position the jake decoy so that it's facing you, and stand him a few yards behind the crouching hen.

A gobbler usually first approaches a jake from the front, to confront him. This permits you to move slightly if you need to line up your shot, since the tom's tail fan blocks his view of whatever's behind him.

As you prepare for this turkey season, make sure you have at least one hen and one jake decoy ready to bring with you. When you position them in your favorit

e turkey hunting area, keep in mind the different behavioral factors that influence how gobblers and hens interact with each other during this time of year. This decoy set-just may be your ticket for harvesting a longbeard this spring.

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