Tips for Basic Turkey Decoy Setups
February 20, 2018
There's no doubt that turkey decoys can sometimes work wonders to draw in spring gobblers. These tips can help improve your score.
The reasons for using turkey decoys vary from a couple of different standpoints, and choosing to use them should be based upon a reasoned approach. One of the most prevalent reasons that I use a decoy is to give birds something visual to match my calling.
Since we're using hen calls to lure a tom — and a mature bird's tendency is to call the hen to him instead of the other way around — adding a visual cue to the audible lure will lower a tom's cautionary nature. Hunting in wide-open spaces, like pastures, is the biggest reason I use a turkey decoy.
The most memorable hunt I recall was with former Petersen's magazine editor Bob Sarber. After filling Bob's tag with a heavy longbeard in the first 10 minutes after fly-down, we topped an open ridge to the north of a creek to gain a better vantage and listening point to find a tom for me.
We heard gobblers answering us from the top of the ridge on the other side of the creek. Open pasture lay below us all the way to the sparsely tree-lined creek. More open pasture stretched across 250 yards to the base of the ridge that was wooded from bottom to top.
We dropped elevation and crossed the creek to find a spot to hide in the brush. Bob had a photo-realistic, flat decoy that I crawled into the field and set up side-on to face the wooded ridge. Once we got set, I started yelping. A hen responded from up the creek to the east.
Within a couple of minutes, she crossed from the middle of the pasture we faced. I yelped and she spied the hen decoy. She started aggressively yelping back and marched straight up to the decoy. When she walked around to go beak to beak, the flat decoy disappeared. Confused, she circled the decoy and got it back in sight. I purred softly, and the hen went nuts yelping.
All that yelping got the gobblers on the ridge fired up. We could hear several gobblers in one spot and another sounding off about 300 yards west of the first group.
Finally, one of the gobblers to the east and on top of the ridge took to the air and we watched it sail for a quarter-mile in a looping arc, first to the west, then circling back to the northeast. It had spied the decoy and the live hen in the valley below and landed about 20 yards away.
Once the first bird landed and got a bead on our live and fake decoys, another gobbler followed the same arcing flight to land in the same spot. The sight of another, and then a fourth gobbler sailing through the cool morning air will be forever etched in my mind.
The fact that all four toms were jakes kept me from pulling the trigger. They began strutting, but this time, it was for our sole decoy. I yelped softly and the toms gobbled in unison. I purred and they gobbled. I clucked and they gobbled. This went on for five minutes with the birds edging closer to 10 yards.
Enjoying the humor of the show, I started speaking to the quartet, "Hey, what are you gobbling at?"
They, too, went bonkers, double- and triple-gobbling. "Where's that longbeard," I asked.
They gobbled over and over again, but the more I spoke to them, the farther they edged away. Finally, they walked off, still gobbling.
Seconds after they left our sight, the other gobbler answered from the base of the ridge 250 yards to the southwest. I yelped several times, and moments later he appeared on the edge of the pasture.
I yelped a few times and he gobbled back. A few more steps to a slight rise and the tom could see our decoy. He broke strut and walked straight toward us for 200 yards. I quit calling and he stopped at 35 yards and broke into a strut. I cheeked the stock and found him in the crosshairs.
I single-clucked and he raised his head. I lit the fire on a 1 3/4-ounce load of Winchester No. 5s to end one of the most memorable hunts of my turkey-hunting career.
That's the sort of memory decoys can create.
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Since I rely heavily on my woodsmanship, knowledge of turkey habits and calling, decoying is just one turkey-hunting tool among many used to bag spring toms. I always carry a pair of decoys, a hen and a jake, in my vest and deploy them when the situation warrants. The previously shared hunt called for a visual cue for turkeys to focus on as they responded to calls. It was just the nudge of confidence the birds needed to cross hundreds of yards of open ground.
Building on the confidence aspect of decoys, just having a hen decoy present can serve as a calming factor. It's much the same as placing a heron decoy on the edge of a mallard decoy spread. It's a visual cue that all is safe and secure.
Flocking birds, like wild turkeys, feel safer in a group. If one or several turkey decoys are present, it presents a scenario that appeals to a turkey's natural instincts. During late-spring hunts for gobblers, after hens nest, it's common for gobblers to come back together like fall flocks.
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The search for food and sex are two critical aspects of turkey behavior that will elicit a reaction to a decoy. The competition for prime food sources, to a lesser degree in spring, or breeding rights to available hens, is sure to get a reaction to the right decoy setup.
The recent craze in turkey decoys is a strutting gobbler. It's not enough these days to just put out a hen or two and a jake on a stick. Strutting gobblers are all the rage. Some of these gobbler decoys mimic jakes in strut, while others sport full fans. Some even have a string-activated tail that will raise and lower to make them more realistic. In a stationary setup, these gobbler dekes play off a gobbler's aggressive nature and willingness to dominate rival toms.
It needs to be said: Gobbler decoys can be dangerous to a turkey hunter's health. I bounce back and forth between private and public land in many places I hunt. I wouldn't use a strutting tom on public land on a bet. That's because they could attract as many hunters as birds.
The most memorable example of a tom's willingness to fight and assert his dominance came during a hunt several years ago. I had been dropped off on the back side of a vast piece of property an hour before daylight. Not five minutes after the truck's taillights disappeared in the distance, the bottom dropped out, lightning flashed and the wind started howling. I had nowhere to shelter, so I crawled in the bushes and away from any trees that might attract lightning. Through the tumult, the thunder would crash and the turkeys would gobble. Finally, just after daylight the rain cleared, but the wind continued to gust.
The toms I heard on the roost about 100 yards away seemed to be willing participants to my charade, so I crawled a few yards and stuck out a hen and a jake decoy. They were the old, lightweight Feather Flex foam decoys, which would come into play a few minutes later. I crawled back a few yards to a skinny tree and began to call. I watched three toms fly down, and one of them walked my way.
When he spied my decoys, he gobbled and trotted in our direction. He didn't even stop to strut. He ran straight to my jake decoy and began flogging it and beating it with his wing butts. All the while, the wind was blowing about 25 miles per hour, and when he knocked it off the stake, it rose 8 feet into the air.
The tom jumped into the air above the wind-blown jake and knocked it back to the ground several feet downwind. He pinned it to the ground and began pecking at the decoy's head. While he was distracted, I swung my gun and drew a bead on his noggin. The load of shot took the fight out of the aggressive old longbeard and ended my hunt.
Sex, or the hope for it, is an obvious trigger for a springtime tom. One or more hens set in a feeding pose gives the obvious visual cue. Visibility should be considered when placing decoys. Be sure to place the fake turkey attractors so that approaching gobblers can see them at longer ranges. I've had gobblers spook at decoys when they get "surprised" at short range. Do your homework. Try to place decoys to allow a gobbler visibility at 50 yards or greater distance.
Decoy use should follow the various stages of spring turkey season. Veteran turkey hunter and former NWTF Grand National Turkey Calling Champion, Chris Parrish, deliberately alters his decoy setups to match the phase of the breeding activity.
"Throughout the breeding season, particular phases in behavior call for different setups," Parrish asserts. "When gobblers are establishing dominance in early season, I prefer to use a strutting gobbler while most of the gobblers are feeling aggressive toward each other.
"After the subordinate gobblers get thumped a few times, these birds may not come to a strutter decoy," said the Knight & Hale pro. That's a clear signal that it's time for a change.
"I'll switch to using hen decoys when gobblers might shy away from another gobbler. The one exception is if the hatch was poor the previous year and the jake crop was low. If that's the case, then I may add a jake decoy to play off a gobbler's willingness to display dominance over a lone jake."
Late in the season, Parrish switches back to strutting gobbler decoys for a different reason. "When hens are on the nest and the breeding is all but over, a strutting decoy makes sense when gobblers start regrouping. I'll throw in gobbler yelps and gobbles along with hen calls to bring them in."
Chasing wary toms and getting them close in the spring is a great thrill. That thrill is only enhanced with the addition of decoys to your turkey hunting arsenal. See if these tips don't up your score this season — and maybe get a bit more adrenaline pumping through your veins!