Turkey Decoy Pros & Cons
September 28, 2010
Do turkey decoys help a hunter bag his gobbler, or are they just one more burden for him to have to lug into the turkey woods? Here are some answers.
Three years ago, my son and I were invited on a guided afternoon hunt on a large piece of private property near the end of the spring turkey season.
We didn't bag a bird that afternoon, but we had a great time. In fact, we spent much of the time trying to stifle giggles.
What brought on the mirth? It was a multi-round battle between an aggressive turkey hen and an inflatable decoy.
When we arrived at our hunting spot, there was one of those camouflaged, pop-up tent blinds staked down at the edge of a clearing. We unzipped the door and stepped in. On the ground inside was an inflated hen-turkey decoy and a deflated identical one with a pencil-sized hole in it.
"A turkey attacked that one," the guide explained, indicating the damaged decoy. "I'll have to patch it."
He stepped out and put the inflated decoy on its stake, about 10 yards from the blind. When he re-entered the blind, we zipped the door closed and adjusted the window flaps so we could cover the clearing.
The guide leaned forward, put his face out the window, and blew two series of yelps on a diaphragm call. Then we sat back, each of us watching out a different side of the blind.
In very short order, a hen emerged from the woods. She craned her neck and turned her head this way and that. Over the next two or three minutes, she worked her way steadily but slowly closer.
When she reached a point where she could see our hen decoy bobbing in the breeze on its plastic stake, she grew bolder.
She approached the decoy and began making some low purring sounds. She walked around the decoy, looking away as if she were not interested and then whipping her head back around to look at it again. She yelped loudly and stretched her neck upward, as if she were looking around to see if more turkeys were coming.
She sidled closer and closer to the inflatable bird, finally brushing up against it.
Then the fun started.
Suddenly, she leaped into the air like a fighting rooster, kicking at the decoy with her feet and flapping it fiercely with her wings.
She appeared frustrated that the decoy would not fight back. She attacked it twice more before losing interest and starting to move off toward the edge of the clearing. When she had gone about 30 yards, the guide blew another series of soft yelps from inside the tent. The hen returned and attacked the decoy all over again.
Twice more she returned to deliver more kicks and pecks and wing beatings to our mute and defenseless decoy.
All the while, all of us were laughing into our coat sleeves and trying to keep from scaring the hen away with our giggling at her performance.
Finally, after 30 minutes or more of watching this one-sided battle, we decided we should let her go away, in hopes that a legal tom would show up -- and before she destroyed the second decoy!
Unfortunately, we didn't see a male bird that afternoon. But it was an enjoyable hunt nonetheless.
And I, who had avoided buying turkey decoys for years even though some of my friends swear by them, came home and went right to the nearest sporting goods store and bought a turkey decoy.
That fall, I attended a conference of outdoor writers where manufacturers of hunting and fishing equipment demonstrate their latest products for the outdoor press. It was an outside event on the shore of a lake. I was strolling down the aisles of booths when I looked across a couple of aisles and, for a second or two, I thought someone had tied a live gobbler to a stake for some kind of display.
But what I saw was a new decoy called a Pretty Boy, which came as a set with a submissive hen decoy called Pretty Girl. The tom decoy comes with an artificial tail fan, but was made so that you could replace the artificial one with a real turkey fan taken from a real bird. This display bird had a real turkey fan inserted, and, with a light breeze that made it wobble a little, it really looked like a fat ol' gobbler waddling and turning in a slow circle. (Continued)
Of course, I had to buy a set. And I could not wait for the next spring turkey season to roll around.
The decoy worked wonders.
Now, I will admit that on the particular hunting grounds where I often open my spring hunting season, you can kill a turkey without the aid of decoys. The few hunters who have access there know where the birds roost and approximately where the birds spend their days. It is fairly easy to set up an ambush and kill a passing bird there. But, of course, they prefer to call their birds and bide their time, always looking for the biggest and best bird to harvest.
I once brought a friend from London, England, with me. Needless to say, he had never hunted turkeys before -- or even seen one for all I knew. He was an ex-professional kangaroo hunter who spent a couple of years in the Australian outback, thinning out kangaroo populations and selling the meat. But he had never had the opportunity to bag a North American wild turkey.
I placed the tom and hen decoys about 30 yards in front of our blind. We could see a long distance in front and to our right through short-grass pasture, but there were thick woods and brush to our left and behind us.
The wind was just right -- strong enough to animate the gobbler decoy with a little motion, but not so strong that it whipped the bird around too much.
Way off on the other side of the pasture I saw two birds come out of the woods. I raised my binoculars and could see that they were both good-sized gobblers with decent beards. Either would be a fine trophy for my English friend's first kill.
I shook my gobbler call and the birds raised their heads and looked our way. They seemed to see the decoys, even though they were still hundreds of yards away. I shook the call again. First one bird broke into a run, then the other. They made a beeline across the pasture and came to within 15 yards of the decoy before putting on the brakes. At that point, they were about five yards past satisfactory range for our scatterguns.
One tom was braver than
the other. They kept their distance for a little while. They even took turns strutting and dragging their wings. They strutted back and forth past the decoy, acting as if they didn't even see it, but sneaked glances at it now and then.
Finally, they came directly to the decoy and began circling it. My friend raised his gun several times, but I cautioned him, "No, they're too close to the decoys."
For what seemed like an eternity, but was probably only 10 minutes, those two gobblers circled the fake bird, trying to figure out what his problem was. At last, my friend could stand the suspense no longer. The better of the two birds stepped to the left of the decoys and my pal rolled it with one shot.
But what was baffling was what the second bird did. Instead of running away in terror, it continued to circle the decoy repeatedly. The big tom ignored his dead companion, which had flopped to within inches of the decoy before dying, and even stepped over the carcass a few times as the live bird continued to study the decoy.
We waited perhaps 30 minutes before I finally told my friend that I was going to stand up and wave my arms and spook the second gobbler away. I wanted to get some photos of the man's trophy, and this wild bird showed no signs of wanting to leave on its own.
The following day, we had more gobblers come to the decoy. I was waiting for the biggest gobbler we had seen on the place, so I didn't kill any of the birds -- although there were several good-sized toms -- that came to our decoy and calls.
Then, on the last weekend of that spring turkey season, a tornado came along and blew away the hunting camp, destroying two travel trailers and a wooden building. The tornadoes also took my decoys and we never found them again.
I bought another set before the next season rolled around, though, and I'll probably never be without turkey decoys again. Decoys add a whole new dimension to the hunt, especially in the spring.
Are they an absolute necessity? No, probably not, at least in most situations. But will they help draw turkeys into range? Yes, I believe they will.
I will add one qualifier. That is, I have also seen toms shy away from decoys and even act more nervous than usual when they see the decoy. But more often, I have seen them come directly to the decoy and attempt to interact with it. That is true of both hens and toms.
I think that, next to a tight-choked, straight-shooting shotgun and the ability to use a call effectively, a turkey decoy is probably the most valuable tool in a turkey hunter's bag of tricks.
On another piece of property where I hunt occasionally and where turkeys are scarcer, I put a hen decoy out at the edge of a plowed field as an experiment. It was during deer season and I was spending a few days at the place. I raked the loose dirt in a circle about six yards across with the decoy right in the center, smoothing it to see what kind of tracks would be made. Then I went deer hunting.
I was hearing the occasional turkey yelp in the mornings, but not seeing any turkeys from my deer stand. After a couple of days, I went back to check on my decoy. Sure enough, there were turkey tracks -- several of them -- in the soil I had raked.
I have never shot a turkey on that particular place in hopes that the local population would grow larger before trying to harvest any birds there. But this spring or next, I will hunt there and I will definitely put my tom-and-hen set to work.
Decoys come in a variety of styles. Some are inflatable. Some are hard-plastic shells and some are made of soft-plastic foam. Some lie on the ground. Some are mounted on stakes. Some are very lifelike and some are less so. But even the less realistic-looking decoys seem to attract attention. The hen decoy described at the beginning of this story was, to me, not very authentic, but obviously, the live hen recognized it as a rival.
I've found that placing the decoy in a fairly open setting is helpful. It needs to be in a place where birds can see it easily. That is natural, because strutting toms tend to display in open areas anyway. Deploying the decoys within thick brush could be a wasted effort.
I would add a word of caution about the use of decoys, especially if you hunt public lands or lands where unknown hunters might be near. That is that you should probably carry the decoy in a sack of some kind while transporting it to and from the woods. And always stay alert for other hunters when your decoy is on display.
I carry mine in a blaze-orange mesh bag that Carry-Lite thoughtfully provided with the decoy set. It has shoulder straps so that the decoys can be carried as a backpack.
When placing the decoys, think about where other hunters might approach and set up your ambush so that you would not be in the line of fire should someone mistakenly shoot at your decoy.
Do you have to have a decoy for a successful turkey hunt? No, I don't think so. But it can be a definite advantage. And it definitely can make your hunts a lot more interesting.