Turkey Decoying Done Right
April 15, 2011
Do the gobblers run to your turkey decoy setup or do they run away from it? Here's what you may be doing wrong.
The distant gobblers thundered their raucous responses to my hen talk just as the last bit of darkness gave way to the anemic gray light of dawn. I had high hopes that the toms would be heading my way soon, and felt confident my setup spot would conceal me well enough to close the deal on a longbeard.
Modern decoys can look amazingly realistic and lifelike to hunters, but it's the turkeys they have to fool. This big gobbler obviously has been duped! Photo courtesy of www.davesmithdecoys.com.
I pulled my facemask higher over my nose and my cap lower, as I prepared for the action to come. Twenty yards away, my hen decoys came to life as they slowly danced in the spring breeze. I watched them closely, mesmerized by their authenticity, before making a few mating yelps on my glass friction call.
Instantly, a gobbler fired off his lusty response straight in front of me. And then two others toms gobbled, one to my right and the other to my left!
The gobblers were now on the ground and heading my way. I was almost surrounded by gobblers, so I backed up ever tighter to the bark of the giant tree I sat under. I knew the trio of toms had a lock on my position and would soon be within eyesight of my decoys. I sat still and focused my gaze on the plastic pair of turkeys 20 yards away.
In mere seconds, the toms converged and began their mating dances to see who could out-strut the others and win the hen's affection. The amusing sight gave me time to size up the gobblers; all three appeared to be 2-year-old toms with almost identical 9-inch beards.
RELATED READ: Gearing Up For Gobblers
The toms began making aggravated purrs, and their rattling calls indicated a fight was brewing. The trio of love-stricken gobblers was intent on claiming the two fake hens for their harems. Instead of enjoying the entertainment, I settled the bead of Ol' Moe -- my Mossberg 935 12-gauge Turkey Special -- on the junction of the caruncles and feathers. My shot knocked the closest tom backward. The other two toms immediately started flogging their deceased comrade. When they got bored and left, I collected my trophy.
The decoys had done their job to authenticate my calling and to focus the gobblers' attention elsewhere, giving me time to slowly swing my shotgun on the closest tom. Since that day, I have never gone into the spring woods without turkey decoys. They are one of the most valuable tools in my turkey-hunting arsenal.
PICKING THE RIGHT DECOYS
When it comes to choosing the right turkey decoys today, there is a good bit of minutia to wade through. Deciding which decoys are correct for your hunting situation can be a perplexing task. The market is full of decoys that will get the job done, but which decoys are right for your personal hunting situation?
Before choosing a decoy, you must first ask yourself a few basic questions. Is the decoy going to be used as a visual aid for calling distant turkeys across an open field? Are the decoys going to be used to lure in a wary gobbler that hasn't been very responsive to calling? Will one decoy do the job or would more be better? Should I use a hen, adult tom, or jake decoy, or maybe a combination of the three? Is the size and weight of the decoys a consideration when considering the sometimes-rigorous demands of turkey hunting?
Terry Knight fooled this wary gobbler with a hen and strutting-tom decoy combination, a deadly setup in today's turkey woods. Photo by Mike Lambeth.
Those questions can help you decide the type of decoys you'll need.
Decoys come in all shapes and sizes -- and in a variety of price ranges, as well. Decoys have evolved from once-bland turkey shapes to incredibly lifelike models. In fact, some decoys today are actually mounted turkeys.
World-Champion taxidermist Cally Morris has made quite a name for himself as a turkey taxidermist. His taxidermy shop annually mounts hundreds of turkeys. Several years ago, Morris started producing mounted decoys of jakes and hens, and almost overnight his decoys became one of the most sought-after items in the turkey-hunting industry. Utilizing a preservation method that allows the head and body to be more flexible, the decoys sell for $545 each. Morris attends several sport shows each year and at each one quickly sells out of his popular "stuffed" decoys.
Most store-bought decoys are collapsible and constructed of foam, plastic, rubber, or cloth. However, a few models are made of rigid polycarbonate and do not collapse. Some decoys are sold as sets featuring a hen and jake, while others offer a pair of hens and a jake.
A few years back, Carry-Lite Decoys introduced Pretty Boy and Pretty Girl -- a popular combo featuring a strutting tom and a submissive hen. The hen was placed on the ground to imitate a bird ready to be bred, while the dominant tom was placed nearby. Pretty Boy came with a photo-realistic tail that was removable, but better results were achieved by using an actual tail fan from a previously harvested tom. Turkey legends Harold Knight and David Hale heralded the decoys' breakthrough in their turkey DVDs and the decoy tandem became a huge seller.
RELATED READ: Windy Weather Gobblers
Some decoys are totally flat yet achieve amazing results. Montana Decoys has an impressive photo-realistic silhouette decoy that folds up to be compact and works very well. Outdoor television host Mark Scroggins uses the decoys and claims they have some great benefits.
"Since I already have to carry a lot of camera equipment, I really appreciate Montana's lightweight decoys," he said. New for 2011, the decoys will feature the turkey photos of award-winning wildlife photographer Tes Randle Jolly.
Flambeau offers turkey decoys that have a flocked finish -- the King Strut tom and their ultra-realistic Shady Lady decoys. Flambeau's Tad Brown explained the reasoning behind the flocking, "We wanted the decoys to look real and not shine like some decoys do."
Primos also offers two strutting decoys -- B-Mobile and Killer-B. Their decoys are slightly smaller than other strutting models and hunting guides I know claim they are very effective, and don't scare as many toms as other decoys sometimes do.
Recently a friend showed me a new turkey decoy that was very impressive. The decoy was a hard body variety, and one of the most authentic I have ever seen. Made by Dave Smith Decoys of Lebanon, Oregon, the feather detail was incredible. I was amazed when I watched the decoy in action -- it lured in a tough Southern swamp gobbler. DSD also has a jake decoy, and is releasing a strutting tom this spring. DSD now offers a new technology that allows their decoys to be semi-collapsible. The decoys aren't cheap (a set of two hens and a jake sells for $400), but for hunters who want the ultimate in realism, these incredible turkey decoys are worth every penny.
When a tom tries to mount your hen decoy, you know he thinks it's real! Photo courtesy of www.davesmithdecoys.com.
CLOSING THE DEAL WITH DECOYS
Over the years, I've heard many old-school turkey chasers who don't use decoys lament about toms that they couldn't get into shotgun range. Employing a decoy setup in the right position can be the difference between scoring or going home empty handed.
In most turkey hunting scenarios, hunters know from which direction the toms will approach before setting up the decoys. However, keep in mind that when turkey hunting, there are no absolutes! If you hunt long enough you will be left scratching your head on occasion and wondering how you got fooled.
The simplest decoy setup utilizes a single hen decoy. That time-honored tactic has probably put more turkeys on the dinner table than any other method. Hen turkey decoys are not ominous in appearance, and actually can settle down call-shy toms. Hen decoys work great in both spring and fall, and rarely will they scare off approaching toms.
Notice I said "rarely." When I first started turkey hunting in the early 1980s, I used collapsible foam hen decoys. The decoys were as light as a feather and took up very little room in the game bag of my turkey vest. The only downfall to these stupendous "dekes" was their notoriety for spinning in windy conditions. I recall a hunt when I set up a pair of these ultralight wonders, and my mediocre calling lured a small bachelor group of four toms to within 60 yards. These love-crazed birds lusted intently after my foam fakes! They did, that is, until a big gust of wind blew the decoys off the stakes and actually propelled them toward the approaching turkeys. Needless to say, the toms went airborne and my hunt was ruined.
I learned my lesson. From that day on, in windy conditions, I employ two additional decoy stakes -- one on each side of the tail to prevent the decoys from any sudden movements.
When the strutting decoy craze took off I must admit I was a bit skeptical. My suspicions were confirmed during an early-season hunt when my guide placed his strutting decoy in the middle of a backwoods road, while I took a position nearby. The guide set up farther down the road from me, with intentions that any turkeys that hung up might still be in range for my shotgun.
Being a contest caller, my guide quickly called in four toms that gobbled at every call he threw at them. They gobbled until they were hoarse, but refused to come down the road when they laid eyes on the huge strutting decoy. Eventually, the birds became silent and left, allowing me to circle around in front of one of the toms. A few soft calls later with no decoy and I lowered the hammer on a 23-pound trophy. Needless to say, my guide learned a valuable lesson that day; during the early-season, strutting decoys can sometimes intimidate even mature toms.
The lesson I learned that day is this: In most areas, until the breeding season reaches peak activity, toms can be easily spooked by the intimidating decoys. However, when conditions are right, gobblers will literally run over strutting decoys, and actually flog them until the dekes are completely knocked off their stakes.
Several years ago I learned a valuable lesson about decoy placement. Don't get in a hurry to set up decoys, before you know exactly where you will set up. I learned that lesson one afternoon while making a blind call across an agricultural field. In haste, my hunting buddy placed his two hen decoys 40 yards away from our setup. I grumbled at his blunder but continued calling and was immediately answered by a gobbler nearly 400 yards away. We dove for cover and I methodically worked the wary gobbler for more than an hour before the bronze baron came in, hanging up 20 yards beyond our decoys.
When it became clear the tom wasn't coming any closer I was left without a shot. However the nimble nimrod beside me was able to bag the tom with his canon-sized 10-gauge. Later he chuckled and explained, "I knew my shotgun had the capabilities of making a shot at that distance. I guess I wasn't thinking about your shotgun."
From that point on, I paid careful attention to decoy placement.
When setting out decoys, keep in mind that toms will sometimes hang up just out of range. It's a good idea not to set up decoys any farther than 20 yards away.
For safety reasons, decoys should be set up
where you have a complete view of any approaching hunters. That tip can save your life if a careless hunter shoots in your direction.
When transporting decoys, make sure to have them completely concealed in a carrying bag, or inside your turkey vest. With the lifelike colorations available on turkey decoys today, never present a safety hazard by having a decoy's head sticking out of your vest!
RELATED READ: Pro Tips For Public Land Gobblers
DECOYING TIPS FROM THE PROS
Years ago, while hunting with Troy Ruiz, I learned a valuable tip for decoying wary toms. Ruiz set up two hens in an opening as if following each other, and then placed a jake decoy behind the pair.
"I believe this setup gives the illusion that a jake is following the two hens trying to breed them," he explained. "Any time a jake tries to breed a hen it incenses a gobbler."
Knowing when and where to place a turkey decoy is pivotal in turkey hunting. Scroggins advises hunters to place their decoys no closer than 15 yards, but no farther than 20 yards from where the hunter will set up.
"If you place your decoys too close to your position, approaching turkeys can zero in on them and possibly spot a hunter moving," the pro explained. "If you place your decoys too far away, then a tom that hangs up just out of range can be too far to shoot. But with a decoy 20 yards away, generally a tom can still be taken."
Scroggins claims that he has his best success using gobbler decoys earlier in the season, and claims that tom decoys work best in areas where there aren't too many jakes. He says that he has had great success while hunting field turkeys by setting up a hen decoy in the field and then placing a strutting decoy along the edge in the shade.
Always be sure to consult your hunting regulations on the legality of using turkey decoys in your area. Check especially for any differences in regulations for private and public lands. Use extreme caution when using decoys. Remember to exercise caution against ever wearing red, white, blue or black colors -- the colors of a gobbler.
One last warning: Beware of bovine intervention! Any time you set up decoys near cows, you can bet the curious bovines will be drawn to your location. Many times I have had to chase marauding cattle away, usually after they knocked down and almost licked the finish off my decoys!