April 10, 2023
I'm convinced that turkeys have personalities and attitudes as diverse as the habitats they occupy across the continent. Some are always out looking for trouble while others shy away from confrontation at every turn—hens and gobblers alike. Knowing that to be the case, it's important to prepare yourself with the correct decoy in the right scenario.
Last spring, a couple of good buddies visited me in Minnesota for a hunt, and in both cases, we used a strutter decoy—and both times it got throttled. In the Deep South, I rarely use a jake decoy featuring an aggressive posture. Sure, they work on occasion, but for me and the many turkeys I've encountered in Alabama and Mississippi, the birds just don't seem to like a semi- or full-strut decoy. In that case I change to a submissive "wimpy-looking" jake or even just hens.
So, understanding where to begin starts with information garnered during your pre-season and then in-season scouting. Pay attention to your trail cameras and any long-distance viewing you're able to accomplish while running your turkey milk routes. I watch my Moultrie Mobile Edge cameras like a hawk, and I've learned a lot about turkey attitude. And that information led to the right decoy more often than not.
It's also critical to understand that in nature, the hens usually come to the toms, which is why you'll often see a gobbler hang up in an open area while approaching your decoys—he expects the ladies to come and see him. Forcing Mother Nature's hand is the very essence of what makes turkey hunting so difficult, yet so satisfying.
The turkey hierarchy and how they establish themselves within the flock is also important to understand. The short of it is each and every turkey has a place in the pecking order—and they know exactly where they stand. As the spring progresses, those positions may change based on dominance battles, even hunting pressure. You've certainly seen when the lead gobbler takes a round to the face, folds into the flop and his buddy sticks around to jump on him and peck his head, right? Well, that's a restructuring of the pecking order.
How Many Decoys?
One Gobbler: If there is a single bird walking through and he is often alone, it's a pretty safe bet that turkey is somewhat of a loner or an outcast. This can often mean he's an older bird, too. As toms age, they typically prefer solitude and don't go looking for fights as often. Although he may be more willing to stand up to an intruder on his home turf, he'll be a tough nut to crack—he's seen this game a time or two. If it's a 2-year-old, there's a good chance that turkey is anti-confrontational.
Truth is, it's hard to tell how either bird might react to a jake decoy. I'd error on the side of caution in a situation like this. I'd take one jake in a passive position, such as the Flextone Funky Chicken or some other version that doesn't say, "I'm here to kick butt …" I'd also include a breeder hen and a single feeding hen for confidence. If he acts scared or timid and won't commit, return at a later date with just a hen decoy or two and he'll likely finish.
Two Gobblers: In the case of two toms hanging out together, consider this a gift from the Good Lord. I've found hunting a pair is probably the best-case scenario for a turkey hunter. More turkeys than that and you have more minds, more eyes and ears to fool. But two buddies together can be pretty consistent. In this case, I'd take a jake, breeder hen and a feeder or two. The jake and breeder hen placed in the classic "Spring Jealousy" position will likely entice an attack—in this case, I prefer the Dave Smith Decoys jake or the. Avian-X HDR quarter- or half-strut jakes
If you see the two toms often fighting, or chasing jakes around, a strutter decoy might be worth a consideration here, as well. Use their trail-cam produced on-screen demeanor to help you decide which decoys to bring.
Three or More: If you're hunting a large group of turkeys that may include numbers of mature toms, I'd almost always go with a strutting decoy here—then add in a few hens to present a realistic flock. There are lots of options to choose from, and most will work fine. I prefer the Flambeau Master Series Flocked King Strut decoy with a real fan in this case—it's realistic and the toms just get super mad at it. This is the same decoy I use for fanning or reaping turkeys.
Naturally, if a subdominant turkey gets his butt kicked all season long, he's going to know that another tom (decoy) might mean another whipping, and he's going to avoid it. Conversely, if you're hunting a large group of birds and they're constantly fighting, take the aggressive route in you set up.
As the pecking order is still under construction at this point, it's worth experimenting with more aggressive decoy spreads. The turkeys will ultimately tell you how acceptable your plan is—if you have a tom show up, get skittish and walk away, pull down your jake decoy and maybe reposition. The reality is the more aggressive/dominant birds are going to come in and check things out and maybe challenge the "intruder."
In ag country, especially where I hunt in Iowa and Minnesota, the landscape lends itself to hunters using various decoys. During the early part of the season, a spread of five, six or even seven decoys might put a dominant tom in FOMO mode—and that ain't gonna fly in his territory. They usually come running when it sets in that a party is in process without them.
How does that many decoys look? Depending on the number of toms in the area, I'll put out either the Spring-Jealousy combo or a full strut tom with a group of feeders. At a distance, the strutter really forces them to close the distance, but a subdominant bird will begin to hang up around 75 yards and may avoid the party altogether.
When hunting small food plots, an acre or less, keep the decoys fully visible from all directions. I've seen decoys surprise an approaching bird and that generally doesn't end well. You need the turkeys you're hunting to have adequate time to see the decoys and comfortably approach.
In an effort to stay mobile, I'll often carry the jake and a breeder hen for quick sets. But when I've got my kids handy, or another hunter we'll take a few decoys to beef up the spread.
The middle of the season is a fine time to employ various decoying techniques, including fanning. More on that in a bit.
At this point, the pecking order is likely fully established and the birds are quite broken up and spread out. This is when I like to stay on the move looking for willing birds in every possible location. Continue to rely on your trail cameras at this time, too. Because the birds are on their own, a few teams of trips or pairs will still be together, but they'll continue to grow intolerant of each other, and fights often occur.
For my money, I'll most likely be using two to three decoys at the max. A semi-strut jake and a pair of hens at the very most.
Fanning: While it certainly works earlier in the season, the larger groups of birds are harder to break up. But the middle of the season is a great time to sneak across an open field behind the strutter decoy with the fanning/reaping technique. Anytime you have a pair of gobblers together creates a prime situation to sneak in on them. Two toms together are very susceptible to this technique.
There is a right and wrong way to use this thing, however. If you go too fast, they'll spook for sure. The key is to use some sort of hill or geographical rise in a field to mask your approach, slowly "walk" the decoy over the crest at a distance and let them see it—I'd say a minimum of 100 to 150 yards. Simply turning the decoy side to side while you lay prone behind it will often be enough to bring them in on a string. Once in a while though, you may need to close the distance and crawl behind it—go very slowly and pause often, turning the decoy 90 degrees side to side.
If they commit, be prepared to shoot one out of self-defense, they have been known to full-on attack the decoy in this format.
Also, always practice safety with this technique. I'd not necessarily recommend performing the fanning process on any public land. I'd say fanning is nearly exclusively an open-field-on-private-land thing.
As the season is winding down, so should your aggressive decoy applications. While there are certainly exceptions to this rule, in general I'll tote a feeding hen and if a few toms are still hanging out together, the Funky Chicken gets the nod.
By the end of the season, the foliage is filled out, hay and alfalfa are lush and nearly two feet tall and crops are popping up. There are a lot of visual barriers to overcome, and the turkeys have nearly completed their annual breeding ritual. That means the fighting is at a minimum with subdominant toms just not interested in any sort of confrontation any longer.
For my money, I'm more focused on daily travel/feeding patterns over roost sites and strut zones—although those kinds of spots still play. I'll always employ a feeding hen or two, and if there is a gobbler still causing trouble, a Spring-Jealousy set might do the trick. Just stay flexible and keep an eye on your cameras. If you find a bird still doing his thing, they can be quite killable late in the season.
There was a time when a tom might strut around a black garbage bag, but by adding realism to your turkey decoys elicits a confident response that is undeniable—the turkeys just believe they're real. Can you get by with the old-school fold-up foam decoys? Sure, to a point, but trust me when I say the added detail that comes standard on more expensive decoys like Dave Smiths and Avain-X will help you kill more turkeys.
Flocking is a limited feature on most decoys—some brands offer it as an upgrade, most don't at all. In fact, some hunters even add it after they've purchased a decoy—but I have no idea how the process works. In short, it's a fuzzy finish that adds a 3D element to the decoy and eliminates all shine.
Pay attention to the head color on your jakes, as well. Bright white means the bird is likely angry and confrontational. A more subdued red and blue means he is calm and comfortable. Red generally means he is sexually excited and has been gobbling a lot. Some hunters accent the factory paint with added white to increase the aggression factor, while others add reds to tell an approaching gobbler that he’s not the Top G. Take it for what it's worth, I've seen very little response difference in decoy head color, but the science checks out.
Oh, and get a handful of HS Strut All Terrain Decoy Stand as it allows the decoy to move in the breeze and keeps it from blowing over in heavier wind. Best stake I've ever used—and I've got a pile of them.
The No. 1 decoy to keep handy is a feeder hen as she indicates comfort and will give an approaching gobbler confidence in the situation. I take it every single time I go to the woods. The Dave Smith Feeding Hen or the Avain-X LCD Feeding Hen are excellent choices.
If you're hunting cagey birds in big timber, sometimes the best decoy is no decoy at all. You want the bird to hunt your calling location, and a decoy will give him an excuse to hang up and not get close enough for a shot.