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How to Kill a Spring Gobbler Without Decoys

Go it alone: Fill a turkey tag this season without the help (or hinderance) of decoys.

How to Kill a Spring Gobbler Without Decoys

We've been conditioned to think of decoys as essential to success. For mature toms, they sometimes act as a detriment. (Shutterstock image)

I felt like a rock star, a virtuoso taking the spotlight with a perfectly delivered solo to an eager audience. The gobbles that had answered my calls from far away were coming closer. My young son sat rock-solid against the tree trunk just in front of me, the Mossberg 20-gauge pump he had lovingly named Crystal in his hands, a green field of winter wheat spread before him. Three decoys—a jake, a feeding hen and a breeding hen—were staked in the ground at 25 yards.

Soon, not one, not two, not three, but four big toms strolled into the field. They were walking a line just 20 yards off the field edge, heading right for what I suddenly realized were three very stiff, motionless turkey decoys. The lead tom raised its head at the statue-still trio and began swinging wide and then wider. The other gobblers followed. As they walked out in front of us, they were 40, then 45, then 50 yards out. Crystal would get no work that day.

I have a true love-hate relationship with decoys. I have killed birds that came running into them, and I have had birds coming straight for my calls pull up and do an abrupt about face after spotting them. In recent years, as I've hunted more places that tend to get a fair amount of hunting pressure, particularly from hunters using decoys, I've found the fakes to spook birds more than they draw them in.

When I first began turkey hunting many years ago, I counted on decoys to pull a bird in close enough to shoot because, quite simply, my calling sucked. As I got better running various calls (and reading a bird's mood so I knew how to call to him), I depended less on decoys. The truth is, as incredibly lifelike as decoys from companies such as Avian-X, Dave Smith Decoys and Montana Decoys are, I'm kinda lazy, too. I don't like the extra bulk and weight in my pack or the extra effort needed to haul them to a spot, set them up and move them if I need to change setups. My style of hunting tends toward the fluid, and I prefer to pick up and move quickly as the scenario dictates.

So, what's the best approach when going sans decoys? Here are three strategies and setups that will keep you on the go and help you pull a tom into range.

1. Off the Roost

It's the dream scenario on every turkey hunt: Get to the woods early, set up on a roosted tom, call him to the gun right after he flies down from the roost. Boom. Hunt over. It also accounts for a small fraction of all successful hunts.

The key to a successful fly-down hunt is to scout first if you can, going a few mornings to pinpoint where a gobbler or gobblers roost and like to fly down at first light. If that's not an option, get to your hunting spot early and listen for that first gobble. As soon as you locate a roosted bird, get close to him quickly under the cover of darkness. This is especially important early in the season when trees are still barren of leaves. A bird up high can see movement below him easily once daylight breaks.

The trick is to set up inside 75 to 100 yards of where a gobbler is roosted and be sitting where he likes to land when he first plunks to the ground (this is where scouting plays a key role). Don't freak out if you bump hens as you move to your spot. If they fly off in the dark, this can help you since it means fewer hens in the area to lead your tom away from you when they are all on the ground.

Once you set up against a good tree to break up your silhouette, get in a shooting position (gun to shoulder, resting on your knee) because you won't be able to move much if you are close to the roosted tom. Let things quiet down and then, just as the sky begins to brighten, toss out a few light tree yelps. Less is more here. If you call too much, the tom will pinpoint where you are, and if he doesn't see a hen moving around below or it's too early for anything to have already flown down, he'll get spooky and go another way.

Call just enough to get him to honor your call with a gobble and then shut up. He knows you're there. If you're the closest "hen" or within gun range of where he likes to fly down, you're in the money. Even if hens start soaring from the trees above you, sit tight. The longbeard may drop down in range and offer a quick shot.

2. Work the Crowd

So, what if you have more company in the trees around you than you'd like and the longbeard is surrounded by hens and they start to lead him away from you once on the ground? Now is the time, in the words of Elsa from Disney's Frozen, to just “let it go.” With all those sets of eyes, it's likely at least one will spot you and give a warning to the group to scatter. Instead, let them slide off before hitting them with aggressive calls.

Now is when more is more. The trick is to get the boss hen of the group fired up. Make her think there is a new hen in the mix who wants all the attention. You want to make her angry.

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Here, I'll start with some loud yelps and even mix in some cutting calls. If a hen responds, it's time to go into full-on fall hunting mode, matching every one of her calls with one that sounds the same. This typically irritates a dominant hen, and she will tend to start cutting, yelping and clucking—and most importantly, marching right back to deal with the interloper, pulling the whole crowd with her.

The key is to get the hen fired up and coming your way. Match her call for call until she gets almost close enough to see you, then go dark on her and shut up. She knows where she heard those last calls.

You need to have your gun up and ready. The hope here is the rest of the flock will march in behind her, the longbeard(s) typically bringing up the rear. With luck, they will stroll into the edge of range before a hen gets too close to you and spooks. Remain motionless and you'll be fine.

This tactic works best when set up just off a field. I like to set back about 10 to 15 yards in the woods so the first birds to arrive enter the woods looking for me as the gobbler rolls into range. Being this close to the field, there are usually fewer trees to have to worry about blocking a shot.

3. Field Toms

Speaking of fields, if it's not overly hot outside, a lot of gobblers like to hang out in the middle of fields for several reasons. One, they are more visible to cruising hens, and hens typically like to feed in fields on waste grains and insects. Two, they feel safer. They can see any potential danger long before it is right up on them. This makes killing these birds tough, but not impossible.

Never set up on a field tom by positioning yourself right on the edge of the field and calling to the bird. He'll hear the calls, and if he is even remotely interested, he'll know exactly where that call came from. He'll march over just close enough to be seen, but typically hang up well out of range.

The trick is to set up inside the woods, about 25 to 30 yards back, where you can still see between trees into parts of the field but are deep enough than an interested tom will have to enter those woods in search of the hen he thinks you are. Once he steps into the woods, he should be in range for a shot. Call to the bird sparingly with normal volume yelps. He may come in gobbling; he may come in silently. That's why you want to keep your eyes toward the field to spot him on the move while he's still in the open. Whether he vocally or visually alerts you to his approach, simply rustle leaves with a stick to simulate a hen scratching for insects. If you feel compelled to call, limit it to a few soft purrs. Again, the trick is to make him come looking for you. Aggressive calls will tend to make a longbeard hang up, as he expects the hen to come to him.

None of the above strategies require decoys. In fact, in practically every one of them, a decoy would be a hindrance as it would give a longbeard something to visually pick out and possibly hang up on. The goal is to make the gobbler actively hunt you. As long as he does, you'll be in the hunt, too.

Essentials for the Decoy-Free Hunter

Forego the fakes but not these gear items if you want to seal the deal this spring.

  • Mouth Call: Everyone has their favorite type of call, but I consider a diaphragm call (actually several diaphragms) a must-have item on every hunt. Keeping one in your mouth as turkeys get so close you can't move allows you to make a light yelp or purr hands-free. It might be enough to make that hung-up tom step into range. Don't know how to use a diaphragm? Now's the time to learn.
  • Binocular: Whether you are scanning shady field edges where toms like to loaf midday or peering among the trees before you move to make sure a gobbler isn't silently waiting and watching, a quality binocoular puts your eyesight on equal footing with a hawk-eyed tom. Keep it hanging around your neck where you access it quickly and easily.
  • Seat Cushion: I don't like moving with a lot of bulk, which means I rarely wear a turkey vest. Instead, I prefer a small camo backpack, and strapped to that pack is a quality seat cushion. Not using decoys makes sitting still mission critical as a longbeard struts in looking for the hen he expects you to be, and sitting still is only possible when you are comfortable.

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