Yes indeed, it’s an age-old question that virtually every turkey hunter faces, especially beginners, “Should I use turkey decoys on my hunt or not?” After turkey hunting for close to three decades now, I still sometimes struggle with that choice. However, experience has taught me that there are many situations in which it’s best to leave the decoys behind. In this blog and video, we’ll have a look at the positives and negatives of using turkey decoys, what turkey hunting scenarios are best to use decoys, and which ones are not. I’ll cover a variety of turkey decoy tactics, turkey decoy setups, and turkey decoy strategies that have been used by many successful turkey hunters for generations.
My turkey hunting career got off to a rocky start. I started pursuing those crafty birds in my home state of Missouri in my early 20s, however, I didn’t experience much in the way of consistent success until I was in my early 30s. It’s a long story, but whenever I went turkey hunting, something would always go wrong. From extreme weather to wild dogs, virtually every time I headed to the woods my hunt would get sabotaged. You can read all about it in my Hunting for God books. It was an unbelievable run of really bad luck, but, none of that deterred me. I just loved getting out there and going after those big dirty birds. And, during all the time in the woods throughout those unresourceful years, I got a very thorough education in the ways of turkey communication and turkey behavior, all of which paid off big time in the years that followed once my turkey hunting curse was finally broke.
During my early days of turkey hunting, I watched tons of TV shows and videos where the hunter would locate a big gobbler the evening before the hunt, head out to the woods first thing in the morning, set out a few decoys in the vicinity of the roosted bird, and as soon as the sun came up the big tom flew off the roost, came right into the hunters calling, walked right up to the decoys, and game over! In my almost 30 years of turkey hunting, I’ve only had a few hunts that worked out so perfectly. Throughout those years I’ve had little trouble locating birds and calling them in, but most of the time that I’ve used decoys I’d go home empty-handed. In fact, many of the times that I’ve used turkey decoys I’d attract everything except turkey! I’ve had countless coyotes come in and pounce on my decoys, I’ve had eagles and owls come in and take a look at them, and I even got the attention of a herd of elk once…which is something I made a past video about.
When and Why Decoys Don’t Work
Now before I get into talking about when and why decoys may or may not work, please keep in mind that these are generalizations. There are times when those crazy birds will break all the rules and do things you never would have expected. Regarding when and why turkey decoys generally don’t work so well, especially on spring hunts, the bottom line is that when going after a wise old gobbler the natural order of things is for the hen to go to the tom, not the other way around. When a mature male turkey makes visual contact with a receptive hen, he usually stops where he is and waits for that hen to come a-runnin’. And if she doesn’t, most of the time he’ll get impatient and leave.
As an example, last year during a spring hunt I located a big tom the evening before the hunt, went out the next morning and set up a hen and a jake decoy in a wide-open area within shotgun range, and called that tom in as soon as he came off roost. He worked his way out of the thick woods and came out into the open area where my decoys were, but as soon as he saw them, he would not budge an inch further! He gobbled and gobbled and strutted around for quite some time but stayed hung up well out of range. I was hoping the jake decoy would make him jealous and bring him in further to the decoys, as that does sometimes work, but he didn’t care. If the hen he thought he was seeing and hearing didn’t come to him, then he simply wanted nothing to do with her. Again, this is a very common behavior, as the natural order of things is for the hen to go to the tom.
I went back out a few days later to hunt the same bird in the same location, but this time I left my decoys at home. I snuck into the area first thing in the morning and sure enough, called him in within the first hour of sunlight. As he was getting closer and closer, I stopped calling and let him hunt for me. Sure enough, as he gobbled his way through the woods looking for the hen he was hearing, he came right into shotgun range, as there was no decoy to make him hang up. I had to do a little belly crawling to get into a better shooting position, but I was indeed able to close the deal on that beautiful double-bearded gobbler. While mature toms can definitely hang up with or without decoys, I’ve found that you have a much better chance of filling your tag by leaving the decoys behind and using your turkey calling techniques in a manner that makes the gobbler come looking for you. But be ready! You never know when or where that gobbler will show up. As he hunts for you, sometimes he’ll go quiet, he may sneak up right behind you, or pop out from a place you least expect.
When Decoys Do Work
As I’ve already mentioned twice in this article, the natural order of things is for a receptive hen to go to the mature gobbler, not the other way around. And again, this is why many mature toms will hang up on spring hunts and keep their distance from decoys. With all that being said, however, there are some scenarios in that strategically using decoys can definitely increase your chances for success. Ultimately, the choice is yours. This blog is certainly not meant to be anti-decoy. It’s simply intended to give you a little more knowledge as you consider your options. As a few preliminary tips for turkey decoy tactics, be sure to use the most realistic decoys you can find and afford, set them up well within your shotgun range…typically 20 yards or so…and also be very careful with turkey decoys if you’re hunting on public land, especially if you’ll be using a tom decoy. So with those considerations in mind, here are some tried and true turkey decoy tactics.
Using one single hen decoy in hopes of bringing a mature gobbler into range is a commonly used tactic, but as we’ve just seen, it’s often not all that effective, as a big tom will commonly hang up as soon as he sees it. Juvenile gobblers, known as jakes and other hens may come right into a single hen decoy to investigate, which is a good thing if you are after such birds and they’re legal to harvest in your area, but again, the lone hen set-up is not always the best for a big mature bird. Now one major exception to the rule is if you can set up a hen decoy in a manner in which you can cut a gobbler off at the pass.
For example, if you’re hunting an open field and you know for certain that a gobbler is going to come in from a roosting area on the left, you could set up a hen decoy at the far right and position yourself in the middle. If all goes well, the gobbler may hear your calling, see the decoy at the other end of the field, and come in a little closer to try to get what he thinks is the hen’s attention. Thus, there may be a chance to get a shot as he’s moving in. But, you’ll have to be careful with your calling and cease as soon as he sees that far-off decoy. Otherwise, he very well may pinpoint your location and think you’re a hen that’s closer than the one he sees and then hang up.
Flock of Hens
If you’re hunting turkey in the fall, or in the early spring months when birds still gather and travel in large flocks, using several different hen decoys to imitate a large group of birds can be a very effective way to bring in both toms and hens, especially if you use feeding calls in conjunction with your decoy set up. Hungry or curious turkeys will come in without much hesitation if they see and hear other birds having a feast. I made another video on this calling technique if you’d like to learn more, click here to check it out.
Another way to utilize a small flock of hen decoys is to position them in a manner in which it looks like they’re about to exit an open area and head back into the woods. If a desperate gobbler sees his ladies about to leave him behind and he thinks they don’t see him, there’s a chance that he may come rushing in fast to catch up with them to get their attention. But for this to work, the tom has to be approaching from behind the flock. If he comes in from the front in a manner in which he’s facing them, he very well may hang up and eventually leave.
A “jake” is a juvenile male bird, and normally if a dominate gobbler who is desperately looking for a lady sees a young punk jake moving in on the hens, he’ll typically get jealous and aggressively come in to run off that subdominant young bird who’s trying to steal his date. A jake decoy can be added to a lone hen or a group of hen decoys to greatly increase your odds of success. A jake decoy can also be used in conjunction with a mature tom decoy to imitate a pair of male birds fighting for dominance. This can work to bring in the big king gobbler, but it may also scare away less aggressive gobblers who aren’t looking for a fight.
Again, a mature tom decoy or even the use of a tail fan from a mature tom can be used in conjunction with a jake decoy to imitate a fight to bring in an aggressive, dominant gobbler. You can also use a tom and a submissive hen decoy combo to imitate a breeding or attempted breeding scenario, which again can be effective at bringing in the big king turkey.
There are many other ways that you can utilize turkey decoys and you should certainly feel free to use your imagination, but the tactics and scenarios I just covered here are among the most common and have proven themselves time and time again for many hunters. Trying out new tactics and tricks is half the fun of turkey hunting really, so get out there and do some experimenting for yourself, take note of what works and what doesn’t, and as always, be careful and enjoy your time in the turkey woods. If you’d like to shop online for some great turkey decoys, click here.
Check out the video below to see more…