As turkey season is nearing this spring, majority of hunters that take to the woods will be carrying a turkey decoy or a whole flock of decoys. There is no questioning their effectiveness at fooling a long beard, but in this article we will cover tips and tactics that will take your decoying to the next level.
Questions turkey hunters ask themselves as they head to the woods each day is how many decoys do I use? Single or multiple hen decoys? Do you use a Jake, or a full strut decoy with hens? Where do you place them? How far do you set them away from your set up? To answer these questions we will first break it down, taking it one step at a time.
To help explain how to take your decoying to the next level, we broke the spring season down into time frames and explain what the turkeys are often doing this time of the year. This time frame is based on over eighteen years of observation here in the Midwest, if you live farther south, you will more likely see these events occurring earlier in the spring.
The biggest key to success with utilizing your decoys will be based upon what the birds are doing in your area at that given time. Even though the dates might be earlier or later based upon your geographical region, pay extra attention to what the birds are doing in your area. Locate below the description that best matches what the turkeys in your area are doing and base your turkey decoy tactics based upon the recommendations below.
Decoys are a must have tool when archery hunting turkeys
April 1st – May 1st
During the early spring from March to the beginning of April, majority of the birds are located in large flocks. You may see a flock of ten or more long beards hanging together; as it gets closer to April you will see more interaction between toms and hens. Seeing three to five toms in full strut with a dozen hens at this time of year is not uncommon.
Paying attention to what the turkeys in your area are doing and what you see in the flocks will dictate the decoy tactics that you will utilize. In the early part of the season here in my home State of Wisconsin, you will often see several toms strutting together with a flock of hens.
This is the stage of the breeding season that is similar to bachelor groups of bucks, the toms are still tolerant of each other and the dominant tom is willing to allow his subordinate buddy to hang out with him and his flock of hens.
Even though they are tolerant of each other they have worked out their pecking order in the flock. If you are seeing two or more toms strutting together in your hunting area, is when a full strut decoy with two or more hens will be the most effective.
By placing a full strut decoy with several fake ladies will eat away at the dominant tom. Your strutting fake also gives the subordinate toms an opportunity to maintain a higher position in the dominance chain by whooping the butt of your fake strutter.
Place the strutting decoy close to several hen decoys. We prefer to use a feeding and a breeding hen position decoys. For best results for a shot opportunity, place the strutting decoy facing you. As the jealous toms approach your set up, often they will come in at the shoulder or wing side of the decoy. They will often work their way up to the head of the decoy. This position will draw the attention away from you allowing you an opportunity to make your final movement before you make your shot.
As you reach later in this time period, we often find that a half strut or a three quarter strut Jake decoy works better than a full strut decoy. As the spring draws on, dominant toms begin to become less tolerant of their buddies and begin picking more and more on them eventually driving them from the flock. Because of this, some of the subordinate toms become more leery of picking a fight. So you will want to tone down the dominance of your decoy, a subordinate tom and his buddy may tuck tail and run from a strutting decoy but may feel like a tough guy to a less superior Jake decoy.
If you are working two or more toms, try a jake decoy with hens to make them jealous
May 1st- Mid May
At this time you will see more birds strutting by themselves or with several hens. Occasionally there will be two long beards together at the beginning of this stage; however by now most toms are no longer tolerant of their sidekicks like they were earlier in the season. This is also the time of year that the hens begin nesting. They go off and leave the toms to sit on their nests or they don’t hang with the flock for as long in the morning as they did earlier in the season.
Watch the flocks in your area, if you’re seeing more single toms or a tom with smaller amount of hens there is a good chance you are in this phase of the decoying season.
Since the toms are no longer tolerant of each other, you would think that a tom or a jake decoy would work best, however experience says differently. At this time of the season the majority of the subordinate toms have experienced their share of butt whooping, and will more than likely be turned away by a tom or jake decoy.
A tom or jake decoy will work if you’re calling the dominant tom in the area; however for one dominant tom you may have five or more subordinate toms. If you are like me I would rather play the odds in my favor and not use a male decoy that may spook one of the subordinate toms in the area.
At this stage in the breeding season your best results will come with a single hen or a flock of hen decoys. This is the time of the spring it is best to lighten your load and leave the tom decoy at home unless you are working a flock with two or more toms.
Later on in the spring less can be more, don't be afraid to use just a single hen
Mid May- End of May
At this time of the season you will often see a single tom strutting by himself or they may just have a couple of hens with him. It’s also not uncommon to see just one single hen by herself feeding in a field.
This is when the hens nesting is in full swing, the flocks are no longer and the birds have a tendency of doing their own thing, whether it be a single long beard strutting or just a single hen feeding by herself before she heads back to her nest in the morning.
At this time of the year less is more. Since it is uncommon to see flocks of birds hanging out together at the end of spring, we have experienced better results with just a single hen decoy.
Long beards are out looking and hanging out in their strut zones at this time of year hoping to pick up the last of the hens to breed before the season is over.
If you are hunting in a heavily hunted area they have pretty much seen every decoy and heard every call in the books by this time of the year. Your plan of attack if this is familiar to your situation is to tone down the calling and keep it simple. A lone feeding hen decoy is all you need, don’t overdo it this time of the year, keep it simple and cover ground looking for a lonely long beard.
Conclusion of Seasonal Set-ups:
The biggest piece of advice that we can give you is watch what the flocks in your area are doing and match your decoy set up to what you’re seeing around you. If you’re seeing several toms together and the season is early, don’t be afraid to go with a strutting decoy with hens.
As the season progresses and the flocks continue to break up and you’re seeing more single toms with hens, leave the strutting decoys at home and continue using a single hen or a flock of hen decoys.
When you begin seeing single toms with only a handful or less of hens, or seeing more lone hens in your area, we recommend leaving the flock at home and pack light. Just carry a single hen decoy for your best results.
One thing we do want to mention is that these are recommendations based upon years of experience and there are always exceptions to the rules because the only thing predictable with turkeys is that they are unpredictable.
In other words you may be able to bring in a long beard using a strutting decoy at the end of the season; however we like to have the odds in our favor. I’m not saying a strutting decoy won’t work at the end of the season, but you will have better odds with just a single hen than risking spooking a subordinate long beard that has already received a butt whooping from his buddies for the last three weeks.
A good rule of thumb is if you know you will be working two or more long beards hanging together, it is a safe bet to go with a jake decoy with several hens.
Regardless of the time of year we like to keep our decoys close. If we are using a full pop-up ground blind and hunting with the bow, we will often keep the decoys 5 to 10 yards from the blind. If we are just sitting next to a tree or using a gun, often we try to keep the decoys from 10 to 15 yards away.
The reason for keeping the decoys close is just in case the tom hangs up and decides to make the decoys come to him; often he is still within range of the weapon of choice. This also holds true if the gobbler comes in and sees something that he doesn’t like. If you keep the decoys closer to you, you have a better chance of him being in range before he makes up his mind and bolts for the hills.
The other reason we like to keep the decoys close is that if we are “Cutting n’ Running” we often find ourselves scrambling to set up before the hot gobbler comes in. By keeping the decoys close we run less of a risk bumping the hot bird while running out to set up the fakes.
By placing the decoys behind you, forces the long beard to look down the road at the decoys, past your set-up
The next tactic we love to deploy is what we refer to as the “Walk past set-up”. This decoy set up is ideal for logging or access roads. If you’re hunting a long narrow open stretch of terrain such as a power line right of way or a logging road and a turkey gobbles in front of you down the logging road, we will place the decoys 10 to 15 yards behind us down the logging road.
By placing the decoys behind your set up which is on the side of the logging road, the long beard is looking past you at the decoys, this will cause the tom to almost walk right on top of you as he closes the distance to the decoys. This tactic will literally put him in your lap, but be careful not to let him get so close to you that you cannot move without being busted.
Tips for Productive Decoys:
As with any decoys, realism is the key. We have all driven by a field and seen another hunter’s set up with their decoys in the field. If we can tell from several hundred yards away that those are decoys in the field, you can bet a bird with an eye sight five times better than ours can definitely tell something isn’t right with that set up.
With modern technology, turkey decoys are becoming more realistic than ever. Some of the most realistic decoys on the market are Avian X by the Zink Company and the Dave Smith Turkey Decoys. They are very realistic decoys, but be prepared to take out a small loan to buy the whole flock.
Another tip for owning a flock of high quality realistic fakes is to buy in the buddy system. I along with two very close hunting partners all bought a decoy. We often hunt together and enjoy the hunt as a group, when we combine our decoys we now have a flock of the most realistic decoys on the market.
Avian X decoys by Zink Calls offers a truly realistic decoy
To make your decoys look even more realistic you can always add your own feathers to your decoys. Some companies allow you to use a real turkey fan for more realism. There is also a company that makes a product that is basically a cape of turkey feathers to be placed over your existing decoy.
If you’re real handy you can always make your own stuffer decoy for the most realistic decoy out there. By having a taxidermy back ground, several years ago I and some friends got clever and skinned out a turkey cape. We then tanned the cape and glued it on to one of our strutting decoys. We then bolted on some real wings with a real tail fan. We have used our homemade stuffer we named “KJ” for several years with great success. Even though KJ has taken a real beating over the years he is still working like he did the first day we made him.
Next is decoy body positions, hen decoys come in three to four different positions. The one position that we try to avoid is the head straight up or alert position. If you have ever been busted by a turkey you have quickly learned that when a bird sees something they don’t like the crane their neck strait up to get a better look. To me this is an alert position, and we much prefer a more relaxed looking flock or single hen. To vary the look of your flock the best positions are the feeding and the breeding position.
Movement adds realism to your decoys. If you are using more than one decoy you will get better results with more movement in your decoy set. If you watch a flock of turkeys you will see some feeding, some standing still, and even some flapping and stretching their wings. There is more movement visible with more birds in a flock.
To make your flock move with realism look for decoys such as those with a bobble head, or even a bobbing tail, also the lighter decoys will waddle beautifully under the right amount of breeze to bring your flock alive.
Turkey decoys can be the difference from a hunt or a hunt of a life time. If you have never tried using decoys, you’re missing out on some real excitement. Decoys can pull a long beard that would ignore your sweet calling but couldn’t resist seeing an intruder with his ladies clear across the field, serving your next long beard up on a silver platter.
Just like your favorite turkey calls or even your weapon of choice, you won’t want to be in the turkey woods without a decoy. You may not necessarily use a decoy on every set up, but at least you will have it in case you need it.
The key to taking your decoying to the next level is as simple as paying attention to what the turkeys are doing around you. These simple observations will dictate whether you will want to use a whole flock or just a single hen.