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Turkey Decoys: How Much Realism Do You Need?

montana decoyEditor's note: Here's a T&TH classic from noted writer Mark Strand.

For calling assistance and visual assurance, some early turkey hunters took tethered live hens into the woods and used them for the greatest decoys ever invented. It’s pretty hard to beat the real thing.

Since then, so-called modern turkey hunters have been scheming to come up with dekes that require less care and feeding yet are convincing enough to bring gobblers in on a string.

These days, there’s no shortage of options. Catalogs and sporting stores are filled with flocks of fakes, replications of hens and jakes, and even strutting toms. They run the gamut from basic outlines to ultra-realistic, and from compact and lightweight to full-bodied models that make you glad you had children so they can carry the dang things from spot to spot.

Let’s look at a snapshot of where we are in the evolution of turkey decoys, and where the sweet spot is when it comes to realism, portability, durability and effectiveness.

Realism Factor

Walk up and down the decoy aisle at a retailer, and, at least to the human eye, there’s an obvious degree of difference in realism. Decoys range from basic foam cheapies to amazing reproductions that make great living room decorations. And then there’s the ultimate in realism: an actual turkey mounted by a taxidermist and prepared as a decoy, with feathers that play in the breeze.

The question we ask nowadays is: How much realism do you need?

Like so many things in turkey hunting, it depends.

Even mature gobblers, for all their celebrated ability to avoid suspicious situations, sometimes seem unable to distinguish the crudest decoy from the real thing, rarely coming out of strut as they parade in to the promise of hooking up with a motionless bundle of plastic or foam. Hit the right bird in the right mood, and you’ll witness an impressive degree of lousy eyesight and poor judgment.

In other situations that are difficult to distinguish, the same gobbler will think more with its pea-sized brain than its breeding tools and leave you wondering if you should have lugged the stuffed decoy along.

How do you know ahead of time? You don’t.

Some hunters swear by decoys to the point they would risk being killed by a snake or seen by turkeys to put one out at every setup. Others swear decoys repel turkeys, or that turkeys know the difference between a decoy and a real turkey and will run the other way if they see a fake.

As usual, folks at either extreme are a bit out of touch. You don’t need to put out a decoy at every setup, and turkeys cannot tell for certain that your decoy is a fake. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that some things are important when it comes to decoy selection and use.

The first is body posture. To play the odds, it seems hen decoys should give off a relaxed, “Everything-is-wonderful-over-here” vibe, and jake decoys should give off a defiant, “Do-you-want-a-piece-of-me?” vibe. Strutting gobbler decoys give you no choice of nonverbal communication; they’re the ultimate invitation to aggression.
You’re always playing the odds. For example, don’t assume that every gobbler that sees a defiant jake will automatically come running in, spoiling for a fight. When jakes gang up, they can put the boots to tough-guy toms. And some mature gobblers are just not naturally dominant, which can make them shy away from confrontations.

You should consider one seemingly universal law when choosing decoys: Think about what real turkeys do when they see or hear something that puts them on alert. They typically stand upright and freeze in position, looking without moving their heads as they decide whether to flee. Now, think about what an upright turkey decoy looks like to real turkeys, especially if the decoy never moves. Because you’re playing the odds, it’s reasonable to think that upright, defiant jake decoys are a good bet to pull aggressive toms in, and relaxed hen decoys help soothe and reassure approaching birds that everything is safe.

Body postures that suggest receptiveness to breeding can be effective, especially on aggressive gobblers. Squatting hens can get toms revved up, which is why manufacturers offer breeding pairs, including a gobbler or jake appearing to mount the hen.

If frozen-in-time body postures reduce effectiveness, motion can improve it, especially with birds that need some visual assurance. Through the years, various motion gadgets have come down the pike, including heads that draw downward as if feeding, heads that bob in the wind and tracks you pull the decoy along on a string.

Portability Factor
The need for portability differs depending on the situation. Let’s say you have 40 acres to hunt and plan to set up in the dark and stay put. Decoy portability is no big deal. You can haul in two mounted decoys, set them up and have plenty of time for a nap before flydown.

Two weeks later, let’s say you’re on your annual trip to Texas, where you can roam 10,000 acres of mesquite flats. Suddenly, a full-bodied decoy is a less desirable option. Instead, you might stash an inflatable hen, silhouette jake or roll-up foam decoy in your vest and head out across the countryside.

If you want portability and economy, consider using just a tail fan. Ray Eye tells stories about a guy from Missouri who invented a fan decoy in the old days and used it with great results.

Although the rest of the turkey is not visible, if an approaching gobbler sees a fan, it can provoke the same aggressive response you might get from a full strutting jake or tom decoy.

Consider your hunting style as you choose and pack decoys. Chances are, you probably have more than one turkey call. It’s OK to own more than one kind of turkey decoy.

Best Practices

Don’t expect decoys to be magic makers, and don’t risk being seen to put out a decoy. But when everything comes together, well-positioned decoys seem to keep turkeys coming closer and keep them hanging around longer, at least at times.

If you can predict the most likely direction from which a gobbler will approach, it seems to help to place a hen decoy so its butt is facing the tom as he gets close enough to see it. It’s natural that he assumes he must circle and come closer before she can see how magnificent he looks, which works to your advantage.

Conversely, it seems to work best to have jake and strutting tom decoys facing directly at the likely approach direction. You want that gobbler to be eye to eye with your defiant jake, for example, so he can tell the decoy is not backing down. Game on.

When it comes to decoy selection and use, and what proves effective for each hunter, let’s admit that calling ability, woodsmanship skills, setup selection and the fickle nature of turkeys contribute to ultimate success. Having a decoy out for turkeys works well sometimes, but it can appear to repel them other times.

Consider each setup as you decide whether to put out a decoy. If you’re sitting where approaching turkeys have to peer over the top of the terrain to see your calling position and will be in range the first time they can reasonably expect to see a hen, you don’t need a decoy. Likewise, in heavy foliage, such as late-spring woods that have greened up, you often don’t need a decoy, because approaching toms have to search for the hen right to the end of your gun barrel.

But in open habitat, where incoming turkeys will expect to spot the other turkeys calling to them, it can be crazy not to have something for them to see when they get close.
It’s been said before, but anything that captures a turkey’s attention — such as a decoy — helps you get away with movement. You might have to put down the box call and pick up the gun or bow, reposition for the shot or everything at once.

As always, keep safety in mind. As decoys become more realistic and motion is incorporated, you might fool other hunters into firing at them. Keep yourself out of the line of possible shooting lanes another hunter might approach, and avoid doing things like employing motion-filled, full-strut, ultra-realistic gobbler decoys in heavily hunted areas.

Good safety measures will help you avoid detection by turkeys, too, because you will usually position yourself out of the birds’ line of sight.

Conclusion

So, when you choose to set out a decoy, how much realism do you really need? The answer seems to vary greatly from one situation to the next. At times, mature gobblers look like pro wrestlers body-slamming each other to be the first to run in on relatively crude-looking dekes. Other times, it seems to really help that your decoy looks like the real thing or is a mounted version of what was the real thing.

You just never know. Go with the decoy strategy that seems to fit the situation, and see what happens.

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