Those who have a passion for chasing spring gobblers truly live in the Golden Age of Tom Foolery. For many years, hunters wanting to stake a deke were limited to a handful of foam or silhouette models that in hindsight were pretty crude and lifeless. These days hunters can choose from an array of ultra-realistic models, and for anyone with a fatter wallet, decoys that are basically taxidermy.
By Scott Bestul
Despite an impressive upgrade in the availability and realism of modern turkey decoys, I remain conflicted about using them. For starters, the older I get the simpler I like my hunting gear to be. I’m always trying to trim down the “stuff” I carry, and decoys are an easy choice for my leave-it-at-home list. And like many hunters, I’ve had gobblers that were coming in nicely … until they spotted my fake and thought better of things.
But of course any conflict has a flip side. I’ve also had decoys that absolutely, totally, and without question, were the deal-sealers on a gobbler. I’ve watched toms run 400 yards to stomp on a fake strutter, had gobblers attempt to breed even a ho-hum-looking hen, and witnessed more interesting turkey behavior as hens, jakes and longbeards toyed with my staked-out phonies. In each case, I was grateful I’d exerted the extra effort to tote and deploy my decoys.
The Big Dilemma
So I’ve had a mixed bag of results and I think I have plenty of company. It’s little wonder why modern turkey hunters can feel conflicted about using decoys. If they’re gonna work, we want ’em as badly as a hot call and Hevi-Shot. If they ain’t, they’re not worth the vest space.
What are the solutions? Though decoys obviously work, what can hunters do to eliminate the snafus associated with them? Should they consider them mandatory gear, or tote them only when chasing naïve gobblers? For answers, I turned to a pair of top turkey hunters. Their recommendations provide solid advice for when, where and how to deploy dekes.
Deployment Dos and Don’ts
Tennessee gobbler guru Gary Sefton is a true student of turkey behavior. He’s continually analyzing why gobblers do what they do, and he’s got decades of encounters from which to formulate theories. When I asked him for his thoughts on how gobblers respond to decoys, he offered some interesting opinions.
“Ideally, if you’re able to set up right, you don’t even need a decoy,” Sefton said. “But that ideal setup can be hard to come by. I like to be in the hardwoods, and to be near a dogleg in a logging road or just back from the crest of a hill. That way, the first time I see a gobbler, he’s in gun range and I can kill him. Of course, finding those setups, or having the time to get to them, isn’t always possible. That’s when a decoy can really help you.”
Sefton prefers open timber or field edges for decoy setups. “When you’re hunting a field, especially, you need something to make your setup better than the hundred other places a turkey can go,” he said. “I believe that a decoy closes the information gap for a turkey coming to a call. He’s heard a hen, now he sees it, and now he has a reason to come. I believe that’s why a lot of gobblers hang up; they need a visual to complete the equation for them. If they don’t see a hen, they become confused. People think that gobblers hang up because they’re being cautious. I don’t believe they’re that smart, most of the time. They’re just highly programmed.”
Sefton’s comments took on particular depth after my friend Dean placed his full-strut decoy on a recent morning hunt. Dean set up in the corner of a field that abutted an oak ridge where we’d heard a gobbler the previous two days. Like proverbial clockwork, the tom roosted on the ridge and headed toward the field after fly-down, gobbling to Dean’s call. “But the minute he spotted that deke, he folded up and left,” my friend lamented.
While Dean blamed the decoy for his failure, the more we discussed the details of the hunt, it became clear that the setup — not the fake — was probably to blame. My friend had placed the decoy near heavy gooseberry brush, and the real turkey didn’t spot it until it was 15 steps away. Since Dean had not mimicked any gobbler talk as he worked his bird, the turkey was clearly surprised to see a rival gobbler as he approached. Even worse, the screening brush didn’t allow him time to size up the bird.
Sefton believes situations such as this are a classic case of mislaying the blame. “Sometimes, even when everything looks right to you, it doesn’t look right to a turkey,” he said. “There are simply some places where a turkey doesn’t like to walk, and you might be sitting in one. You can even experience different reactions from the same bird from day to day. One day you might be working a gobbler that’s been dealing with another tom infringing on his territory and he won’t come in. Come back a few days later, and the situation has changed completely.”
Ever the pragmatist, Sefton feels that there are no easy answers to the “when do decoys work?” question. “There are situations when they do, and others where they don’t,” he laughed. “The main thing for hunters to remember is that regardless of how they respond, turkeys are just being turkeys; they’re never holding a grudge or picking on you!”
The Multiple Bird Approach
Perhaps one of the biggest trends in decoy deployment in recent years has been the use of multiple fakes and more recently, adult gobblers. Few are more familiar with this tactic than Missouri expert Tad Brown, product development specialist for Hunter’s Specialties. Brown has experimented frequently with the jake-and-hen combos that have become so popular in recent years. “I try to set the decoys to appeal to what I think the tom’s mood might be, according to the phase of the breeding season,” Brown said. “It’s easy to forget that the dynamic of how turkeys respond to other turkeys changes as the spring progresses.”
For example, Brown noted, “In early season, I’ll just set a pair of hen decoys with a jake, with all the birds loosely together. Usually, just the presence of jakes near an available hen in the pre-breeding phase will draw a reaction from a mature gobbler. As the breeding peaks, I place the hen in the breeding position, with the jake on top of her. Then I’ll put out another jake looking on nearby. That will usually pull a gobbler in at high speed!”
Though jakes can punch a gobbler’s dominance buttons, Brown notes that even a full-strut tom can bring in other gobblers. “Turkeys are by nature social birds,” he said. “So they’re very curious when they spot a gobbler they don’t know. Also, pecking order is something that’s being worked out constantly through the season. So when a real gobbler sees another tom — especially one that’s strutting — that he doesn’t recognize, many times his first reaction will be, ‘Hey, who’s that guy, and what’s he think he’s doing?’ Then he’ll come in to check him out.”
Of course, hunters need to be sensitive to flock makeup and breeding conditions when placing decoys. “I’ve hunted areas where there’s been a tremendous hatch the previous spring, and there are a ton of jakes running around,” Brown said. “When that’s happening, I keep jakes out of my setup entirely. Jakes often flock up together, and they can really bully gobblers. If a gobbler sees a jake under those conditions, he’ll often run off, suspecting there are more jakes around. They just get tired of being beat up whenever they show their heads somewhere.”
Though late-season gobblers are more decoy sensitive, Brown agrees with Sefton that turkeys rarely associate decoys with danger. “I just don’t think they’re that smart,” he said. “When a turkey spooks from a decoy, I believe he either feels threatened by the ‘bird’ he’s encountered, the hen looks alert and makes him nervous, or he spots a poorly camouflaged or moving hunter and feels something isn’t quite right with the world. You hear lots of hunters blaming decoys for spoiling their hunt, but I don’t believe that happens very often.”
Let’s Get Real
Perhaps the greatest drawback of most turkey decoys is their statue-like appearance. Watch wild birds for a time, and you’ll quickly realize they don’t sit still for very long. Though a pepper-hot gobbler won’t mind if your deke is still as a stone, a bide-my-time turkey might get goosey if he has too long to watch a frozen hen. Though turkeys can’t reason, they are — like all wild animals — keenly aware of the body language transmitted by their kind and respond accordingly.
Naturally, decoy makers have taken notice, and some have gone to great lengths to impart motion to their offerings. Some attach grommets to their decoys, allowing the hunter to run a string or cord to the fake, then pull on the string to make the decoy bob its head or body. Others have added stakes with flex-springs in them, enabling the decoy to bob and sway in even the slightest breeze. And, in the spirit of the spinning-wing duck decoy, still others have made their decoys remote-control-compatible; trigger a hand-held remote and the decoy moves on its stake.
The latest gobbler decoys up the ante even further. Both the Primos “B-Mobile” and Flambeau’s “King Strut” are highly realistic, sporting incredibly detailed heads and near-lifelike fans and beards. Hunters can take mimicry to another level by substituting manufactured tails, beards and even wings with those of actual turkeys. Re-configure your gobbler decoy in such a fashion, and you’ll have a lifelike impostor that you’d swear would gobble at you. There might be other factors — setup, turkey mood, locale — that implode success, but realism certainly won’t be one of them.
So while I remain confused about decoy use, that confusion has little to do with skepticism; I’ve killed many birds over fakes made of cardboard, plastic, wood and foam. So why the doubt? My biggest trouble is that I get caught flat-footed by gobblers. A lot. Which means I rarely have time to stake a decoy, even when I’d love to. And then there’s my inherent forgetfulness. Many, many times I’ve stooped down to tag a gobbler, then felt a strange lump in the back of my vest. “My decoys,” I invariably mutter. “I shoulda had one out.”