The right decoy matters big time

Outdoor television shows suggest that using decoys on your turkey hunt draws turkeys irresistibly to your setup. Reality sets in, however, when you actually set up your decoys, turkeys appear and seem to be spooked by them and won’t approach your set up at all. I’ve had it happen so many times.

Decoys can be a great persuader when a hormone-driven gobbler catches sight of one. They can also be just as great a deterrent. So what makes the difference?

Naturalness, first of all. The first decoys on the market a couple decades ago were gray, bulky and nondescript. They don’t pass muster today. Decoys now move, talk, have actual tail fans attached, “feathers” that flutter in the wind, heads that bob up and down and such lifelike colors on the head that even you can hardly tell them from the real thing.

It’s more than a marketing ploy, this push to produce more lifelike decoys each year. It’s because turkeys get decoy shy. Each week into the season they are fooled less and less. After they have had a few scary experiences around fake hens, like getting shot at or royally spooked, they learn to shy away from any turkey that doesn’t move toward them at all.

I once hunted with a big-time guide in Missouri. Well before daylight he set out several decoys in front of the blind. At daylight we heard a couple gobbles from afar. The guide said” I hope the birds will come to the decoys today. The last couple days, they have shied completely away from them.”

I dared to ask him why, if the birds were purposely avoiding the decoys, he had put them out. “It just seems like it should give us a better chance if we have decoys out than if we didn’t,” he said.

I kept quiet but couldn’t imagine why we’d have a better chance with them out if the turkeys had been skirting around them for days. Sure enough, a few turkeys appeared a bit after flydown and answered every call the guide made but just stood 100 yards away looking our way but would not come closer. After they wandered off, I ventured the suggestion that perhaps before we began calling again, we might pull up the decoys. So he did. Sure enough, a couple hours later, two gobblers walked out of the woods and a few calls pulled them our way and I bagged one.

This particular guide had a lease of land he hunted nearly every morning. The turkeys got suspicious of these same turkeys (decoys) always being set up the same way at the same place. My buddy Buck Alt and I had the same experience in the Poconos years ago. At the time Buck had one decoy he dubbed “Henrietta.” Set it up all over the farm, every time, every morning and soon every turkey in the area recognized it as a fake.

The next year, I brought up some new and different decoys; we set them out and had a blast. Turkeys couldn’t wait to get to them. After a few years, those decoys didn’t work anymore either.

Turkeys recognize quickly what is not normal. Sometimes hunters have success by using a group of decoys rather than just one or two. Hen decoys now come already in the breeding squat. They will be hot for a couple seasons then they will be ignored, I think, when gobblers get used to them.

Some advocate putting out jake decoys to rile up rival gobblers. Perhaps. The Pretty Boy gobbler decoy, the one in which you insert a real tail fan in the back of the decoy, has been very effective the last couple years. But in areas where it has been heavily used, it’s already becoming suspect to the resident birds.

If you have a blind and you set it up in the same field day after day and set the same batch of decoys out in front of it, you’ll find turkeys beginning to shy away from your set up when once they ran to it. Don’t over-use decoys. Get a couple different sets of them and rotate their use. It will help.

It’s the same principle as when you work a bird for several days in a row with the same mouth call and he just won’t come to you, you should be savvy enough to use a different-sounding call one day from a different position and see how much that helps.

It boils down to this: you should be observant enough to notice if turkeys in an area are responsive to your decoys, your calls, your blind or your set-up spot or shy of them and adjust your use of them accordingly.

Be very sure that if your set decoys out, you can see at least 100 yards behind them. If another hunter spots your decoys and decides to stalk close to them, you need to be able to see him doing so. Then you speak or yell, the human voice alerts another hunter to your position. Do not wave at him or make any other motion that he, in his excitement, might mistake for a turkey.

Hunting behind decoys can be exciting indeed. Unless the turkeys you are hunting have seen your decoys time after time. Be ready to adjust anything and everything by the second week of season.