Step up your turkey decoy game this season
When it comes to turkey decoys, I’m a minimalist. Though I understand that some movement in the spread can create interest, and a small spin can draw birds, I’m just not the guy you’ll find with a spool of fishing line connecting a decoy and my setup. Truth be told, unless I’m bowhunting turkeys I rarely carry decoys at all, and most of the time when I do it’s only in the early part of the season. When that time does come, however, I employ several strategies to stack the odds in my favor.
First and foremost, my turkey hunting philosophy has always been quite simple: I rely on my calling to do most of the work, and the overall endgame is to get them to hunt me. I’ve learned over the years that 2-year old longbeards will come quite readily to decoys and heavy calling, but older toms that have played the game before are harder to convince. The rub is that every bird is a bit different in his likes and dislikes, and you never know what gobbler will show up. All toms at some point will gobble or otherwise show some enthusiasm, but a decoy standing in the middle of a field or opening can look too good to be true.
Here are a few turkey decoy hacks and strategies to try on your next setup.
Hide the decoy
This may seem like an overreaction to putting them out in the middle of a plowed field, but it’s worked very well in the past, especially on early season birds. At the beginning of a turkey’s breeding season, pecking order among both males and perhaps more importantly, females, may still be getting worked out. I’ll often pair a tom decoy with a hidden hen, or run just a hidden hen off to the side of me along a fence line, area of taller grass, or back in the woods behind me a bit. The idea is to make it visible, but only occasionally so to an approaching group of birds. I’ve killed more toms over decoys on account of frustrated hens that are actively seeking out that high-pitched little homewrecker jenny, than toms that come in and respond actively to the male decoy. This is definitely an early season technique for me that’s effective in turning big flocks and steering lead hens and the resulting toms in my direction.
Stake them in crooked
Most higher quality turkey decoys are not perfectly balanced. They’re created of heavier materials and often have a balance point that isn’t immediately over the center of your stake. I learned this after obsessing over leaning decoys for years. The leaning actually weights the decoy in one direction, preventing a stronger breeze from making them spin. Few things will spook an approaching tom and his hens faster than a plastic vortex. You can also take two sticks, push them on either side of the tail portion of the decoy and limit extreme movements as well; it’s just that perfect sticks are rare as a tom is gobbling his brains out just barely out of sight.
There can be too much of a good thing here, and you don’t want to make a jake or tom decoy more threatening by standing them up straighter or taller. Experiment with your decoys to see if a slight tilt will make them more stable. In trying to elicit movement in decoys that are not within arm’s length, I’ve had better luck with natural wind movement and am a fan of preventing a spooking rather than trying to remotely get a decoy to do as I wish.
Fanning vs. reaping
I’ve been a proponent for some time of fanning birds from a distance, trying to get them to break and come your direction from out deep. Reaping I consider something completely different. While there’s similarities in the two concepts, I’m still a bit sheepish on reaping given the number of people that shoot at turkeys with rifles, both in states where it’s legal and where it is not. Call it a long shot, pun intended, but reaping is a last-ditch tactic for me on private ground only, where there’s a limited view-shed and some taller grass or alfalfa to cover me crawling along.
Fanning on the other hand is something I’ll occasionally do in concert with decoys, especially when waiting it out on a field edge. Oftentimes, you’ll see bird activity that’s well out of range, and calling at them is only mildly appealing to the flock. Coordinate that calling with a fan held high if birds are far away, lower if closer, and rotate the fan perpendicular and parallel to their line of sight. That twisting fan, calling, and decoy spread can be the trifecta you need to steer an entire group of tightly flocked turkeys.
Joel Nelson is a well-known turkey-hunting personality in the Midwest, working for several hunting product manufacturers and call companies in the past 20 years. Joel has taken birds in more than a dozen states, killing himself or guiding hunters to hundreds of birds in the process. In his travels, he's competed and hunted with everyone from local turkey guides to NWTF Grand National Calling Champions. He shares his experience in the pages of Outdoor News, several online outdoors publications, and on his own blog site Joel Nelson Outdoors, where he invites folks to “Ask Me Anything.”