I’ll never forget the first time I hunted over a strutting tom decoy. I was set up in the bottom of an open, shallow draw that toms love coming to. It was to be the perfect bow-setup, as I could shoot nearly all directions here, and anything in the “bowl” was within range. I couldn’t hunt until mid-morning, which was fine, as I grew up here, and knew that toms would be loafing within earshot on some nice oak flats all around me.
The response after my first string of yelps nearly scared me.
A triple gobble, then another one 100 yards closer less than a minute later. Could it be the same bird? If it was, the thing must’ve heard the call and came right at me. Seconds later I saw him at about 50 yards heading down into the bottom with me, only to recoil like he’d been gutshot before ever making it to the bottom. That bird’s demeanor went from fiery white and closing, to deathly afraid and side-stepping, as it circled my entire position no closer than 50 steps, curiously gobbling the entire way. After a full 360º surveying of my position, he walked straight back to where he came from, gobbling the entire way.
It was an odd encounter, but certainly not the first time I’ve spooked birds with decoys. Early in my turkey hunting career, several birds of all sexes spooked on open-field setups with full sun and an old, beat up hen that looked more like a foam finger from a sports event than a turkey. Eventually, I made my way to some higher quality hens that did a far better job of tricking the eyes of an old tom, especially when I hid them a bit and didn’t plop them out in a plowed field. Today I rarely use them when gun hunting, unless sitting over a strut zone or hunting bigger groups of birds early out west.
However, with a bow in-hand, I think of them as almost a requirement, as they can be crucial for keeping the attention of a tom while you’re doing your best to draw on him and release an arrow. Breeding hen with jake and tom combinations continue to be my favorites when hunting with a stick and string, but this is more true during later season when alfalfa, clover, or shin-level grass can hide some of the stakes and other gadgetry. That said, at least where I hunt, decoy effectiveness wanes throughout the season. I’ll either put the dekes at a 7-yard chip-shot away from the blind, or put them behind it such that any tom approaching only gets bits and pieces of the decoys with the blind in the way.
For the average turkey hunter that wields a shotgun though, often decoys can be a hindrance more than a help. Not only is your mobility affected by a bag of dekes in that they are simply more to carry, they’re often loud and cumbersome. Worse yet, they can help a tom pinpoint your location and then have him use it against you. While turkeys are not known to be curious, the goal of any turkey hunting session should be to arouse interest via calling, then hide out in a pre-determined setup while the tom hunts YOU. Whether you call too loud or long at the wrong time, or you drop a decoy too far out in the open, the effect it has on many toms is to hang them up. By their ears or eyes they know exactly where you are as they get close enough to show off, but stay too far away for a shot.
Instead, I have more confidence in the form, flexibility, and options my calling provides me over a decoy in many situations. A decoy is somewhat of a binary play, in that it’s out there or it’s not, and once it is you’re certainly not going to strip it from the field with a tom out there. That said, when you’re calling from a concealed position and stay motionless, that tom is still hunting you. You can vary everything from cadence, volume, and frequency, to the direction you throw the call while keeping him guessing the whole time. On several occasions I’ve been able to steer a tom around obstacles that may have hung him up, make a gobbler think I was leaving just by turning my head and muting the call, or attract a different tom coming from another direction simply by using my hand to “throw” the sound from a mouth-call.
I think the key, no matter where you fall on the spectrum, is to use them when they make sense and use them well. Whether you love them, hate them, or fall somewhere in between, don’t rely on decoys alone to be a cure-all for turkey woes. Instead, dig deep into your bag of turkey tactics as you utilize them to compliment your approach rather than be the highlight of it.