The Decoy Dilemma

By Jace Bauserman

hunter squatting down with holding a shotgun

The number one question I get via social media, email and at turkey seminars is: “Do you use decoys, and if so, what kind?”

It's a great question and one I love to answer. Let's keep it simple. Yes, I'm a fan of decoys, and unless hunting in thick timber, they are a part of every turkey set I make.

Why Decoys Work

You might hear the curmudgeon amongst us preach that turkey decoys don't work and you don't need them. This crowd has a point. When hunting in thick timber, decoys lose their luster, and I recommend leaving them in the truck. Why? All the cover limits the visibility of any decoy to an approaching gobbler, and that’s OK. Toms know a deep-timber hen will be harder to locate, so they don’t expect to see the hen and are more willing to keep moving toward unseen calling. However, when hunting field edges, open to semi-open strut zones, and small openings in the timber, decoy use will pay off in spades.

big tom turkey standing in the grass

Turkeys are visual creatures, and toms love to strut and spread their tail fans wide. They do this to attract hens and intimidate other boy birds. Turkeys have remarkable eyes, and while they use these eyes to spot danger, they also use them to identify situations where they might be able to snag a hen from jake or go toe-to-toe with another challenger.

Decoy 411

The decoy market is saturated with options and can be confusing. Keep it simple. First, buy the best-looking decoys you can afford. Stay away from dilapidated foam fakes and those that lack realism.

During the early season, it's not uncommon to see multiple toms together, trailing a large flock of hens wherever they go. I like a full-strut tom over a laydown hen during this timeframe. One tom can be a shy pushover, but multiple live toms in a group can be bullies. When they see a new strutter standing over a hen that's in a position to be bred, they usually come in hot and flog the strutter. Later in the season, as groups break up and toms establish dominance, I tend to stay away from the full-strut decoy unless I know I'm after a boss bird. Later in the season, dominant birds will have a group of hens, and these old veterans won't hesitate to come pounce on a strutter that has wandered into their comfort zone. However, 2-year-old birds that have had their butts whooped numerous times will avoid a full-strut bird like the plague.

female turkey laying down next to a tom decoy

My favorite decoy set, one that will work throughout the season, is a 3/4-strut posturing jake over a laydown hen with a feeder hen set off to the side. The only advantage a full-strut decoy has over a jake decoy early in the season is a group of toms with a wad of hens might ignore the jake. They know he isn't a threat, and if the hens don't commit to the decoy set, the toms could skirt it. Usually, though, even during the early season, toms won't miss the chance to beat up a jake.

Later in the season, when 2-year-old birds have been stomped and had their spirits crushed, they will still come in and try stealing a hen from jake. I add the feeding hen to give the birds more visual stimulation. Just remember, when you set the decoys, your shot will be wherever your jake or tom decoy is placed, and always leave enough space between the laydown hen and strutter for a live bird to walk between.

tom and jakes coming to check out decoys

Read Their Body Language

You'll be able to tell how birds are responding to your decoy spread by reading their body language. If a tom continues to go into strut on and off as he approaches your decoy setup, that's a good thing. Stay patient and let him commit.

When boy birds get around the decoys and continue to blow up in strut, stay patient, you have all the time in the world. If they ever drop strut and tuck their head simultaneously, the gig is up, and you need to let the shotgun eat before they leave.