Spring turkey hunting seasons are only weeks away pretty much everywhere in the country.
They get rolling as early as mid-March in some parts of the South. It’s mid-April in much of the Midwest, and late April to early May across a lot of the Northeast.
Youth-only seasons are even closer on the calendar. They generally begin days or even a week before regular hunting.
So it’s gettin’ late early, as they say.
Chances are, a good many of the hunters out pursuing birds this year will be toting decoys among their arsenal of gear.
That’s not how things always were. It wasn’t that many years ago that decoys were looked at as a novelty.
But that’s changed.
The reason is they can be effective, said Chris Ashley, one of the hosts of Small Town Hunting on the Sportsman Channel.
That’s not to say they work every time in every situation. On occasions, they’ll cause gobblers to run off.
“But usually they work eight out of 10 times, for us,” Ashley said.
There are some tricks to consider when deciding when and how to use one.
Typically, decoys work better early in the season than later, Ashley said. Dominant birds have yet to establish flocks then.
To take advantage of that, he’ll put out a strutter, or a gobbler decoy with a fanned-out tail.
“The gobblers are still fighting then and they’re establishing who’s who. So it can work pretty good,” Ashley said.
“Later in the season, after they start breeding and some of your birds have gotten their butts whooped and they’ve gone off by themselves, they generally won’t come in to it.”
Some still might, he said. But by then, he switches to using a jake. More gobblers seem willing to take on a young, immature bird then.
Always, when using a strutter, it pays to place a hen decoy or two nearby, said Cody Kelley, another host on the show.
Most all decoys come with a stake for setting them up. He doesn’t use one with his hens, though, unless he’s hunting in high grass.
A submissive hen about to be bred will be close to the ground, he noted. So he puts his hen decoys near the strutter, but sitting directly on the ground, to suggest active breeding.
“That gobbler you call in, he sees that hen squatting, he knows what’s going on,” Kelley said.
Positioning of the strutter is important, too.
In their early days of using decoys, the Small Town hunting crew often placed the strutter facing away from the hunter, Ashley said. They’ve learned that’s usually a mistake.
“They will come in to that. But it’s usually your most dominant turkeys,” he said. “If you get one that’s halfway scared, it may slow him up.”
Nowadays, they set up their strutter facing the hunter.
What they’re noticed, said Kelley, is that gobblers coming in to a decoy often circle around to get behind it. Then they’re in position to fight or steal the hen.
“They always circle around,” Ashley agreed. “And it that turkey, meaning your decoy, doesn’t turn around, he’s fixing to jump on him or that hen.”
He sets them up close, too. Ten yards from the hunter is not too close to stake out your decoy, he said.
“If you put it out there at 30 yards, and that gobbler hangs up 30 yards from that, now he’s 60 yards from you. You want him closer, so I give him a reason to come in,” Ashley said.
Decoys, strutters or hens, don’t work in every situation, though, Kelley said.
“We don’t use a strutter, or any decoy, in the woods, ever,” he said.
Gobblers just can’t see one enough, or from far enough off, to make it worthwhile, he said. But when hunting in a field, or on a logging road or in open country, Kelley said, they can work great. They not only serve as visual confirmation that there’s another turkey in the area, but in the process give a bird something to fixate on.
That can be important if you’re either not using a blind or you’re hunting with a bow.
“For whatever reason, they lock on that head, that decoy, and it’s like you’re not even there,” Kelley said.
Decoys that move can add a little more realism, too. Some are made to react to wind, pivoting on their stake when they catch a breeze. Others can be manipulated manually.
Ashley said they sometimes, where legal – and wise, meaning on private property with no other hunters around – tie fishing line to the decoy. They can then make it move a bit.
None of those techniques guarantees a hunter a gobbler, he said. Spring turkey hunting is and always will be a challenge, he said.
But decoys can sometimes make the difference between a filled tag and an empty one.
“That strutting decoy, they can see it and it sometimes triggers a lot of activity,” Kelley said. “It’s worth a try.”
Spring turkey hunting safety reminders
Every turkey hunter heading into the woods this spring should be thinking safety first. No gobbler is worth shooting someone or getting shot.
Here are some rules to keep in mind, especially if you’ll be carrying or using a decoy.
- If you’ll be using a decoy, set it up so you are out of the direct line of fire should another hunter mistake it for real bird. Be sure you can see beyond the decoy, too, so you can spot any hunter who may be approaching it.
- In addition, when choosing a calling position, pick a spot against a tree, log or rock that’s taller than you and wider than your shoulders.
- When carrying a decoy through the woods — or or a live bird, should you bag one — stuff it in a backpack or otherwise totally conceal it, or cover it with fluorescent orange. Don’t give anyone an excuse to shoot at what they think is a real bird.
- Never stalk a bird or shoot at sound or movement. Positively identify your target.
- Should another hunter approach you, or appear to be stalking you or your decoys, whistle or, better yet, shout in a clear voice to alert them to your presence. Don’t wave your hand.
- Don’t wear anything red, white or blue, as those are the colors on a gobbler’s head. For the same reason, don’t use something like a red, white or blue bandana to clean up if you field dress a bird.
- Wear orange, even if it’s not required by law, when moving through the woods from calling position to calling position. An orange hat or vest takes up little space in your pack, but can save your life.