Spring turkey hunting is a game played in reverse.
In the “real” world, a gobbler calls to draw hens to him. In hunting, it’s the opposite. The hunter calls like a hen and tries to convince the gobbler to make the first move.
These days, more and more hunters are giving that bird something to see if he indeed comes a-knocking. Namely, that’s a decoy or two.
“Me personally, I think they’re very important,” said Jon Turner of Tompkinsville, Ky., a pro staffer with Plano Synergy, which includes decoy makers Avian-X and Flextone. “When you call a bird in, he’s looking for what made that call. He’s looking for that hen. If he doesn’t see anything, he might turn tail and run.
“That hen decoy, or jake or tom or whatever, will often seal the deal, whether you’re a good caller or not. I think they’re essential.”
Turner hunts with decoys all season long. So, too, does Vic Ziliani, communications coordinator for Vista Outdoor and a Bushnell pro staffer.
The benefits are real, he said.
For starters, they set a scene, said Ziliani. It’s one that suggests security.
“Turkeys, more than whitetails, for example, are animals you seldom see by themselves. I mean, I’ve seen them alone certainly, but I see them in groups more often than I see one by itself,” Ziliani said.
“A decoy adds that visual element. When they see that, they see more birds, more eyes and ears, and that tells them it’s a place they can go and eat and bug and not have to worry.”
Decoys allow the hunter to direct the action, too, said Brad Cochran, co-owner of Dave Smith Decoys in Oregon.
When hunting solo, he uses one hen decoy with a gobbler, with that one being a jake in areas where turkeys are pressured or less aggressive. He’ll switch to a mature gobbler decoy in places they aren’t so wary.
He keeps the hen five or six feet away from the gobbler so as not to have it in the way when he’s ready to shoot.
The placement the male is the real key, though. It’s what responding gobblers gravitate to first.
“The scene that you’re setting is that you have a gobbler with a hen or group of hens. The real bird will come in, see that gobbler there and want to chase him away,” Cochran said.
“You’re kind of playing the jealousy card.”
An archery hunter, he’ll set the gobbler decoy 10 yards from his position, facing him or quartering away. The real bird will circle to approach it head on.
In doing so it will typically present a shot whereby he can arrow it cleanly, Cochran said.
Ziliani, too, uses at least one hen decoy with a gobbler, though he prefers jakes almost exclusively. He typically sets them 30 yards out in a field. Then, he sits just inside the tree line, often on a small seat in a blind with his shotgun resting on a shooting stick.
He also has the jake facing him.
That’s not only good for hunting purposes, though. He said it’s also safer.
“If you’ve got that decoy facing away from you, with its head visible, someone might be apt to shoot at it and maybe put some pellets into you,” Ziliani said.
Early decoys were pretty simplistic, Turner said. Today’s are much more realistic.
He likes best the ones that mimic a real bird as closely as possible.
He’s not afraid to use a bunch, either, especially as the season progresses. He’ll sometimes go with multiple hens and maybe a jake or two in an attempt to create the illusion of a flock.
“At the end of the season, if I’m not tagged out, I’ll put all my cards on the table, so to speak, and throw everything in. I’m just trying to draw as much attention to myself as I can with my decoys,” he said.
There’s no doubt hunters can kill turkeys without decoys, Cochran said. They’ve been doing it for years.
But, he added, there’s likewise no doubt they can help.
And if nothing else, they add excitement, he said. Gobblers and hens alike often mingle among his decoys and sometimes even interact with them, either fighting or attempting to mate.
“You get to see turkeys closer. You get to see them longer. And you get to see them do things you wouldn’t otherwise,” Cochran said.
“It really brings a level of excitement you don’t get hunting without decoys.”
Trends in turkey numbers
There were years when it was great to be a turkey hunter in Pennsylvania.
And truth be told, things are still pretty good.
But these aren’t the best of times either.
Hunters killed 35,966 gobblers last spring, according to Pennsylvania Game Commission statistics. That was down from the 41,200 each of the two years prior.
It’s also reflective of a nationwide pattern.
With the state’s spring gobbler season set to open – it runs April 29-May 31 – turkey numbers aren’t what they once were, here or elsewhere.
Populations experienced “exponential growth” in the late 1990s into the early 2000s, said Mary Jo Casalena, turkey biologist for the commission. Since then, things have been “much more variable,” with a declining trend the one constant.
Indeed, according to the National Wild Turkey Federation, turkey populations across the country grew from a cumulative 1.5 million birds in 1973 to 6.7 million 40 years later. Now, they number between 6 and 6.2 million.
There are theories as to what’s going on.
Heath Nace, a board member of the Pennsylvania chapter of the Federation, said bad weather during nesting season could be an issue, especially recently. Season structure might be another.
The largest factor is likely habitat, though, Casalena said. In the past, it helped turkeys overcome other problems. Now it’s not.
“The buffering that we’ve always seen from good habitat just isn’t occurring anymore,” Casalena said.
Similarly, the Federation suggests on its web site that high population densities force some turkeys to nest in less-than-ideal habitat, which leads to poor survival.
The commission is increasingly using controlled burns to create new habitat, something Nace said he’s glad to see. It’s also looking to better refine seasons using new sources of data, public turkey sighting surveys among them.
“So this is a real exciting time for turkey management,” Casalena said.
And as for this spring gobbler season, she said a low fall turkey harvest combined with a mild winter should offer some good hunting.