Travis Sumner is a professional wildlife biologist who is also an extremely successful turkey hunter. Sumner is one of those turkey hunters who seem to have a plan for whatever situation develops when they’re hunting.
And I’ve never hunted with him when he didn’t have a big sack with turkey decoys slung across his shoulder.
Our first hunt several years ago illustrates his bond to turkey decoys. We had stopped at the edge of a clearing on top of a ridge to call. Sumner hammered out some loud calls on his slate call, and a gobbler answered from a long distance, in the creek bottom below us. He pointed to a tree for me to take position, snatched the lifelike decoy out of the bag and walked to an open spot about 25 yards from my position. He looked at the direction from where the turkeys had gobbled, scanned the woods in front of him and lined up an opening through the woods. Then he placed the hen decoy in the ground, very deliberately and precisely.
He stood back and studied his set, even as an unprovoked gobble echoed from the now fast approaching gobblers.
He liked the setup. He then slipped back and leaned against an oak. With the gun propped on his knee, he whispered, “It won’t be long,”
I agreed and I was concerned he wasn’t going to get set up in time. Within a few seconds, we saw red heads walking from our right to our left about 70 yards down the hill.
“Two, three, four . . . all longbeards,” Sumner whispered, excitement in his voice. “They’re all gonna come.”
I wasn’t so sure. They were certainly looking in our direction but essentially walking parallel to us around the hill. It felt like this could be one of those close, but not close enough, encounters.
I think he sensed I wasn’t convinced. I’d told him that morning before dawn that I had experienced some less than happy endings with decoy use.
“They can’t see the decoy clearly yet, in 10 yards they have a wide-open view,” he said. “Get ready.”
As they stepped into the open lane that gave them a clear line of sight to the decoy, it was almost like a Keystone Cops comic routine. The lead gobbler stopped abruptly and the others stumbled into him as they were so intently focused on the decoy. They stared for a few seconds, did an abrupt left-face turn and literally marched up the hill straight to the decoy. They encircled it and did not have a clue we were on planet Earth.
One of the mysteries of using decoys had been revealed to me.
Using decoys for hunting turkeys is certainly nothing new, but the “art” of using decoys is something that is being continually refined. After a number of years of use, hunters are figuring out what to do — and what not to do.
According to Sumner, decoys are not the answer to all turkey-hunting issues. But when used correctly, they are a most valuable addition to a hunter’s arsenal of weapons.
“I always carry a decoy, but I don’t always use one,” Sumner said. “There are times and places when it’s appropriate and times when it’s not. The key is to learn to recognize when a decoy, or decoy set, will help your cause. Used improperly, or with the wrong setup, decoys can cause problems. Just like any turkey hunting tactics or tools, they’re only as good as the hunter using them. I’ve heard hunters complain that the decoy setup lured a gobbler in close, but they couldn’t get a shot. That’s a setup problem, not a decoy issue.”
To that end we’ve compiled seven key techniques for using decoys successfully.
SEEING IS BELIEVING
Mike Cox is a hunting buddy who has worked hard on decoy strategies in recent years and has vastly improved his turkey hunting success.
“Seeing is believing,” Cox said. “Vision is a real key to success for both the gobbler and the hunter. You’ve got to set up the decoy so the decoy can been seen by the gobbler from as long a distance as is reasonable for the specific scenario you’re hunting. Every hunt is different, but whether the vision distance is 70 yards or 150 yards or more, set the decoy where it can be easily seen by the longbeard. If it’s a marginal setup, he may not see it, or not be intrigued and won’t react to the decoy.”
Cox added that it is imperative that the hunter chooses the setup spot correctly.
“I’ll very deliberately think about the approach options the gobbler may have and try to anticipate as many with my setup as I can,” he said. “This worked last year really well on one hunt where I set up the decoy before dawn on a roosted gobbler. But I selected a setup spot where I could see well to both my right and left, not just in front. When the birds began gobbling, there was a gobbler three times as far away to my left that began gobbling to my calls, just as was the gobbler in front of me. However, the long-distance gobbler to my left closed the gap quickly, and at 150 yards, he saw my decoy set. Because of my setup, I could see him as well and watched as he triple-gobbled, then literally came on a dead run to beat the other gobbling bird to the decoy. I shot him running by me at 25 yards because I’d left myself a good shooting opportunity. I had learned that seeing is believing the hard way in the past.”
SET UP FOR THE SITUATION AT HAND
Do not use decoys for every situation and do not use the same setup all the time. There are instances when a specific setup will work better than others.
“The gobbler and breeding hen setup is very popular right now and it can be extremely effective,” Cox said. “But often that’s not the right combination and sometimes a single hen decoy will be effective. For example, often there will not be time to set up multiple decoys, but a single hen decoy can be placed quickly.”
Cox said if you’re looking for a dominant gobbler, he thinks the mature, full-fan gobbler and hen on the ground in breeding position setup is great.
“But sometimes, 2-year-old birds may shy away from the dominant gobbler pose,” he said. “Sometimes the jake and hen setup will be ideal. I also like to walk and call midday, and if gobbler responds and begins to approach quickly, as they often do midday, I’ll get a hen or hen and jake decoy out to grab their attention. That will usually make them less focused on your calling position.”
MAKE MOTION YOUR FRIEND
Most decoys, if set up properly, will have some motion in a slight breeze. Some of the large full-bodied adult gobbler decoys can actually have real turkey fans placed in them and the feathers will have slight movements in a breeze.
Realism can be paramount to success when using decoys. While gobblers will and do approach decoys that are totally stationary, most expert hunters insist that some natural motion, such as wind-aided movements, are a huge plus. While there may not always be a breeze to assist, you can take care to set the decoy up properly to take advantage of any helpful winds. Generally, it’s a matter of getting the decoys balanced and set to capture the wind.
There could be instances when there is too much wind and the decoy may just spin in a circle and look totally unrealistic. When this is a problem, you can cut or pick up small limbs and place them in the ground as stops, so they are braced against the decoy, allowing it to move only slightly back and forth, but not spin.
Since my decoy education has been broadened in recent years, I’ve seen the movement factor work. I watched a gobbler slipping in quietly and saw him stop statue-still when he laid eyes on the decoy. Clearly, he was thinking things over, trying to decide if what he saw was real. A puff of wind pushed through and the hen decoy spun a half-turn. The gobbler immediately resumed walking to the decoy and stopped at 20 yards and went into full strut.
LET THE TERRAIN DICTATE USE
“Not all turkey woods are created equal,” Travis Sumner said. “Sometimes I’ll get a gobbler cranked up and it’s simply not the right place to set up a decoy. If the quarters are tight and vision very restricted, sometimes it’s just better to not use a decoy at all. If decoy use doesn’t have the potential to help your specific situation on that hunt and that gobbler, don’t use one.
“Look for a high spot for the decoy so it’s not hidden if the gobbler approaches from below. Ensure it is not blocked by brush. Also, it’s important for the decoy to not look out of place as in standing in the middle of a field, lonesome and alone. I like to place decoys more near the edge of fields as through they are just entering or leaving.”
CLOSE, BUT NOT TOO CLOSE
You certainly want the decoy to lure the gobbler within range, but not so close that your position will become a problem. Most decoy experts will say at least 15 to 20 yards is the minimum distance. Closer than that, the gobbler may pick you up in his vision, even if he is somewhat focused on the decoy. Also, if you’re too close and can’t get a shot until the gobbler gets to the decoy at 15 yards or less, you don’t have much gun pattern width. Trust me, you can miss at 10 to 15 yards.
On the flip side, get too far away and you’ll have problems. Sometimes a gobbler will approach to 15-20 yards and go into strut. Well, if you’re 35 to 40 yards from the decoy, all of a sudden you’re 60 yards away and have a problem with too much distance to effectively shoot. Plus, the gobbler may walk in from a different angle, and even if your setup allows a clear shot, the distance may be too far.
HUNT SAFELY WITH DECOYS
Safety when using decoys is a real concern, and there are some things you need to consider.
First, walking through the woods, private land or public lands and carrying a decoy in your hand or over your shoulder is taboo. All experts that I know who use decoys carry them in drab or camo-pattern bags. Thus, the outline of a turkey is not visible.
Most also do not use an adult decoy on public lands. Even using a jake and hen setup can be risky business on public lands, so use caution with that.
The bottom line is to think your personal safety anytime carrying or using a decoy.
THINGS TO AVOID
If you are new to the sport or to using decoys, here are a few lessons I’ve learned the hard way.
Make sure you can see the gobbler when he can see the decoy. It is possible to hide too well even when turkey hunting. I hate to admit it, but I had a longbeard gobbling at my decoy, only 25 yards from the decoy and 30 yards from me. But I couldn’t see him because I was hidden so well.
Don’t get bored and leave the decoy for a while, then try to sneak back up on the setup. Usually one of two things will have happened. A gobbler will be there with the decoy and you have no chance to sneak up on the bird. Or the decoy will be lying on the ground, thrashed and abandoned.
Don’t use decoys only in desperation when all else has failed. Give them a legitimate shot, and odds are good they will help your turkey hunting.
Don’t use the same decoys with the same setup repeatedly on the same gobblers. It just doesn’t work. Your lack of success will continue to be repeated.
Decoys are a great tool for the educated turkey hunter. If you haven’t used decoys in the past or are not having as much success as you think you should, try these strategies this season.