Decoying Spring Turkeys

By Mark Goodwin | April 2, 2008
From Missouri Conservationist: Apr 2008

Twenty minutes had passed since the tom gobbled on the ridge in front of us. Alert and facing the ridge, my youth hunter, Tyler Carr, and I sat at the base of a red oak. Rain the night before had dampened the leaves. Hearing a turkey approach would be difficult.

We had arranged a decoy spread—two hens and a jake—behind us in the pasture field to draw the attention of turkeys that might approach from that direction. Moments passed. I caught movement to my right. At 20 yards, five jakes popped over the ridge to our right and ran, half strutting, to our decoys.

“Don’t move,” I whispered to Tyler. “We’ve got five jakes in our decoys. When I tell you, turn around and tag one of those birds.”

To aim at one of the jakes, Tyler would have to move 180 degrees. I watched the young gobblers and read their body language. Nervous and alert, the jakes stood tall with stretched necks, waiting for pecking-order confrontations from their new company—the decoys.

When none developed, the jakes started to relax. One began preening its back feathers; another pecked at a blade of grass. When the jakes all turned their backs to us, I whispered to Tyler to make his move. He made a smooth 180-degree turn and aimed carefully at the jake on the far right. The jakes caught his movement but stood where they were with stretched necks. At the shot, Tyler’s jake tumbled.

Without the distraction offered by our decoys, it’s unlikely this hunt would have ended with Tyler bagging one of those jakes.

Turkey decoys have proven their worth in many hunting situations, but they are not a cure-all. Their effectiveness hinges on when, where and how they are used. Sometimes they are almost essential; other times they can be a hindrance or, worse, a safety hazard.

Safety First

When you’re hunting ducks over a spread of decoys, there’s a remote chance another hunter might slip in and shoot at one of your decoys with you in the line of fire. When using decoys to hunt turkeys, however, particularly if you include a jake or a gobbler in your decoy spread, there is a greater chance that could happen.

You can all but eliminate that danger by following some common-sense rules.

Never use turkey decoys in timber. Use decoys only in open fields that allow you a broad field of view—at least 100 yards. This allows you to spot and immediately speak to any hunter who might approach and mistake your turkey decoys for the real thing. When you’re in the timber, a hunter might approach from any direction, making decoy use too dangerous.

Besides, you don’t need turkey decoys in the timber. Veteran timber hunters set up to call with a hill or a bend in the terrain between them and the turkey. This forces the turkey to come in blind. When a turkey first steps into view, it is in shooting range. No need for decoys.

Always sit against a tree that is as broad or broader than your shoulders. This protects you from hunters who might approach your decoy spread from behind you.

Never use decoys on heavily hunted public ground. The chances are too great that your decoy spread will attract other hunters.

Never be on the move while holding decoys in your hand. Always stow them in a carrying bag.

Use and wear hunter orange, whether or not you are using decoys. Wear a hunter orange cap or vest when on the move, and hang it on a limb close to your position when you set up to hunt with camo headnet, hat and gloves. The hunter orange will not alert turkeys, but it will alert other hunters to your presence.

Decoys in Open Fields

In spring, gobblers spend a lot of time in fields. The open terrain offers gobblers a prime place to strut and attract hens. The fields are also full of bugs and fresh greens for the turkeys to eat.

Because toms have practically everything they need in fields, including the ability to see danger from all directions, luring them into shotgun range is a tough task.

Decoys go a long way toward evening the odds. But you won’t do much good just sticking them out in any field and waiting for gobblers to show up. Using decoys successfully requires careful preparation and strategy.

Effective Scouting

Scouting will help you determine where best to place your decoys in a field setup. But, a few trips out listening for gobblers a month before the season starts won’t give you current information. Gobblers haven’t yet established the patterns that will hold when the season opens.

It’s best to scout the week before the season opens, when toms are on the patterns that will continue into the season. Two or three scouting trips are often all it takes to figure out their routines.

Do your best not to spook the birds you plan to hunt. When scouting, get to your spot well before first light, sit down and wait for the morning routine to start. Don’t call to toms. It is exciting to have gobblers answer your calls, but your calling might pull them off their morning routine. Worse, you could call them in and spook them.

Most scouting trips take little more than an hour. Listen to toms gobble from the roost. When they pitch to the ground, track their movements by their gobbling and note the route they take to get to the field they are using as a strutting area. Then leave the area in a direction that minimizes the chance of toms seeing you and spooking.

Again, your focus in scouting the week before the season is patterning how a tom is getting to a field, so you will know where best to set your decoys. If you know where along a field edge a gobbler has been entering, you can place your decoys in the field exactly where you would like the gobbler to stand when you are ready to take your shot.

Decoy Placement

The ideal range for a clean shot on a gobbler with most 12-gauge, full-choke shotguns is 25 yards. At this distance, a shot pattern is dense enough for a clean shot, but the pattern will have expanded enough to catch a tom if your aim is less than true. To establish this range, set up to call 5 yards off the field in the woods, and place the decoys 20 yards out in the field.

Make sure you have a clear field of fire. Use hand trimmers to clear a shooting lane to your decoys. Not too much, though. Cut brush down to 12 inches high in your shooting lane. That will still leave a screen of brush to hide your form.

Try to set up so that you are in the shadows. If the sun shines directly on you, you’ll have a hard time seeing birds, and they’ll be more likely to spot you.

Be an Early Bird

When hunting fields, make sure you set up your decoys early. Get to the field well before you see even a hint of dawn breaking in the east. Your scouting will have given you an idea of when it gets light. Get there earlier when the skies are clear.

An early arrival allows turkeys time to forget any sounds you’ve made while setting up. Frequently, gobblers roost close to field edges, and the unnatural sounds of stake against decoy and the rustling of decoys can alert toms, even in the dark. Given time, and the cover of darkness to mask the source, they will forget the unnatural sounds by daybreak.


Maybe you have read about running and gunning for gobblers—covering lots of ground and calling in an attempt to make a turkey gobble. It works sometimes, but more often than not it spooks turkeys. It’s best to stay put, even if you don’t hear toms gobbling. The longer you sit, the longer you give a gobbler a chance to approach your decoy spread.

Call every 20 minutes or so. To help you stay put, bring food and drink. Bring a book to read. Doze. Do whatever it takes to remain at your decoy setup. You’ve done your scouting. You know toms have been using your area. What have you to gain by leaving your decoy setup and walking around?

If a tom enters your field, snubs your decoys and walks off in the opposite direction, it might work to try to circle and set up in front of him, particularly if the terrain is in your favor. Often, however, you’ll just spook the tom, plus you might miss out on a silent tom approaching your position. Turkey decoys are great hunting tools, but they do require patience.

What to Buy

Major outdoor equipment retailers usually carry a variety of turkey decoys. Foldable models are easiest to carry afield, and decoy sets that consist of two hens and a jake are most versatile. Though a decoy spread may cost more than $50, the effectiveness of the decoys makes them well worth the price, especially since you can use them over and over.

The Jake/Hen Combo

A few years back, some hunters discovered that setting out a jake decoy, along with a hen decoy or two, works better than just hen decoys alone. The jake decoy pulls on a gobbler’s sense of dominance in his area and often brings him in when hens alone wouldn’t.

Put the jake decoy close to where you want a gobbler to stand just before you squeeze the trigger, for a gobbler will often approach to within inches—face to face—of a jake decoy.

Also In This Issue

The Conservation Department teams with farmers to improve wildlife habitat on conservation areas.
This Springfield arboretum’s attractions are education and serenity.

This Issue's Staff

Editor in Chief - Ara Clark
Managing Editor - Nichole LeClair
Art Director - Cliff White
Writer/editor - Tom Cwynar
Staff Writer - Bonnie Chasteen
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Arleasha Mays
Photographer - Noppadol Paothong
Photographer - David Stonner
Designer - Stephanie Ruby
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Circulation - Laura Scheuler