To Deke, Or Not To Deke?

Used correctly, decoys are deadly. But they can also ruin a good hunt.

Kevin Farr | March 30, 2011


Kevin’s dad, Oliver Farr of Lakeland, has Parkinson’s, which makes it hard for him to control his movements. Heavily concealed and using decoys to draw the attention of toms away from his position, he has overcome the keen eyesight of the 17 gobblers he has killed.

Most all turkey hunters have considered using decoys at some point. At times, having a decoy can be just what the turkey-doctor ordered to finish luring that longbeard to his death. Other times, it can work just the opposite and ruin what would have been a good setup. There is no cut-and-dried answer to this dilemma, but I’ll try and cover a few scenarios and reasons for when or when not to use a decoy set and how to use them to your advantage.

One of the obvious setups conducive to using a decoy is one where the approaching birds can see for long distances. Large openings, field edges, long roads and powerline or gasline right-of-ways are places where a tom expects to see what he has been hearing as he approaches. Even if you quit calling, which you should if he is coming and looking, he still knows exactly where the sound was coming from.

Turkeys have exceptional hearing and can pinpoint the source of your calling with accuracy the federal government would try to keep secret. Therefore, in large, open areas, using decoys will give approaching birds visual assurance to keep ’em coming. On the flip-side, if these birds are approaching and don’t see what they need to, they may hesitate or change their minds altogether.

Another benefit to using dekes is that they can focus the attention of the birds on something other than the hunter. This can be very helpful if you are taking children or someone who just can’t quite keep as still as they need to. Now, I don’t mean you can try and flag in an airplane just because you’ve got a decoy out, but approaching birds will often lock-in on the decoys enough that you can get by with a little movement.

I like to bowhunt, and having a decoy for the bird to concentrate on allows me some leeway when drawing my bow. Others who may need an extra distraction are disabled people. Perhaps they can’t move like they need to or can’t hold the gun for extended periods of time. Maybe they just can’t get settled in and hide as well because of their condition. No matter what the reason, a decoy setup can help folks get it done by focusing the turkeys on something other than the hunters.

This reminds me of hunts with my father, Oliver Farr, of Lakeland, who has advanced Parkinson’s disease. Basically, the disease is a neurological disorder that makes it very hard for Daddy to make his body and appendages do what he wants when he wants. To use his words, he’s “froze up.” On top of that, he has a severe tremor that can be very erratic at times.

Well, as we all know, movement like this is not a good match for turkey hunting, but we work around it by making sure we are hidden like snipers behind enemy lines. Our other saving grace is a decoy spread.

When a longbeard comes in to the dekes and is locked-in, I carefully help Daddy get his gun in position and wait for him to put that longbeard to sleep. This technique worked for us again last season in Lanier County, as he killed his 17th longbeard. Oh yeah! It was a good ’un, too, with 1 1/2-inch hooks. Way to go, Daddy!

In recent years, full-strut decoys have been all the rage. These can be deadly in the right situations, but as most people who use them find out sooner or later, they can be a life-saver for the intended victims as well.

Full-strut decoys give the impression that a longbeard is already on the scene with the hot hen that has been doing all that carrying on. Well, the idea is that an approaching tom will be enraged that another lover has beat him to the party and charge in to defend the honor of the lovely hen that has been pleading for attention. And that’s exactly how it works… some of the time.

This photo is from a video the author captured of a pair of gobblers in his decoys. Although mature toms in full strut are all the rage in turkey decoys right now, Kevin prefers a less intimidating jake decoy paired with hens.

It’s a great early season tactic, when the pecking order may not yet be established and competition between toms is fierce. And it also can work out well if the bird you’re calling happens to be a property’s dominant gobbler. But what if the approaching tom has had his hat handed to him a few times? He’s probably not eager to get another shellacking and may hang up out of range or flat-out retreat. What if he’s a subordinate tom or not the aggressive type? You know, a lover not a fighter, like I am. Another likely hang-up or retreat is probably inevitable.

I’m not a big proponent of full-strut decoys for these reasons. I’ve had more success with a jake than a challenging tom because they tend to be less intimidating.

Another current trend is taxidermy turkey mounts made into decoys. Obviously, these are as close to a live decoy as you can get. They are so realistic looking, and their feathers blow in the slightest breeze.

But that’s just the problem. Their feathers blow in the wind. Because they are more delicate — not to mention expensive — if it comes a thunder-boomer, you probably want to pack these dekes up. Also, if a suitor gets too close and friendly, you might end up with an expensive mess. Nothing wrong with these dekes, they just require a little more care and are harder to transport.

Hard-shell decoys are coming on strong as well. Some available now are almost as realistic looking as taxidermy mounts and even look the same from a short distance. With these, you don’t have to worry about weather and misplaced feathers, but you still have the transporting issues. These don’t collapse, so they can be cumbersome to carry. Mounted and hard-shell dekes are the most life-like but are definitely not for the run-and-gun hunter.

Probably the most widely owned decoys are the foam or soft-plastic collapsible ones. If you are a mobile hunter, these dekes are much more conducive to your style. They can be rolled up and stowed in any turkey hunter’s vest, and they can be deployed quickly. Certainly the lightest and most mobile, these decoys can be carried at all times and used as the situation dictates. There are some newer ones on the market now that are pretty realistic looking, and more birds have fallen to these type decoys than any of the others. They are the least expensive also.

Now let’s talk about how to set up the decoys. Everyone has their own style, but I’ll share a few of my favorite decoy spreads. The simplest and quickest to deploy when you’ve got a gobbler coming in hot is a single hen decoy. Now most people have either an upright hen, which I call a looker, or a feeding hen, which I call a feeder. I have used and witnessed people using only the looker. However, I’m a little hesitant to only use this one by itself for fear that approaching birds may be curious about what that dang hen is staring at. I place her so she is facing my direction and to the side. I don’t want her looking directly at me, but I also don’t want her looking at an approaching tom. Sometimes if a strutter thinks he’s got a hen’s attention, he’ll stop out of range and put on a show, trying to get her to come to him.

If I was only going to place a single hen out, I would use a feeder instead of a looker. A feeder looks more relaxed and maybe even playing hard-to-get as compared to a looker, which could appear on alert.

Case in point, a good friend of mine told me the first time he ever used a decoy it was a single looker. He placed that bird in front of him and staring straight at his setup. A hen came in, and as she approached, he said she started stretching her neck trying to see what the decoy was looking at. That hen came to within 15 yards and tried to stare a hole through him. Finally, she putted and left. He swears to never set up a looker locked in on his setup.

A lot of hunters have a flock of dekes, including a couple hens and a jake. Setups like these tend to be more natural and relaxed looking. Spread the decoys so they look like a small group of birds just hanging out and doing their normal thing. Don’t stack them right on each other or in a line. Give them a natural flow and look.

I like to place the hens looking in my general direction and to either side of me about 20 to 25 yards from my setup if I’m gun hunting, 15 yards if I’m bowhunting. The jake can be placed among them for a natural feeding look. Or, if you want to draw the ire of a longbeard, give the perception that the jake is feeling frisky, and place him tight on one of the hens. This can have the same effect as a strutting decoy but without the intimidation factor.

With the help of a decoy spread made up of two hens and a jake, the author called in two longbeards for his daughter Grace, who was 7 years old at the time. She killed one of the two birds, her first ever, as they strutted between the jake and the hens in Lowndes County.

Always place the jake facing in your general direction. Many times a gobbler will go beak-to-beak with a challenger and puff up, giving the hunter an opportunity to adjust for the shot if needed.

A setup like this helped my then 7-year-old daughter Grace kill her first turkey. I had been watching a group of Lowndes County birds which consisted of a few hens and two longbeards. I knew they roosted in a swamp about 100 yards from a field edge. These birds would pitch down into the field in the mornings, and the toms would strut like peacocks while the ladies milled around and fed.

Grace and I eased into the corner of the field about 30 minutes before it started cracking daylight. I placed out my decoy spread about 25 yards in front of us. On this particular hunt, I placed a feeder and a looker in front of me and to my right. I set them about 7 yards apart and facing toward me and to my left. I then placed a jake in front of me and to my left, but facing toward me and my right. This made it look like the jake and hens were about to meet in front of my setup. My hopes were the longbeards would approach our setup and get in the middle of the decoys to separate the jake from the hens.

This would put them somewhere around 20 to 25 yards right in front of Grace. Also, the dekes were going to focus the toms’ attention so I could help Grace get the gun on one and take the shot.

As it broke light, the gobblers sounded off in response to a barred owl. I will never forget the look on Grace’s face when she heard those birds. She didn’t know it, but the fun was just getting started. After a few more minutes, I let out the softest and sweetest series of tree yelps I could make, and it was immediately answered by both longbeards. I told her to get ready. After a few more minutes and several more gobbles, I saw those black shadows gliding through the trees and touching down in the field.

As soon as they landed, I greeted them with some desperate yelps. They hammered right back. Immediately I cut them off with a series of excited cutts and yelps, which I thought was going to cause them to have a stroke. They swelled up like two Volkswagen Beetles and started to march our way. Grace was grinning like she had just licked the cake-batter bowl.

They steadily made their way toward us. When they got to about 70 yards, they noticed the decoys, slicked down, and walked right in. When they got between us and the dekes, they went back into strut and started parading between the jake decoy and the ladies. With their tail fans toward us, I eased the gun up and got Grace down on the stock while we waited for them to turn around. As one turned toward us, I told her to put it on his neck when I made him stick his head up. I cutt at them hard, which made them gobble and stretch their necks up and look to see who was in the bushes.

Bad mistake for one of them, but right move for Grace. She touched the trigger and dumped her first turkey. It was truly a special moment.

Now, after reading all of this, you might think decoys are the magic that makes turkey hunts successful. Wrong.

While they work great some of the time, there are occasions when it’s just not a good idea to use a decoy. For instance, there is no reason to use decoys if you are hunting tight cover or are set up in a way that when that longbeard appears he is already in range.

If you are hunting public land or heavily hunted private land, leave the decoys at home. Using decoys on public land is generally not a good idea because decoys can fool other hunters just as they fool turkeys. You don’t want to chance another hunter mistaking your decoys for a target and putting you in the line of fire.

Also, if decoys have been used a lot on a piece of property, birds can get used to them and start to shy away from them. Now you might say, “Well, I’m planning on killing that longbeard when he comes in, so he won’t have a chance to get decoy shy.” Maybe so, but what about all the hens that come in and figure out the dekes are fake? Or what about the longbeard that was off to the side when his buddy waded into the dekes and got his beak busted?

Maybe they just don’t like the fact that those birds have been standing statue-still for so long, and it just doesn’t feel right to the real turkeys. Whatever the reason, trust me, hunted birds get decoy shy.

I can’t close without acknowledging that some folks are absolutely against using decoys. More often than not, these are veteran turkey hunters who have moved on to a new phase in their turkey-hunting careers. Most have probably used decoys at least once along their journey, but now they are at a point where they feel using dekes takes away from the pure form of turkey hunting. To them, turkey hunting should be the hunter using his calling along with his woodsmanship and instincts to outsmart a longbeard on the gobbler’s terms. There is certainly nothing wrong with that.

I will say, though, as long as it is legal, everybody should hunt the way that makes them happy and be proud for each other. After all, we’re all in this turkey-hunting thing together.

Hopefully you have gained some insight on decoys that will help you this spring. The only question now is: To deke or not to deke?

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