Turkey season opens this month. Turkey decoys are highly-effective tools.
A realistic hen or gobbler imitation is designed for two purposes: to attract birds from a distance and to give turkeys something to look at when turkeys hone in on your calling sounds. The problem is some gobblers have different reactions to decoys.
A tale of two gobblers:
Several years ago, my brother Rodney and I set out our decoys on a warm spring Missouri morning on our family farm.
I had recently purchased a gobbler decoy with fanned out tail and swiveling body.
We set the big boy out with two hen decoys on a hilltop, hoping the dominate gobblers would charge in to drive off this upstart.
The morning started out as planned. Plenty of gobbling off the roost and eventually from the ground cover.
I tried a few light clucks and purrs that produced some beautiful chain gobbles. A couple of light clucks and purrs brought out more promising gobbles.
A trio of jakes broke cover at the bottom of the hill to our west, encouraging but not what we were looking for. They decided to slip up the hill for a closer look at the decoys when by brother’s eyes caught my attention. He was studying something interesting to the east.
I slowly turned my head to find the dominant bird had broken cover and was moving up our hill from the other direction and without a sound. Rodney could not move to reposition his shotgun because four gobblers were looking straight at us from two directions.
Suddenly, the wind slightly turned our gobbler decoy and the bigger gobbler stopped in his tracks. He stretched his neck up for a look at the decoy, turned and disappeared back in the woods. He was gone forever.
Fast forward to a Kansas hunt several years later. Cecil Carder quietly slipped us into an area where gobblers were hammering from the roost. We setup under a big tree in a pasture where the gobblers generally flew down. But, that morning they changed tactics and flew down into a small, grassy pasture with scrub trees scattered throughout, surrounded by timber with an opening that led to our location.
We sat and watched the big gobblers parade back and forth along the fence about 80 yards away, surrounded by hens. Listening to the chain gobbling was a benefit of our location, but logic dictated that the gobblers would soon breed and disappear farther down in the timber for a siesta.
But, a couple of hens decided to walk out into the pasture and down the fence line to our right. A big gobbler, perhaps the dominant, followed the hens and stopped dead in his tracks when our Pretty Boy gobbler decoy came in sight.
The big gobbler stretched his neck for a better look, his big eyes  tightened up into what seemed like a gobbler glare and he charged our decoy from about 50 yards away — full speed and stopped, about 10 yards from our position.
He looked majestic while continuing his hard stare at the decoy and seemed to make some deep, angry sounds in his throat. The big gobbler took a step towards our decoy, stretched his neck and died from an easy shot.
Effective Decoys:
Turkey decoys are generally effective, but when? Expert turkey hunters are the first to swear by decoys, but only after they watch how turkeys they are hunting react to various sets. For example, how do you determine when a jake and one or two hen decoys is enough and a big gobbler decoy too much or when a gobbler decoy is exactly what you need?
“I try to face a big gobbler decoy toward where the opposing gobbler will approach,” said Cecil Carder, of Olathe. “This tends to make the dominant bird even more angry when the approaching bird turns to face him. I just set the hen a few feet away so it is visible to the incoming bird.”
Carder had watched this same scenario played out many times and knew that a gobbler’s sharp eyes would find the culprit stealing his hens. However, never put out gobbler decoys when chances are good the incoming gobbler will first appear in shooting range. The tom will come in close and occasionally a big starring gobbler decoy spooks even dominant birds.   
“I prefer to use a hen and jake decoy,” said Alex Rutledge, veteran turkey hunter and star of the television show, "Bloodlines with Alex Rutledge."
“Gobbler phases will help you dictate what decoys to use. When I’m hunting in a southern state where gobblers are grouped up, they are likely constantly fighting for a pecking order. Another gobbler will make your dominant bird come in for a fight. We use the Avery four-strut gobbler decoys or a half-strut jake. I use the gobble, yelping, cutting, fighting purr and jake gobbling calls for this situation.”
Hens tend to be less vocal after the breeding begins. When the spring break up begins after breeding, a hen and jake gobbler decoy is effective. Gobblers, often silent birds, are moving around in search of more hens. This is the time to use jake gobbling to pull in a big boy to chase off the younger bird.
“I always carry different decoys when I hunt turkeys,” Rutledge said. “You never know what the situation will be and a gobbler that is not gobbling may respond to a jake gobble. Then you had better have that decoy with a hen set out. You almost hypnotize a gobbler with calling that puts him in a certain mindset. Jake gobbling does exactly that and the decoy will finish him off.”
However, some gobblers have been whipped by other toms and have little desire to go near any gobbler, young or old. I have often wondered if that was the case with the big gobbler on our farm.
A more experienced hunter may have walked out soon as that gobbler was out of sight, and then returned in a couple of days with only hen decoys. The big boy may have responded to a group of hens waiting to be bred. Turkey hunting is a sport that requires you learn something new every trip.
Late-season gobblers that have been hunted become more cautious. I have observed gobblers watching a decoy set from the brush, perhaps they were once lured in and another gobbler was shot. Figuring out your gobbler is the key. This is another good case for only using hen decoys.
Setting up decoys can be dangerous so be careful. Most experts agree that decoys should be placed in areas where you can see 50-100 yards each direction. This gives you plenty of time to let approaching hunters know your presence. When someone approaches your decoys either whistle a familiar tune or yell out a name or something like, “Hey, I’m a hunter.” Never carry a decoy to your hunting spot. Most turkey-hunting vests have a pocket for decoys or carry it in a hunter orange sack.
Turkey decoys are valuable aids to constantly shooting big gobblers. Watch turkey reaction to your decoys and they will tell you what set to use.