Ready or not, despite the recent winterlike weather, the 2014 Minnesota turkey hunting season opens a half-hour before sunrise on Wednesday.
Most turkey hunters will employ one or more decoys to help lure an amorous gobbler. Today’s hunters enjoy an array of options, with choices varying from simple silhouettes of hens, jakes or toms to photo-real inflatable decoys with bobbing heads and bodies that swivel left or right with the slightest breeze.
While a turkey hunter is wise to use the most realistic decoys possible, perhaps a more important decision — one that is often overlooked or misunderstood even by veteran hunters — is how many decoys to use and of what sex.
I’ve found that a turkey hunter is usually better off using a single hen decoy.
Turkeys, like most wild critters, establish a pecking order before the breeding season. Usually the oldest, largest and most aggressive toms occupy a spot at the top. Younger, less confident toms rank lower and jakes (one-year-old toms) lower still.
While in the presence of a dominant tom, the lesser males often remain on the sidelines during breeding season. They hang back. The submissive males are afraid of a butt-kicking by the boss gobbler should they try moving in on a hen.
At least that’s how it’s supposed to work. Not always, though.
Several years ago while photographing turkeys from a blind, I witnessed a fascinating display of turkey breeding behavior that was contrary to everything considered “normal.”
From the confines of my blind, I spotted a tom turkey in a picked cornfield about 200 yards away. I yelped on a diaphragm call. Immediately he responded with a thunderous gobble.
A few seconds later the gobbler took off running, not toward me, but in the opposite direction. Before I had a chance to analyze what went wrong, four jakes appeared. Much to my surprise they chased the adult tom out of the cornfield and into the woods.
Later the four jakes reappeared and headed in my direction. Ultimately they strutted all around my hen decoy while I shot a number of images.
Suddenly two adult toms wandered into view, one from the north, the other from the south. Neither bird dared to approach my hen decoy while the jakes were present. Eventually one of the adult toms poked its head over a rise in the meadow about 30 yards away, making itself visible to the jakes. Instantly the gang of adolescents ran at the tom and chased it out of sight.
At this point the second adult tom took advantage of the situation. With the jakes now gone, the tom ran for my decoy. The longbeard strutted for my hen decoy and even attempted to mount it. When the jakes returned and saw the second adult wooing their lady, they ran at him and chased him off, too.
I’ve watched the same scenario unfold a number of times since.
Had I employed a single jake decoy, let alone an adult tom decoy, I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed the same success. Those images happened only because I was using a lone hen.
Bill Marchel, an outdoors writer and photographer, lives near Brainerd.