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Eric Morken: Close call with two toms leaves me questioning if using decoys does more harm than good

A slow first three days of hunting gave way to a busy afternoon on April 27 chasing gobblers in Minnesota. Why a close call left me questioning whether or not to use decoys while shotgun hunting for these elusive birds.

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Aubree Morken helps pick up a couple of decoys during the 2020 turkey hunting season in Minnesota. When decoys work, they are part of what makes turkey hunting so fun as a tom struts into close range, but it's been the author's experience that decoys just as often don't work and can make toms nervous. That was the case during a long, close call on a couple of toms on the afternoon of April 27, 2021. (Eric Morken / Echo Press)

I walked many miles over the course of four days during Minnesota’s second 7-day spring turkey hunting season trying to strike up a gobbler.

My father-in-law was waiting back at the truck at about 11:30 on the final morning.

“This is the worst turkey hunting I’ve ever had down here,” I greeted him with.

It had been to that point. The first morning out with my 8-year-old daughter, Aubree, had a handful of toms sounding off from the roost in the distance. Nothing came close, and I heard just one gobble over the next two-plus days of hunting.

I had called it quits by noon on April 27 knowing I had to drive two hours back to Alexandria. But after a bite to eat, I felt a bit rejuvenated.

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Maybe one last hunt with the car packed and ready to go would be worth it. There was one part of the property I had not hunted that featured the kind of habitat diversity that the turkeys like -- oak ridges, river bottom, an open agriculture field and tall grass in the Conservation Reserve Program on the neighboring property.

I was halfway through the 3/4-mile walk up a fence line where that CRP and plowed field meet as I crested a hill. There was a tom in full strut right along the edge. I hit the ground, settled my shotgun over my pack and let out a couple of yelps on my mouth call. Nothing.

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Eric Morken

Back on my feet, I slowly approached the top of that hill to see him disappear around a little curve of thick cover. He was still strutting at this point. The 15 mile-per-hour wind was right in my face -- perfect to quietly try a stalk.

Using the cover, I moved up the edge and looked around the corner. He was 45-50 yards away. That is pushing the limits of my comfortable range, and this would almost certainly require a quick draw to shoot once he saw me.

I decided against it almost at the same time that I heard a distant gobble in the river bottom. I raced toward it to a corner where the woods, ag field and CRP all meet. Not wanting to waste any time, I grabbed a laydown hen Avian-X decoy out of my pack, placed it in the field and set up against a huge bur oak.

The tom responded three times to my calling, but his calls got further away. It was time to get aggressive. I let out a sharp series of yelps and cuts.
Five minutes had passed when the sound of footsteps came from behind me and to my right. Two toms had snuck in quietly. They saw the decoy in the field and stopped. They didn’t like it.

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The birds disappeared, but I could hear their steps behind me every so often. It must have been 10-15 minutes of sitting as still as I could hoping they would come into the decoys or move to my left where I had a shot through the trees.

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The lead tom finally let out a thunderous gobble 15 yards away. It startled me to the point where I flinched. I actually thought for a second that the gobble came from in front of me. Instinctively, I turned my head just slightly to look that way.

That was all it took. I saw rushed movement out of the left corner of my eye and knew it was now or never. Swinging to my left, I shouldered the shotgun.

The tom scurried a few steps and jumped up to take flight. His head was exposed for a second, but a rushed shot at a flying bird was not a shot I felt comfortable taking. He landed on the edge of the ridge and ran down into the river bottom with the second tom not far behind.

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This hunt comes down to two thoughts for me -- the first being the question of whether using decoys while shotgun hunting is worth the risk. Decoys work sometimes, and when they do, it’s part of what makes turkey hunting so fun as a strutting tom puts on a show.

It’s my experience that they just as often do not work. Birds either ignore them, or worse, become nervous by them. Maybe I should have used my half-strut jake decoy too on this hunt. Maybe no decoy at all was the way to go. I’d be interested in hearing from other hunters on this.

The final reminder is that there is just no room for error when waiting out a tom. If I hadn’t flinched and moved my head a few inches to look in front of me after that gobble, he likely would have made his way into an opening to my left. You just don’t get away with movement when hunting these birds.

Here’s to hoping I get another opportunity at the end of May.

Eric Morken is a sports and outdoor editor at the Echo Press Newspaper in Alexandria, Minnesota, a property of the Forum News Service. Morken covers a variety of stories throughout the Douglas County area, as well as statewide outdoor issues.
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