A timeless opinion within the realm of turkey hunters for years revolves around a piece of plastic on a stick – a decoy. By decoy, for the sake of this article, I am namely referring to stationary, stick-in-the-ground, hen decoys and not mobile gobbler decoys used for "fanning" or "reaping" a bird - that is another topic for another day. With that being said, here is my take on using a decoy while actually turkey hunting:
To begin, I believe it’s best to establish my own position on the subject: I do not use decoys.
The following might come as a surprise to some, but I also believe that there are two different types of turkey hunters, and they are classified by which route they take to ultimately bring a gobbler into range.
The two routes are either: by Persuasion, or, by Curiosity.
To reiterate, so that we are on the same page, the fact that I do not use decoys does not mean that I am a better turkey hunter, more skillful turkey caller, or more experienced woodsman, than anyone that does choose to use a decoy. It is solely because my personal style of hunting falls within that second category listed above - meaning that I base nearly every move I make in the woods to bring the gobbler closer by utilizing his curiosity. Then, create a shot opportunity by positioning myself within gun range of things like: a bend in the trail, the crest of a ridge, or any other type of natural barrier the bird will have to walk around to take a look for the hen he's been hearing. This is partly done so because of the type of thick terrain Mississippi bottoms and hardwoods have to offer, but it works best when you're able to make a few moves to reposition yourself within 30 yards of whatever corner he will need to round, when he does start closing the distance. Having a decoy does not only provide little to no aid in this style of hunting, but I believe it can actually hurt your chances.
What I mean is that you are attempting to reverse nature in its purest form and talk an old gobbler into gambling with something he cannot see. Gambling meaning convincing him into leaving a group of hens, that he already has in line to breed for hours, for a single hen that will either not commit or that might lose interest and move on to another gobbler if he does not come at least entertain her thought. Playing him at his own game, essentially. The challenge comes when the hens that are currently accompanying the gobbler are guaranteed to be real; he is physically looking at them; and if he is experienced, he knows that they are not holding a Remington 870. So how would having a decoy hurt your chances at pulling him into range? Just basing my opinion off of past observations, here is what I feel happens, more times than not, when a decoy is thrown into this type of strategy:
I believe that if he is able to split the difference, between his current flock and the hen you're calling as, to keep somewhat of an eye on both sides, he will. Most times, this midpoint is not a step closer than the second he sees the decoy, if you have one. Instead of closing in on it, he stops before he completely burns a bridge with the flock he just left, and gobbles his head off trying to talk that decoy into walking toward him. If the other flock moves on, he'll likely rejoin them and revert back to courtesy gobbles to merely let you know where he is. By having the decoy as a visual pinpoint in his mind, there is no curiosity remaining, nor is there much need for him to keep moving toward your calling. If nothing more, he at least knows where to come back to later that morning. The main problem you’ll be facing here is that the decoy can often be on a different visual plane than you are with the bird. Just because he can see the decoy, does not mean that you can see the gobbler, regardless of the fact that he can see exceptionally better than you in the first place. This scenario is often referred to as one of the most notorious phrases in the spring woods "He hung up at 80 yards and wouldn't come any closer." If this happens to you a lot, and your position and calling is that of the Curiosity style of hunting, then you might want to leave the decoy in the truck next time and see if it helps.
So what is referred to as hunting by means of persuasion? A style that is simply persuading the gobbler to hear a continuous, vague, cadence of repetitive calling - even if it is not great - and using the decoy as a beacon for him to eventually approach by preference alone if he chooses to leave whatever his current situation has to offer him at all. There is no playing hard-to-get or using silence to make him wonder where you are, as the decoy never moves. This style is often effectively used in more open terrain such as fields, edges, etc. and does not require much movement, crawling, or repositioning by the hunter. It is a little more comparable to a still-hunt practice, rather than basing your next move off of his last move.
A lot of successful and experienced turkey hunters will always hunt this way, depending on terrain and scenario. It works when it is executed correctly, and to anybody that is just getting into the art of chasing spring turkeys, yet not quite sure how to go about it, if I had to pick a style between Curiosity and Persuasion, I would suggest this one. There is much less room for error when the longbeard’s eyes are not directly on you or actively looking for a hen that he can't seem to find. There is also no mind-games, fewer quick decisions, and if the gobbler were to hang up when he solves where the hen calls are coming from, he would likely just stay put and remain content with his flock in the field. You can either wait it out and hope for the best, pack it up, or leave the decoy afield and make a move to get in front of them, then use the curiosity style to call him to an edge.
Tip: One of the best advantages a woodsman has when hunting field birds is this: You can stand ten yards into the woods and see the entire field, but you can be anywhere in the field and only see ten yards into the woods (mid to late season, especially).
Different battles require different equipment, different tactics, and different mindsets, to achieve different results from different strategies. Applying any of them in a manor that is unfitting for the battle you’re actively in, will likely result in defeat.
However, applying them accordingly, and ethically, while maintaining the ability to adapt, can be the difference in either sealing the deal on an old gobbler, or going home wondering why he wouldn't come any closer than 80-100 yards. The first step, in choosing a strategy, is addressing which type of turkey hunter you are. Then, which style of hunting you are more comfortable engaging - by means of persuasion, or, by means of curiosity.