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  • Writer's picturePatrick Durkin

Predators Try to Make Meals from Hunters’ Turkey Decoys

   Nature’s surprises often flip routine hunts into lifetime memories.


   Sometimes you smile, wondering why a mallard hen would expose her waddling brood to avian and terrestrial predators by marching them across a bare 300-yard field in mid-May. Other times you can only shake and twitch, wondering how you got between a protective cow moose and her calf on a mountain trail before first light.


   Which brings us to my friend Walt Larsen, a Minnesotan who hunts turkeys each spring in Iowa, Wisconsin and his home state. Many years after hunting a tall-grass hillside near Iowa’s border with South Dakota, Larsen still wonders if that mouthful of teeth hurtling toward his face was a coyote.


   And he’ll forever ask if his attacker was actually a bobcat. We can excuse his doubts. The incident happened so fast he didn’t have time to count whether that maw held 42 teeth (coyote) or 28 (bobcat). All Larsen saw flying at him were sharp fangs and wide-open chops.


   He never saw the attacker stalking him. It was midday and he was alone, gnawing on a sandwich while trying to locate a gobbler by making loud “fighting purr” calls on his slate. His calls triggered a tom’s gobble, and he strained to hear a follow-up to pinpoint its direction. Unfortunately, "ridiculously" high winds were sand-blasting the Loess Hills, making Larsen strain to hear distant sounds.


    He focused his attention on the hill’s crest behind him, thinking that’s where the gobble had come from. He can’t say what caused him to turn to see his attacker, but as he spun he saw something flying at him like a missile. Instinctively, he rolled sideways and kicked both feet.


   “All I saw was teeth coming at my face,” Larsen said. “It slammed into my feet and ran off so fast that I can’t honestly say I got a good look. We’ve always seen coyotes out there, and we’ve seen more bobcats since then, so I’ll never know for sure what it was.


   “I was shook,” Larsen continued. “I walked over the hill to look for turkeys, and I was still shaking an hour later. I assumed it was a coyote until my brother Dave told me about a coworker who got bit in the neck by a bobcat while turkey hunting.”


   Two years later, Larsen had another memorable experience while hunting a grassy terrace from a blind on the same property. “I saw a coyote stalking my decoy, which was 25 yards away,” he said. “The coyote was using my blind as cover, and its ribs pressed into a wall of my blind as it sneaked along. I slapped it as hard as I could through the fabric to scare it off.”


   Scott Craven, a retired UW-Madison wildlife professor, had three coyote encounters in one hunt in early May while hunting turkeys on a Dane County farm. Craven arrived before dawn and staked his new “expensive” hen and jake decoys in an alfalfa field bordering a woods and nearby corn stubble.


   A turkey flew down from its roost shortly after daylight, landed in the corn stubble and took interest in Craven’s decoys. Craven thought things were looking great as the turkey drew within 50 yards, but then a coyote raced out of the woods, causing the bird to flee.


   Craven eventually resumed calling and soon saw movement to his right. He spotted a coyote sneaking along the woods’ edge, stealthily stalking his decoys. The coyote got within 20 yards but suddenly fled after apparently scenting Craven.


   Given that no turkeys were around, Craven just took in the scene and noted it appreciatively. About 30 minutes later, however, he wasn’t so forgiving when a third coyote began stalking his decoys from the opposite direction along the woods.


   Suddenly, the coyote launched itself at Craven’s decoys, its jaws wide open, intent on harming one of his $130 investments. “If I had cleared it with the landowner in advance, I might have taken more aggressive actions, but I just yelled at it so it wouldn’t ruin my decoy,” Craven said. “It all happened in about five seconds, so it’s not like I had time to weigh my options. I just didn’t want it to wreck my brand-new expensive decoys.”


   All these incidents reminded me that Janis Putelis of MeatEater called in a female mountain lion and its two 1-year-old cubs while he hunted Merriam’s turkeys in Montana in April 2021. One of the cubs even snarled at Putelis and his hunting partner before backing off.


   A few weeks later in May 2021, Putelis shot a gobbler while hunting with his wife, Jennifer. As the turkey flopped in its death throes, a coyote raced in, grabbed the gobbler by the throat, and tried dragging it away. Putelis yelled and chased it off. As it fled, the coyote spit feathers from its mouth.


   These first-person accounts from folks I trust caused me to ask Facebook friends and Instagram followers to share their encounters with turkey-attacking predators. Over 20 people responded, reporting stalks and attacks by foxes, bears, coyotes, fishers, wolves, badgers and bobcats. Most broke off their attacks after scenting the hunters, while a few snatched the decoy and quickly dropped it when realizing their mistake.


   Nick Pinizzotto of Pennsylvania was hunting turkeys in Kansas when he spotted a distant coyote crossing the field. The coyote turned and trotted his way after Pinizzotto gave a few turkey calls. He started video-recording the coyote as it closed the distance. Suddenly it raced at his decoy and slammed into it, teeth gnashing at the decoy’s neck and head. It fled quickly after realizing it had been fooled.


   Turkey decoys don’t always trigger aggression, however. When white-tailed deer see turkey decoys, they typically act suspicious, even stamping a front hoof and snorting, as if asking, “Who are you trying to kid?”


   But not all deer are skeptical. Just ask James Lipinski of Minnesota, who watched a yearling whitetail confront his decoy. Then what happened?


   “It licked my jake decoy for an unreasonable amount of time,” Lipinski said.


   When does a lick become reasonable?


   Lipinski didn’t specify a time.

A coyote sends up a spray of dirt while attacking a jake turkey decoy in a recently planted cornfield in Kansas. — Nick Pinizzotto photo

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