Talking Turkey with Tom Kelly

Ninety-four years after his birth in Mobile, turkey hunting’s “poet laureate” Col. Tom Kelly still can’t find enough words to describe his passion for the elusive bird. Fellow hunter and Mobilian Danny White talks with Kelly to find out why.

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Much of Tom Kelly’s life has revolved around his love and respect for wild turkeys. Photo courtesy of Scott Childress

There’s no telling what the residents of the Bethesda, Maryland, high-rise think of their neighbor Col. Tom Kelly. Since moving from Spanish Fort to be closer to his daughter and her family in 2017, the hunter and author has no doubt raised his fair share of eyebrows; the endangered old Mobile accent and occasional turkey call pulsing through the walls of his apartment tend to draw attention. Most wouldn’t guess that they share the building with the man who’s been called the “poet laureate” of turkey hunting — the writer who inspired the Washington Post to assert, “Kelly is to turkeys what Melville was to whales.” 

Kelly wrote the book on turkey hunting (well, more than 20 of them). His first effort, 1973’s “Tenth Legion,” has long been considered one of the greatest books on the subject, spawning a cult-like following of the man, his lore and his stories. 

In something of a cosmic joke, Kelly shares a name with the birds he hunts; “tom” is the nickname for a male turkey. The coincidence isn’t lost on the easy-to-laugh Kelly who, at 94, is full of the one-liners and stories that have entertained readers for decades. Over a Zoom call, that trademark charisma was on full display as Kelly visited with his former Scott Paper Company co-worker and longtime friend Danny White to talk gobblers. 

First of all, Tom, I’m honored that you would even think of me as a turkey hunter. I consider myself a rookie, so I’m really humbled that you’d allow me to do this interview with you. What are some of your earliest hunting memories?

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About 80 years ago I was with some people in Mississippi, including a friend named Pete Kennedy. I heard a turkey gobble for the first time. In fact, I thought it was an owl. Pete had to tell me what it was. And we fooled around with it and fooled around with it, and eventually we lucked up and killed it. And I realized then that [turkey hunting] was something that I would really like to do and do a hell of a lot of.

Around that time, I bet you there weren’t 1,000 turkey hunters in the United States, and every one of them thought that we were just about to lose turkeys — they were getting fewer and fewer. And they wouldn’t tell you shit. I mean, they’d lie to you, they’d give you advice like, “Son, you ain’t yelping enough, you ain’t moving around enough.” They’d deliberately lie to you because they thought, “Turkeys won’t be around for long, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to let him kill one that I could kill.”

“The first turkey that ever came to me on the ground did it a long time ago. I sat there with my hands shaking and my breath short and my heart hammering so hard I could not understand why he could not hear it. The last turkey that came to me last spring had exactly the same effect, and the day that this does not happen to me is the day that I quit.”

Tom Kelly, “Tenth Legion,” 1973

How has turkey hunting changed over the course of your life?

Turkey populations have boomed. At one time, there were only turkeys in 11 states. While some states began putting in bag limits of four or five, states like South Carolina had a limit of 40, and there were guys who killed 40 turkeys a year. 

A turkey baits pretty easy. Not only does he bait easy, but he comes to the bait about the same time every day. So if you get out there and scatter corn in a 10-foot-long trench and sit down at the end of the trench where you can look down it and wait until you got a whole row of turkeys out there, and that trench is full of feeding heads, and shoot both barrels down that trench, you’re going to pick up 12 or 14 turkeys. If you bait ‘em up, they’re easy to kill.

That ain’t turkey hunting though, is it?

No, that’s right. It ain’t. It’s murder. If you’re going to do that, hell, you might as well…

Be a deer hunter.

That’s right. Deer hunting’s the same thing.

For every 100 deer hunters, only about one or two are turkey hunters. Why do you think that is?

‘Cause turkey hunting’s hard work! Deer hunting, somebody else does all the damn work! You draw a stand out of a hat. Somebody drives you out to the stand and sits you down there. You sit in your chair with your legs crossed … You don’t have any skill involved. You got buckshot in your gun. You got three rounds in there. If a deer comes by, you kill it. If it don’t come by, you can’t leave the stand ‘cause one of the standers would shoot you. You got to sit there until they pick you up. Hell, I’d rather work!

The number I hear today is that we’ve probably got 450,000 turkeys in the state of Alabama. In your opinion, what’s been the key cause for that turnaround?

Aside from better management practices, turkeys are very adaptable. A turkey is a weird thing; most other birds, from hummingbirds all the way up, (I don’t know about ostriches, I never hunted an ostrich) hatch a nest of eggs, then both parents go off and get stuff. Little crickets and stuff. And they bring it and feed the birds on the nest. A male turkey does none of that. Not a bit. He is interested in girls. And as soon as he gets as many girls as he can handle, he runs other male turkeys off. And when the babies come, the hell with ‘em, mama can handle ‘em, I’m busy, I got stuff I gotta do someplace else. He don’t help raise the family at all. He’s not a nice person! 

A lot of ladies now are taking up turkey hunting, and I think that’s because turkeys remind them of their husbands. You can’t shoot your husband, but you can shoot turkey.

“I do not hunt turkeys because I want to, I hunt them because I have to.”

Tom Kelly, “Tenth Legion,” 1973

What was your first shotgun?

It was a Winchester Model 37 single-barrel 20 gauge. It cost $9.54 at Thoss Sporting Goods store in Mobile. It shot one round, but you could put another shell in between these two fingers. And then when you shot, (mimics reloading) you could do that and do that. And I was pretty good at getting a second shot.

How does that compare to the gun you use today?

I moved up. I got an over/under. It’s a Winchester. The National Wild Turkey Federation has got a Tom Kelly Room at its headquarters in South Carolina. And they got pictures of me in there, they got clothes, they got my gun, they got everything else. On occasion, when I’m leading a hunt or when I’ve been invited to a hunt, I will ask them, “Can I borrow my gun back?” And they loan it to me and make me promise that I’ll bring it right back as soon as I get through.

Can you explain a day in the life of a turkey?

Well, in the spring, the minute he wakes up, he gobbles. And he gobbles to let the hens know where he is. And he sits in that tree until he sees a hen come walking on the ground. He does that for two reasons. One: He’s lazy, and he knows if he does that she’ll come anyway. Two: He don’t get down on the ground in case there’s any predators down there, like a fox or anything. When the hen gets down on the ground, then he flies down to her and she comes to him. Gobblers don’t go to hens. Hens go to gobblers. The first thing you got to do before you’re ever going to start killing any is realize you got to make them come to you. They don’t want to go to you. They want to sit there and call hens in. And you gotta play it that way all the time.

Kelly and his grandson John pose after John’s first successful turkey hunt. Photo courtesy of Scott Childress

What’s the most common mistake a rookie hunter makes?

Talking too much. Yelping too much. You get wrapped up in the sounds, and you fall in love with the sounds that you are making. The only people who are interested in that are other turkey hunters.

Calling too much is stupid. If you call and he hears you and gobbles, he expects you to come there and he expects to see you within three or four minutes. If he don’t see you in three, four minutes, he might call again. If he don’t see you, then he thinks, “Geez, am I slipping? I mean, this don’t work. Normally, all I have to do is say where I am, and then I got to have a stick to beat the girls off until I have the ones I want.” So you can run one off by continually calling. You can be the best caller in the world. You can sit in one place, but if you sit there and keep calling, he ain’t coming. So he expects you to come to him. And when you don’t, he thinks, “Well, she’s probably ugly anyway. I’ll go hunt up a better-looking one and call to her.”

They’ve got all of the advantages, which is great. That’s why, with just a little bit of help … we’re gonna have turkeys forever.

When has a turkey made you look silly?

Oh, boy. (laughs) They’ve made me look silly so many times — they will do things that are just absolutely unexplainable. 

One time, a group came down and they wanted to get some shots of turkey. So I had a cameraman sitting behind me with the camera right over my shoulder and taking pictures all the time. The turkey gobbled, came up, and he got closer and closer and closer. I asked the cameraman, “You got enough?” and he said, “Yeah, go ahead and kill him.” And I missed him. Right there in front of God and everybody. He wasn’t 40 yards away. I can’t tell you why I missed him, but I missed him. And there ain’t no way to explain it away.

You ain’t on an equal footing with turkeys, and you never will be no matter how long you hunt and no matter how smart you think you are. They’re going to do something to you every year that makes you think, “Dammit, I didn’t know he could do that.”

What’s the success rate for the average hunter?

Somebody who is really good, and follows all the rules, might kill four or five a year … there have been years when I killed whatever the limit was. There have been years when I killed one. There have been years when I spent a lot of time breathing fresh air and feeling the sunshine. 

Kelly has led his fair share of hunts, and these days he says he’d rather call a turkey in for somebody else to shoot than shoot one himself. “I like that, ‘cause I feel like we done made a convert now,” he says.

You’re obviously an admitted turkey hunting addict, and you’ve written numerous books on the subject. What’s got you hooked so bad?

It’s just there. It’s just astonishing. And I’m not trying to encourage people to start. ‘Cause sometimes I wish everybody would quit but me. But everybody I know that does it — you’re a perfect example, Danny. When I first met you, I don’t think you’d ever killed a turkey. And now you’re pretty much one of the legion, and you’ve spent a lot of time and a lot of money and a lot of trouble doing it.

How much enjoyment do you get out of teaching somebody the basics of turkey hunting?

During the years when I was guiding a lot, if I could get somebody — a kid, a young fellow, a lady (ladies are getting to be more and more involved) — I would rather call one up for them and have them kill it than have me kill it. I like that, ‘cause I feel like I done made a convert now and we got another member of the lodge.

Tell me about that leap from turkey hunter to renowned writer. Did you always enjoy writing?

Danny, the person that started me on it was my wife. I don’t know where we were going one time, and she said, “Tom, why don’t you write down some of these damn stories that I hear you telling people? They might like to listen to them.” 

And so I bought one of these recording machines. I was still in the National Guard at that time, and I lived near Atmore, and I went to drill. On the way to drill, I would dictate into that machine and bring them home, and Helen typed them up. The first [story] I sent — I think it was to Field and Stream — the first one I sent, they took. I have never had a rejection. I never wrote a story that I couldn’t sell somewhere.

How many books have you written now?

Twenty-two or 23, I think. Danny, I try to do something like 700 or 800 words a day. I don’t make myself do it every day, but I try to do it every day. 

The only trouble is, sometimes I come in the next day and I read what I did the day before. Well, the cops don’t know this yet, but there’s this sneaky burglar at this end of the world that slips into my house at night and dictates into my dictating machine, ‘cause I got shit on there that I did not write. I don’t write that bad! So sometimes that means I got to throw all that junk away and start again. 

If I could ever catch that guy and kill him, I would be infinitely better off.

Seven hundred words a day is a lot. After all these years, how do you still have so much to say on the subject?

I’m writing about something that has got an infinite variety of situations that [the turkey] creates that I can talk about.

It’s a good thing you didn’t pick up deer hunting, because you probably would’ve only written one book.

(laughs) I know.

When you published that first book, “Tenth Legion,” did you ever imagine it would have the lifespan that it has?

I didn’t. There’s a thing I call the “ego press;” if you write a book and you really believe it’s worth publishing, you can publish it yourself. You pay the printer and he sets it up and you pay him so much a copy and he sends you the copies. Well, I did that, and I had a few more than 1,000 copies. And I thought, “Well, I got these things. If nothing else, I’ve got a lifetime supply of Christmas presents.” You know, I could send those off to people. Well, I ran through the first edition pretty quick, and I did another one. We’re now … geez, I don’t know … we must be into the 12th or 13th edition. Even now, upon occasion — every year we go to the National Wild Turkey Federation Convention — somebody comes up with an original edition. And I tell them how much it costs and they say, “Ooh.” In fact, one guy offered to sell me the book back. (shakes head) I said, “Now look, come on.”

Well, Tom, I just want to tell you how thankful I am that you’ve been my friend and mentor. I thank you for introducing me to this challenging and thoroughly enjoyable sport of hunting, and I’m a better person for knowing you.

Thank you, Danny. Thank you very much.

Watch the full interview here:

Interview facilitated and edited by Breck Pappas

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