A Conversation with Tom Kelly | Great Days Outdoors

Turkey hunting legend offers his opinions on life, hunting and other topics

Editor’s note: Great Days Outdoors visited with Tom Kelly recently and discussed his life, his memories and got a few opinions. Born May 27, 1927, Tom is 89 years old. His series of books about wild turkeys and the people who hunt them began in 1973 with the publishing of The Tenth Legion, which is now a legendary must read for anyone who is the least bit interested in wild turkeys.

A glimpse of Tom Kelly’s office. Photo by Alan White

Kelly’s office in Daphne, Ala. is small and not at all fancy. He keeps this office space because it gives him a place away from home to work. Scattered about the walls are various photos of family and memorabilia along with a few favorite clippings from the funny pages of old newspapers. He allowed me to take a few photos in order to give our readers a sense of what the turkey hunting legend keeps around him each day. As always, it was a delight to spend a few hours with poet laureate of turkey hunting.

GDO: Do you remember the first turkey you ever killed?

TK: I think it was around 1960. Only three states had a spring season back then and Alabama was one of them. My first turkey was probably running in front of dogs. Most turkeys were killed that way back then. If you went on a deer dog drive, you were told, “We shoot bucks, wildcats and turkey gobblers.” There were very few old codgers who went out and hunted turkeys on purpose. If you asked them how to do it, they wouldn’t tell you. If they did tell you anything, they would lie about it. The first turkey I called to the gun was a yearling gobbler I had seen cross the road with two others. I got around in front of them and called, but to this day, I couldn’t swear they came to my calling or just happened to pass my way.

GDO: What was the hardest lesson you had to learn in order to teach yourself how to call a gobbler in the spring?

TK: I learned that I called too much. Every time a turkey would answer my call, I’d call to him again. The turkey population was low back then. In one respect, the hunting was easier once you found a gobbling turkey because you didn’t have the competition you have now from hens.


GDO: What type of call did you use?

TK: Most of the time I used a box call. I think the first mouth call I saw was in 1954 and those were all made by hand back then. I discovered that I might be calling too much one day during a hunt. The membrane broke on the mouth call so I couldn’t call anymore and the turkey came to me. I thought I might be on to something then!

GDO: If you could change anything, what would you change in current turkey hunting rules?

TK: I’d back the season up. Gobbling is at its lowest point of the mating season. According to the studies, that’s around the middle of March when our season opens. It gets a lot better and stays better through April. I’d open the season on April 10 and still run it for 45 days.

GDO: What do you think of decoys?

TK: I don’t use them. Decoys can work sometimes and sometimes they don’t. I think they scare off mature toms. If a tom sees that decoy and the thing never moves, he’ll freeze and watch it. Then, he’ll turn around and leave.

GDO: What about fanning turkeys?

TK: I’ve seen old photos of Indians holding turkey fans. I don’t think they were using those fans to fan themselves. The first time I saw fanning work was in South Dakota and it was a beautiful thing to see. However, I’ve also seen fans scare away turkeys.

GDO: If you could make only one call to hunt turkeys, what call would it be?

TK: A yelp and cluck.


GDO: What do you consider the single most important piece of advice you could give to an aspiring turkey hunter?

TK: Know the land. You have to know how it’s laid out. Know where the valleys are and where to find water. That’s the most important thing.

GDO: What’s the biggest difference in turkey hunting today compared to 50 years ago?

TK: There are a hell of a lot more turkeys now. I was lucky to have the opportunities I had back then to hunt turkeys. While working as a timber buyer for Scott Paper, we bought more than a million cords of wood a year. A cord is a stack of wood eight feet long, four feet high and four feet wide. I spent a lot of time in Choctaw, Covington and Monroe counties.

GDO: What do you do just before daylight breaks when you’re hunting turkeys?

TK: I stand and hoot. Then, I listen for a gobbler. If I hear one, I’ll try to go to him and set up to call.

GDO: There’s been a lot of talk recently about the wild turkey numbers declining across the southeastern United States. What do you think?

TK: I don’t trust the numbers. It’s so hard to count turkeys with any accuracy.

Photo of Tom Kelly.

GDO: The number of hunters is also declining nationwide. Why do you think that is?

TK: There’s a lot more for kids to do now with all the machines and television. If hunting goes away, it won’t be because of game numbers. It’ll be because of people.

GDO: In 1973, you first published The Tenth Legion. How was the book distributed and how did it become popular?

TK: A publisher in New York, Theo Gauss, published the first edition. I paid them to do it. The book sold some copies and one day I got a call from a Louisiana law firm. They explained that one of their clients had made copies of all the pages and had given copies to several of his friends and clients. I think they were worried because he had infringed on the copyright. I told them I didn’t mind and was glad the man liked the book. Later, I got a letter from the same law firm asking if they could publish a second edition. The book was reprinted three or four times. Now, I have the rights back and David Clarke is in charge of sales. We formed Tom Kelly, Inc. and sell the books mostly on the web and at hunting shows. The book still sells well each year at the National Wild Turkey Federation annual convention in Nashville, Tenn.


GDO: Is there a new book in the works?

TK: Yes, the next book is a compilation of stories I wrote when I was writing every month for Field & Stream and Outdoor Life magazines. It will be published soon. I also currently write the back page humor column in Turkey Country magazine, which is published by the NWTF.

GDO: Did you ever think that The Tenth Legion would become so popular?

TK: No. In fact, I tried to give the book to the Alabama Wildlife Federation at one time. They turned it down because they said there were too many dirty words in it.

GDO: Do you still get to turkey hunt much?

TK: Not as much as I’d like. Last season was tough. My wife requires my care now and I’m only free each day from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., which as you know, ain’t the prime time for hunting turkeys!

GDO: Thank you for the interview.

TK: Happy to do it. Anytime.

You can purchase any of Tom Kelly’s books at tomkellyinc.net.

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