Tempting turkeys with Tom Boozer
“I just love to hunt them rascals!” Tom Boozer declares of his passion for turkey hunting. He recalls harvesting his first turkey in 1978 on 1500 acres in Newberry County that was part of the 1960s wild turkey restocking effort. “That place was full of turkeys. You would come up on 75 to 80 birds, and you might walk a mile and a half and see another flock just as big. The doctor who owns the place bought some recycled heart-pine from me for his house, and we are probably best friends; I’m going up there to hunt with him next Thursday.
“After that first bird, man, I was hooked! I tell you, turkey hunting will ruin you! After I killed my first turkey, I went hunting every day for all 30 days of the season!” Tom laughs. His personal records include a bird that weighed 23 pounds and two ounces and another whose spurs measure one and one-eighth inches in length.
After his accomplishments afield, Tom now receives the most satisfaction from calling in birds for others.
Boozer attributes pre-season scouting to successful turkey hunting, pointing out “turkeys are creatures of habit. If you go out and put the birds to bed — that is, figure out where they roost, you can build a ground blind nearby. It doesn’t have to be much, just a little stick-blind — enough to break up your outline; a blown-down tree works fine. Of course, good camouflage is a requirement.”
Location is another important factor. “If you have property that has white acorns on it, you are going to have turkeys; they love those white oak acorns. Most guys plant chufa and clover for turkeys, but I prefer a natural habitat — if I can find it,” he adds.
Tom begins the hunt with a box call “because of the volume it puts out. When I can tell the turkeys are on the ground—when I hear a ground gobble, I switch over to a mouth diaphragm, and that’s simply because there’s no hand movement with the diaphragm.”
Explaining how to distinguish between the aforementioned sounds, Boozer continues: “A tree gobble is like when you’re just getting up, and you haven’t had your cup of coffee yet. That ground gobble is more intense and closer together. When you hear a double-gobble and a triple-gobble, you know the birds are on the ground!”
Tom has been a woodworker and decoy carver for 59 years, but he continued to hunt turkeys exclusive from carving duck decoys, until 1998, when a new enterprise was born. Now-retired Lowcountry game warden Ben Moise had been buying Tom’s duck decoys for years, and he asked Boozer to make him a turkey decoy.
“We didn’t even talk price,” Tom now realizes. “I worked up some designs, made some patterns and carved the bird. About three weeks before the season, I called Ben and told him his bird was ready. He said: ‘I’m on my way!’ I had the decoy set up in the woods for him when he got here, and man, he was excited!
“Not too long into the season, he killed a big gobbler. Ben took the decoy and set it on the banquet tables of his catering business, and I all of the sudden, I was getting orders out the yin-yang! It was crazy!”
Some turkey hunting traditionalists object to the use of decoys and ground blinds, claiming the aids detract from the primitive nature and sporting challenge of the experience. “Well, I can tell you: I bagged a lot of turkeys over the years before I started making and hunting with decoys,” Tom replies. “Blinds and decoys just give you an edge, which helps nowadays with turkey numbers in decline.”
Defending the use of turkey decoys, Boozer cites the Si-Te-Cah Native Americans, whose remains and artifacts were found in Lovelock Cave, Nevada. “When you talk about purists, those tule-eaters were hunting with decoys at the time of Christ. And if there ever was a purist, it was the Native American, who I’ve got nothing but respect for, so what I’m doing ain’t nothing new!” In deference to his spiritual forefathers, Tom fashioned an entire canvasback decoy from feathers and tule, or bulrush.
And indeed, if ever there were a woodworking purist, it is Tom Boozer. Most of his tools are more than 200 years old. He acquired his implements and skills from his mentor, Olin Ballentine of Lexington, South Carolina. “I still use his old draw knife. The hatchet works well to chop out a turkey or goose.” With a brace and bit, Boozer drills a series of auger holes down into the body of the decoy. He hits a fish-tail chisel with a mallet to hollow out the inside.
Tom reflects on his primitive approach: “Getting into the philosophical part of it, with hand tools, you can feel if the tool is working properly. Whatever the tool does is transformed right to your hands. With a power tool, you cut right through knots and imperfections.”
At present, Tom is working on his 49th and 50th turkey decoys. He can create ten duck decoys in the time it takes him to fashion a single turkey. He outlines the intricate process: “Carving a turkey decoy takes me right at 40 hours. As you can see, there’s a lot of techniques that go into it. I hand-sew the straps with needle and thread. I cut up old door kick-plates to make the brass reinforcing for the leather hinge, and I ship another piece of leather if the hinge wears out. The jake’s beard is made from a staining brush.”
Tom works an aggressive rasp to the body of the decoy. This approach creates a feathery look while also forming teeth to ensure proper adherence of paint. He applies oil paint for the heads and vibrant colors such as green, red, and blue. For the body, he uses latex-acrylic Rose Talbert House & Trim paint, produced in Columbia.
“The turkey’s head is made in three pieces because I’ve had gobblers knock ‘em over trying to fight the jake decoys. They’ll stand there and claw them with their spikes. Gobblers are mean. That jake is competition and gobblers don’t want competition!”
Boozer attaches a piece of sharpened rebar to a dowel for the leg. The rebar slides into a bored out hole in the dowel, and a nail serves to pin the materials together. At this connection, he tightly wraps copper wire around the dowel for added strength to endure countless staking of the decoy over years of hunting.
Like his duck decoys, Tom’s turkeys are hollow, which, at five pounds apiece, makes them one-third as light as solid decoys. In addition, the inner cavity provides storage for the strap and leg. Lightweight is an important quality, since turkey hunting involves plenty of walking, and you might be hunting with multiple decoys.
Boozer carves all of his decoys from rare Atlantic white cedar, or juniper. Every two years, he hand-selects and harvests the trees from sandy soil of a bog in the headwaters of the Congaree Creek. In his shop, he air-dries the wood for two years. He takes pride in his meticulous process, joking: “I’m eccentric, aren’t I? I just believe in ‘let’s do it from start to finish,’ like Olin Ballentine taught me.”
Tom gestures to his decoys: “Those birds there have seen about 200 hunts. I have found that turned-head hen works really well; I’ve probably sold more of them than any others.”
Late in the season, Tom likes to hunt with three decoys: two hens and a jake. “When turkeys have been breeding, the hens go to nest, but the gobblers still want action. So if you add that jake when there are fewer hens for the gobblers to breed with, he provides some competition and gives you a better chance of drawing out that big gobbler.”
Boozer’s labor of love has garnered him well-deserved fame. “I don’t mean to sound arrogant, but if you are a turkey hunter, you probably already know about me,” he declares. For a decade, a pair of his turkeys have been on display at the South Carolina State Museum. “The only stipulation was that I had to hunt over them before they bought them,” he adds. His turkey decoys have achieved success throughout South Carolina, Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Ohio, Texas, New York and Montana. To commission your own working decoys, contact Tom Boozer at (843) 696-1865, and visit him in his Yonges Island workshop.
Ford Walpole lives and writes on John’s Island and is the author of many articles on the outdoors. He teaches English at James Island Charter High School and the College of Charleston and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.