The use of decoys for hunting turkeys does not have the same rich cultural and craftsmanship history as those connected with waterfowling. Indeed, only the rare student of the sport’s past, who has delved deeply in obscure magazine articles from the 19th century, is even aware of the manner in which decoys have been used to lure the great American game bird within gun range. Prior to game laws forbidding the practice, the use of a leg-tethered domestic turkey or possibly one raised from a wild turkey’s egg and thereby imprinted on humans, was a highly effective method of killing turkeys, never mind the fact that it was decidedly questionable when weighed in the ethical balance.
Over time use of decoys in the sport evolved from use of live birds, but the development was sporadic, somewhat rare for decades, and at times controversial. The occasional hunter carried a taxidermy mount with him to the turkey woods, although such a decoy’s fragility and cumbersome nature made this approach problematic. Roughly carved wooden turkey decoys were used on rare occasions. Then, roughly coincidental with the grand comeback story of the wild turkey in mid-20th century, artificial creations using materials such as plastic and foam began to appear. In 1989, the first patent for a motion or activated decoy was issued.
Today we have silhouette decoys, flocks, creations designed to twist and pirouette with the least hint of wind, all sorts of special coloration, and more. Some traditionalists, however, have opposed any and all use of decoys. Indeed, in the state of Alabama decoy use was illegal until fairly recently, and some old-timers remain adamantly opposed to use of any type of decoy. Yet, today they are an accepted and widely used aspect of the sport’s techniques.
As for early use of hand-carved turkey decoys, documentation of this particular approach is exceedingly rare although the practice was likely more widespread than printed documentation might suggest. Turkey hunters in the past were a secretive band. Then, a few years back, Tom Boozer arrived on the scene and in many senses revolutionized this branch of the fine art of deceit in the hunter’s world. Through dedication, innovation, skilled craftsmanship, and what might well be described as the perspective of a visionary, this son of the South Carolina soil has been something of a one-man force in bringing about what I personally consider one of the most interesting and innovative of the myriad developments associated with the modern world of turkey hunting.
Of course, anyone can offer such an opinion, but possibly mine will gain a scintilla more merit if I indulge in what Henry Edwards Davis, a South Carolina lawyer who wrote what is generally recognized as the single most important volume on the sport, The American Wild Turkey, described as “certifying the witness.” My certifications are pretty straightforward — four decades-plus of hunting turkeys in most states in this country as well as in two foreign locales, spending a stint of several years as co-editor of a national magazine devoted exclusively to the sport, being the author of three books on the subject and contributor to a number of other turkey-related books, and writing hundreds of magazine articles on the subject.
Add to that a trained historian’s curiosity as a “recovering” university professor, a hopelessly addicted bibliophile’s untiring efforts to accumulate literature on the sport, and a couple of decades of selling out-of-print books related to turkey hunting, and there’s reason aplenty to say I’ve spent a marvelously misspent life. More significantly in the present context, this background hopefully gives added credence to my assertion that Tom Boozer is a man who combines exceptional talent with groundbreaking use of his skills as a craftsman. As a carver of what might be styled “working decoys” for turkey hunting, he is following a path covering previously untrodden ground.
Tom’s evolution and roots as a decoy carver trace back to his boyhood growing up in the Columbia area. As a lad he met an elderly Lexington farmer named Olin Ballentine, who lived close to the small farm owned by his grandfather. The two bonded in the special fashion that quite often occurs when a generation is skipped. Olin was a locally acclaimed woodworker, and over time he unofficially adopted the wide-eyed lad who admired his endeavors as an unofficial apprentice. “Olin gave me my start,” Tom says with warm reminiscence flooding his voice, “and it wasn’t long before I was following in his footsteps. It was almost like I was born to be a wood-carver of the traditional sort.”
By “traditional,” Tom means doing everything by hand, just as his mentor did. Electrically powered tools are not a part of that equation. Instead, he uses draw knives, a hatchet tracing back to his Boy Scout days, wood rasps, handsaws, C-clamps, mallets, chisels, and a trusty Buck pocket knife. Obviously, he took to heart the pithy yet powerful advice Olin tendered: “A good woodworker can make pretty much anything out of wood, and he can do it with hand tools.” Throw in a father who, during his time off from a 34-year-career at a Ford dealership, was an excellent woodworker, building cabinets, furniture, and houses; season with a deep love of history and the heart of a hunter; factor in God-given artistic skills, and the end result is one of the nation’s most heralded carvers. True to his training and deep love for the flow of history, some of Tom’s tools were ones that belonged to his father.
Awards, recognitions, exhibits, and specially commissioned works aplenty attest to his prowess and achievements. This year will mark the 34th consecutive one in which he has participated in the widely acclaimed Southeastern Wildlife Exposition in Charleston. This is followed shortly after by the annual National Wild Turkey Federation Convention in Nashville, which approached Tom for carvings to display for the visual enjoyment of the tens of thousands who attend the event each year. He made a pair of decoys for the South Carolina State Museum when it sponsored a special exhibition on the history of decoys more than a decade ago, and for many years, Tom has been a regular speaker for sportsmen’s groups, clubs, and the like.
Yet without question the single most meaningful testament to his success is reflected by the demand for his work. Tom adheres to an intense schedule. His day begins at an hour when for most of us smelling coffee or shaking off the lethargy involved in bidding a night of sleep adieu is hours away. He’s in his shop and busy with hand tools by 5:30 a.m., and that marks the beginning of a typical day ending a full 12 hours later. In other words, Tom isn’t just a full-time decoy carver; his definition of “full time” far transcends the daily time span of most of those with a deeply engrained work ethic. When I expressed a mixture of admiration and amazement regarding his efforts, Tom just chuckled and said, “Well, making decoys is what I do for a living.” Earning that livelihood is something he embraces with a degree of passion that nicely matches his devotion to precision and ability to produce wood carvings that immediately bring to mind the enduring words of English Romantic poet John Keats: “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.”
Over the course of his career, Tom has crafted more than 4,000 decoys. He maintains careful records of each decoy — what it was, when made, the recipient, and more. Most of his career has been devoted to waterfowl decoys and what he styles “confidence decoys.” The latter are carvings of birds, such as an egret or great blue heron, likely to be found in a habitat frequented by ducks. They are, in effect, an added element instilling a visual sense of security in ducks. Tom reckons that with reasonable care and maintenance, such as carrying decoys into the field in a protective bag with sleeves for each one, along with proper storage when not in use, his products will last for generations.
They are made with field use in mind, although Tom acknowledges some clients acquire them strictly as collectibles. Still, he estimates 75 to 80 percent of his decoys are employed by hunters in the manner intended, and true to his craft and intent, he uses decoys in his own hunting. For example, when turkey hunting, he has a setup of two hens and a jake. Turkey decoys are a comparatively new part of Tom’s endeavors, but since he started producing them — he has made 91 thus far, with 28 of them being carved last year — recognition of his efforts in this particular aspect of his overall work has spread like a majestic gobbler puffed up in full strut.
Tom works from a shop and residence at the place he now calls home, Yonges Island, South Carolina. From there he has access to his wood of choice, Atlantic white cedar. It is a wood that, after being cut and cured, offers characteristics ideally suited for decoy making. It responds well to hand tools, is easily worked, and of considerable note is quite rot resistant. Historically the wood has been used in a wide variety of ways — for canoes; organ pipes; wooden pumps; construction of flooring, siding, posts, and the like; barrels; tubs; water pipes; and more.
Much diminished in terms of quantity and range, the wood is not readily procurable in large amounts. Fortunately, decoy carving does not demand large quantities of the material, and Tom has adequate and convenient access to a supply he can cut and cure himself. His intimate involvement in the entire process from felling a standing tree to putting the final, finishing touches on a decoy is completely in keeping with the manner in which Tom clings to history, treasures tradition, and sees everything that comes from his shop as a lovingly crafted product embodying the best his skills can offer.
Throughout the long and rich history of decoy making, the true distinguishing quality of a master, the one consideration that differentiates the ordinary from the extraordinary, is the ability to breathe one specific quality into what otherwise would be attractive but inanimate objects. That distinguishing characteristic is elusive. It involves a gift, one that somehow in almost mystical fashion enables certain craftsmen to infuse their efforts with life. Tom Boozer is such a craftsman, and quite possibly his work reaches its apogee with turkey decoys. They transcend mere realism in precisely the mesmerizing, eye-catching fashion that sets individuals such as Tom apart. His decoys are and will remain art for the ages.
Jim Casada, who has been a full-time freelance writer for more than a quarter of a century, has long been an avid turkey hunter. Three of his many books — Remembering the Greats: Profiles of Turkey Hunting’s Old Masters, The Literature of Turkey Hunting, and Innovative Turkey Hunting — deal with the sport.