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Turkey Hunting

The Colonel & The Fox

A legendary hunt camp nearly a century in the making. Two icons of the turkey woods. We may never see the likes of it again.

Daniel, Neill Haas January 17, 20237 min read

Everyone experiences a feeling at some point in their turkey hunting life, usually when you’re taking a kid for the first time, sometimes a girlfriend or a neophyte buddy, where you want the person with the gun to kill a turkey significantly more than they do. And when it doesn’t happen, you’re left flustered, momentarily bent out of shape, while the one on the gun calmly smiles. I don’t have kids (yet), and heading into Spring 2021, I’d never experienced this feeling that I thought was only reserved for a future son or daughter.

A longbeard stood at 40 yards in the wide open between two oaks at the edge of a field — his bright red head glowing against the green grass. But, he was only there a second, and just as the Colonel Tom Kelly barreled him up, he vanished. A sight that everyone’s experienced, but the climax of a morning that saw us twist and turn nearly 360 degrees over the course of two hours trying to fool a couple of gobblers; Dad (Mossy Oak founder Toxey Haas) and (brother) Neill (Haas) back behind us conducting a symphony so pure I lost track of who was human and who was hen. It was a morning that heard them gobble so loud that the Colonel, who had professed that on his first hunt of the year he couldn’t even hear gobbling at 40 yards, let out a startled “Damn they’re fired up!” at a couple of gobbles so loud he could’ve heard them from camp. A morning that saw those fired up gobblers a mere two steps from gun range pitch up into a tree 50 yards in front of us in broad daylight in the middle of the morning to sit there nervously for 20 minutes. A morning that saw the very same gobblers, after we’d accepted defeat, turn on their way off and walk straight back into gun range!

It was a hectic morning with over an hour of behavior more unpredictable than normal at the edge of gun range, leading to a mere two seconds of actual gun range visibility. I nearly passed out in anticipation when the moment finally arrived. But, I didn’t hear the gunshot I was expecting from the Colonel. My heart hammered, hands shook and breath wavered to the point that if the Colonel hadn’t already penned his closing lines of Tenth Legion, I might’ve been compelled to write it myself.

That moment when you care more than the person with the gun if a turkey dies ― that’s the moment I was experiencing for the first time. As my breath forced out air and my heart tried to beat out of my chest, the Colonel pulled down his facemask. The masterful combination of expletives and flustered disposition I expected to see were replaced by a beaming smile and an immediate “THAT WAS FUN!” I was reminded then of the age-old wisdom that true turkey hunters spend the better part of their lives trying to pass along. It’s OK if the turkey wins. I needed some perspective. Col. Kelly had been cooped up in a big city apartment for the entire month of April, a thought unfathomable for most of his life. He couldn’t hear a turkey gobbling at 40 yards earlier this season — “50 years of artillery will take its toll,” he said ― and he didn’t know if he’d ever hear a turkey gobble again. The show that these turkeys put on, the leave-no-doubt gobble he’d heard up close and personal and the mid-morning pitch into a tree close enough that the Colonel could’ve hit them with a four-seam fastball, made the shot a formality at that point. As the Colonel sat there with his hands shaking, breath short and heart hammering so loud that he could not understand why the bird could not hear it. To quote the man himself, “He’d lived to see it one more time.” This famous line of turkey hunting wisdom came to life in front of me.

Photo courtesy of Mossy Oak.
Photo courtesy of Mossy Oak.

All we could do was smile and tip our caps. It was time to head back to the camp.

Back at the Shumulla camp, we all sat around in the kitchen drinking coffee, giddier than Christmas morning. We had more reinforcements than we knew what to do with. Cuz Strickland, who had his own history hunting with the Colonel, my brother-in-law Vandy and David Hawley went out just to listen; we weren’t holding anything back. While eagerly awaiting Papaw (Fox Haas) and Gran’s arrival, we prayed that nothing kept him from hunting. With only one gun on the first morning, it was all hands on deck for Col. Kelly.

The anticipation and excitement within camp was unlike any I’ve ever been a part of. Old friends and family welcomed a turkey hunting legend who quickly became an instant old friend. I didn’t know what to expect when Col. Kelly showed up, but if I hadn’t known his age, I wouldn’t suspect he was a day past 80 (Kelly is 95). His wit was just as quick, and he told stories with the same famous, effortless polish.

I’d spent a lot of time thinking about this week in camp well before it got here. I tried not to build it up, but it was impossible. It felt too monumental. Nearly all of Papaw’s closest hunting buddies from Choctaw Bluff had passed away over a decade ago. Papaw’s last hunt from the previous spring felt like it might’ve been his last hunt ever. It was emotional. He wasn’t feeling great. The wait between closing day and opening day feels like a long time in your 20s; it feels like years when you’re waiting on your Papaw. But as fate would have it, Papaw felt better. He had killed the buck of a lifetime on the last hunt of Alabama’s deer season, and he was ready as ever when February turned to March. March turned to April and it was time for the Colonel and the Fox to share a camp nearly 100 years in the making. Every day brimmed with anticipation as the weeks turned to days before camp.

Most people don’t know just how close Col. Tom Kelly and Fox Haas were growing up, but only in proximity. Both were born and raised in Mobile, Alabama, and they grew up mere streets from each other. They spent their first teenage moments in the turkey woods in L.A. (lower Alabama) not knowing it would take these two southern gentlemen cut from the same cloth nearly a century before their paths would physically cross.

Fox Haas moved up the road to Mississippi State, and Col. Kelly went off to war, then Auburn. They each convinced their respective brides, Evelyn and Helen, to marry them, and that was that. Fox would spend his life procuring cattle for Bryan Foods in West Point, Mississippi (until things changed when Toxey founded Mossy Oak in 1986) while Col. Kelly set about his career in the military and Alabama timber industry.

Seventy years after they left Mobile for college, their trajectories intersected at last. Our week finally arrived, and I was full of emotion — we all were. Not a day had passed over the past few months that we hadn’t brainstormed about some detail of camp. We tried not to imagine the excitement of both turkey hunting legends killing turkeys ― we knew it was unlikely — but it was impossible to keep our imaginations in check. I can’t lie, we were already imagining a double-hanging dead mount, forever frozen in time, with their spent shells sitting atop barnwood affectionately burned with the inscription ‘The Colonel and the Fox, Turkey Season 2021, Shumulla, Alabama.’ Sitting in the corner of the living room, we’d tell everyone who visited about the legendary camp. Well, dead turkeys weren’t in God’s plans for this week in Sumter County, but that didn’t keep it from being a few of the most memorable days of my life.

Photo courtesy of Mossy Oak.
Photo courtesy of Mossy Oak.

We’d kept the camp under wraps to all but some of our closest turkey friends ― those who’d truly appreciate what was happening. With the likelihood that something might happen to keep us from hunting, we didn’t want to get the hopes up of too many people. One of the most special parts of the camp was the true appreciation for two turkey hunting legends coming together and the pure joy of our friends around the country pulling and praying for us after they learned what was happening. We shared a picture through Mossy Oak and Tenth Legion’s social media, and you could feel the positive energy radiating from state to state. A couple of friends who are some of the country’s finest caretakers of turkey hunting literature and history said they felt as if Churchill and Eisenhower were sitting down in 1946 to talk about the war.

We all but confirmed that a turkey cannot be prayed into someone’s lap, because there may have never been a point in all the history of the wild turkey and its hunting with more prayer requests asking for a longbeard to walk into gun range for Papaw and Col. Kelly.

You see, the rare thing about Col. Kelly and Papaw is the time span in which they lived and the things they saw. It’s something that will never be experienced again. They began hunting at a time when the Colonel estimates less than 2,000 turkey hunters were active in the country and turkeys were extirpated from many states. These two are part of the greatest generation, and there can’t be more than a handful — if there are any ― turkey hunters who’ve been hunting as long as they have. As Col. Kelly calls it in the closing of his book Faces in the Crowd, ‘the Campaign of 1935-1950,’ and they’re the last remaining few. By the time modern day hunters grow old, there will be thousands of peers who’ve been hunting from age 6 to 90, but right now, there are only a few, and two of them grew up down the street from one another at a time when turkeys were nearly extinct and made their way back down a dirt road in Alabama when millions of turkeys inhabit nearly every piece of the map.

With or without a turkey hanging on the porch, this was in many ways a celebration that didn’t need a trigger pulled. This was a celebration of life — a celebration of two icons who’ve inspired decades of true turkey hunters. This was a celebration of legacies that the world desperately needs to draw inspiration from now more than ever. A way of living and a way of hunting that the world would be worse off without if we ever lost their perspectives.

We hunted hard over the next few mornings. Despite the lack of dead turkeys, we captured audio and video that, if we treat it the right way, will become timeless viewing for turkey hunters. Papaw and Col. Kelly shared a couple of rocking chairs by the fire, a couple glasses of whiskey and a lifetime of stories. We listened, laughed until our sides hurt and soaked up every last drop. As Col. Kelly loaded up to head back to his daughter Laura and the confines of Washington D.C., he captured what we were feeling with better closure than I could’ve imagined.

“I can kill a turkey any damn where,” he said. “I can’t find good friends and a camp like that everywhere.”

Filed Under:
  • Hunting Heritage