Conquering a New Field
September 30, 2010
Al Pflueger is well known in saltwater circles for his angling exploits, but his outdoor interests have broadened: He now focuses his attention on wild turkeys in the springtime!
Al Pflueger displays one of the wild gobblers that resulted from his newfound passion for turkey hunting. Photo courtesy of Al Pflueger
By Doug Kelly
Albert Pflueger Jr. wasn't born on a mountaintop in Tennessee, and he didn't kill a bear when he was only 3, but that's about all Davy Crockett has on him. Born in South Florida and far from any mountaintops, Pflueger has a list of accomplishments with a fishing rod that is nothing short of phenomenal. He's probably claimed more tournament victories and awards than any angler who ever lived, not to mention countless club and world records.
Pflueger (pronounced FLEW-gur), the youngest member to capture the title of "Master Angler" in the world-renowned Rod & Reel Club of Miami Beach, years ago authored the Fisherman's Handbook - still a best-seller - and he even has an artificial reef named in his honor off Miami Beach. Whenever he enters a tournament, the smart money says that the name Pflueger will be at the top of the leader board when the salt spray has cleared - and it matters not the type of tackle or if the quarry is bonefish or billfish.
But Al Pflueger is not just an angler. Only his closest colleagues know that he's also won literally hundreds of trophies for such diverse activities as table tennis, swimming, powerboat racing and drag racing. They also have recently come to realize he's every bit as adept with a rifle or shotgun. In fact, to challenge Pflueger to a trapshooting contest is an invitation to lose. Combine those skills with the time and wherewithal to travel the world, and it's no surprise that Pflueger's collected a bewildering variety of small- and big-game animals from Alaska to Africa that would make old Davie drool.
The Pflueger name itself is a well-known one throughout Florida and much of the world. It first came to prominence in 1926, when Al Pflueger Sr. opened a small taxidermy business in Hallandale. Up until then, stuffing a fish meant making a solid plaster form in the shape of the species, wrapping its skin around the form, and sewing it on. The result was a chunk of plaster with a fish's skin attached. Not only did it barely resemble the real thing, but it also weighed a lot more than the original fish.
Pflueger revolutionized the entire taxidermy industry with a new process utilizing a hollow mold that fit the size and species, and a gray mud-like material he invented called Mache. The fish went into the mold and was lathered in Mache, reinforced with gauze and packed with sawdust. Then a wooden plate was inserted to accept the mounting bracket screws. After the fish was sewed up, a primer was added, fins were repaired or attached as necessary, and finally a craftsman painstakingly painted it in its natural colors. It was a process that involved up to five months, passing through 14 departments that employed 150 workers. But not only did these new mounts look much more lifelike than ever before, they also weighed a whole lot less than the actual fish. This allowed big mounts like billfish to be more easily shipped and hung on walls.
When Al Sr. passed away in 1962, his son took the reins of the company. The young Pflueger had already been active in the business and supplemented his precise knowledge of fish anatomy by scuba diving to learn their habits and natural colors. It wasn't long before he built a reputation as a crackerjack angler, too. But the young prodigy also built up the family's business, enlisting more regional agents to increase out-of-Florida mounts, and soon the bustling plant reached an acre in size and was employing over 200 workers. It was easily the largest taxidermy business in the world, and over 1 million fish were ultimately mounted there, with famous clients that included Errol Flynn, Ernest Hemingway, Herbert Hoover, John Kennedy, Jack Nicklaus, Richard Nixon, Ernest Borgnine, Dean Martin, William Conrad, Julius Boros, Curt Gowdy and Ted Williams.
Pflueger, 66, is now comfortably retired, having sold the company years back and parlayed his investments in real estate and other ventures. All of which has produced ample time to do what he really cherishes: fishing and hunting.
It causes one to wonder how Pflueger can make the successful transition from being one of the world's greatest anglers to a hunter extraordinaire. It's probably for the same reason you can drop a billionaire blindfolded and penniless into a corn field in Iowa and in six months he'll be the leading corn dealer in the region: It's just the nature of the beast. The same characteristics that sweep a winner to the top of the heap in one arena often spell success in a totally different pursuit. Whether it all comes down to an innate need to achieve or the refusal to accept anything less than being the best, Al Pflueger is cut from that type of cloth.
THE TURNING POINT Pflueger credits the late Biff Lampton, former editor of Florida Sportsman magazine, as the man who introduced him to turkey hunting. A couple of years before Lampton's death in a car accident in the mid-'90s, he took Pflueger to his hunting lease in the Fakahatchee Preserve east of Naples. From the moment Pflueger crouched in a blind and watched Lampton call in a big gobbler, the electric, cataclysmic reaction was immediate.
Pflueger just had to learn how to do it himself. Indeed, turkey hunting was living rent-free in his head, pushing him to buy every book on the topic he could find, to order numerous videos, and to even watch hunting shows - something he'd never cared much about before.
"I was fascinated by the discipline needed to be a successful turkey hunter, and I still am," Pflueger says. "From the clothing you wear, selecting your position, the skill in calling in a gobbler while avoiding detection - even controlling your breathing - it all just lights my fire. I'll always love plug-casting for snook or taming a 150-pound tarpon on fly, but turkey hunting has no equal to me when it comes to excitement."
After Pflueger had taken every species of deer, upland birds and fowl, plus everything from bears to bobcats, the turkey hunting experience with Biff Lampton changed everything. Pflueger set out to do whatever it took to master the art of fooling gobblers. He spoke to numerous veteran hunters, practiced the nuances of turkey calling in the same way he used to spend hours tying flies, and studied the preparation that pros go through. Just as importantly, he spent endless days in the woods watching, listening, learning and honing his skills.
"Al takes instruction well, after which he'll pick your brain and then spend 10 hours a day for as long as it takes to master the techniques," says Lee Lones of Miami, a turkey hunting veteran of 30 years and a longtime friend of Pflueger. "When he gets into something there'
s no stopping him. It didn't take long before he could call and shoot better than I can.
"He called me at home one evening while he was at a hunting camp," Lones relates. "He asked, 'Why didn't that turkey come when I called it this morning? I thought I did everything right.' I tried to explain to him that you can't call them all in, but it just goes to show how he strives for perfection."
THE PFLUEGER FACTOR Not surprisingly, the first time I saw Al Pflueger was during a fishing trip near Flamingo in Florida Bay. He stood on the bow of a flats skiff, his tall frame imposing against the pale blue sky, his eyes scanning the emerald shallows like twin laser beams. He froze for a moment like a pointer that just caught scent of a quail, his focus zeroed in on a tiny anomaly on the water's surface. In a lightning motion, he double-hauled and sent his fly about 85 feet with a cast so straight that the Flying Wallendas could have tight-roped on it. The Clouser Minnow kissed the brine like a leaf fluttering to the ground, right in front of the nose of a tailing redfish.
The red grabbed his fly like there was no tomorrow, and moments later the chunky 10-pounder was released. That is why nearly 15 years later, I'm as surprised as everyone to learn that Pflueger's new love sports feathers, breathes air and wears a beard.
His turkey-hunting exploits in Florida are concentrated mostly around Melbourne, Fisheating Creek, Fort Myers, Orlando and Ocala. His conquests include a world slam of six turkey species, four indigenous to the U.S. and two in Mexico. Pflueger's house is dotted with mounts of Osceola, eastern, Rio Grande, Gould's and Miriam's turkeys, including a 20 1/2-pound Osceola and a 25 1/2-pound eastern. But his favorite quarry by far is the Osceola.
"Osceolas are swamp turkeys and not as vocal as most other species," Pflueger explains. "They sneak up on you, gobble, circle, and then usually come in behind you looking for the hen. If you move in the slightest way, they're gone in a heartbeat."
Pflueger recalled an occasion when he spent hours calling in a skittish Osceola, and he finally caught a glimpse of it briefly across a creek. His body hidden behind a tree, he shallow-breathed and didn't so much as shift his weight for nearly an hour.
"My hair stood up with all the tension and my heart pounded, because I knew that turkey was a stone's throw away somewhere," Pflueger recalls. "Suddenly it yelped directly behind me only 10 feet away, and I literally jumped a foot off the ground. We scared the bejesus out of each other, and it streaked out of there so fast I couldn't even get a shot off."
Pflueger usually shoots a Browning Gold Classic Stalker with No. 4 or 5 shot.
"I've found the tendency is to shoot over turkeys, so I aim at the throat just to be sure," he relates.
He has noted that many turkeys prefer to roost over water, especially cypress swamps. Pflueger tries to identify the particular tree in which a turkey is roosting and sets up nearby early in the morning while it is still dark.
"He hasn't been with other hens yet when he flies down at daylight, so that's a clear advantage," Pflueger points out.
"Run and gun" is another of his favored methods.
"If I hear a turkey in the distance, I sometimes move closer and set up," he says. "That cuts down on the chances he'll go to another call or find a real hen before he comes to me."
Pflueger is adept at all calling devices and at times employs a chatterbox, diaphragm, slate, box and paddle - but the latter and a diaphragm are his favorites.
"I usually use seven yelps, listen, yelp more, then adjust and tease when I know I've got a gobbler's interest," he says.
He has become so good at calling, he often attracts other hunters who think a lovesick gobbler is in the vicinity. On the other hand, Pflueger shakes his head when hearing beginners trying to call turkeys. They frequently do it so badly that it scares birds off.
"With a novice caller nearby, I usually move," he notes. "But one time I heard what I considered the absolutely worst turkey call ever, and it turned out to be a real bird. It just goes to show that all hens are different, and to take nothing for granted."
Although he doesn't use decoys, Pflueger grins at the maladies the devices sometimes bring.
"Decoys get shot by hunters, hawks swoop on them, and once I saw a bobcat sneak up on a decoy and pounce on it. I could actually see the shock on its face when the turkey deflated and collapsed. That would have gotten on the air for sure on one of those silly animal TV shows."
Pflueger's most harrowing experience took place while in a blind next to an oak tree.
"I'd been working on a gobbler for about an hour, slowly calling him in as I was waiting for a clear shot," he recalls. "At that moment, a huge black indigo snake slid out of a hole in the base of the oak tree and slithered right between my legs. I know indigos aren't venomous, but I broke out in a cold sweat. I still never moved, and minutes later I got that bird."
Some liken Pflueger's tenacity when turkey hunting to a racehorse with blinders.
"My wife came into the living room one evening while Al and I were tinkering with a particular turkey call," Lones says. "Everything else ceased to exist for Al, and finally she yelled, 'Well, I guess I need to learn how to strut and yelp like a turkey so I can get your attention.' She and I laughed, but Al kept on playing with that call, oblivious to us and the rest of the world. His concentration is awesome."
One might wonder why Pflueger didn't stick to being a big cheese in the saltwater fishing world and stay out of the hunting circles. After all, the nuances of fishing are as different from those of hunting as a fly rod is from a rifle. Some might say it is because Pflueger has nothing more to prove when it comes to fishing, with no new mountains left to conquer. Indeed, he's won the same prestigious titles over and over. His trophy cases and walls - packed with mementos from endless awards and tournament wins - seem likely to topple with the addition of even one more certificate. And scrap books with newspaper and magazine clippings since the 1950s bulge to the point where the bindings must be taped together.
Though Pflueger's name as a preeminent turkey expert is still not widely known, he doesn't care.
"I turkey hunt because of the personal challenge of fooling an animal even more skittish than a bonefish in six inches of water," he explains. "Calling in a turkey so close you can practically touch it is the most exciting thrill I've ever experienced in the outdoors. It has nothing to do with ego or winning trophies."
of of that is the man himself. Usually quiet and unassuming, with a reluctance to talk to strangers about business, world events or even fishing, all that melts away if the topic turns to turkey hunting. For Al Pflueger Jr., these days that's just the way he likes it.
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