The Craft of Turkey Calls and Calling
Wampanoag Indians hunted eastern wild turkeys with bows and arrows while imitating the sounds the big birds made. Tribe members became so adept at calling the wild birds in close that they began hand grabbing them. Mankind’s fascination with wild turkeys spanned the ages, birthing a movement of artists, call crafters, collectors, and calling aficionados. The ancients could have never imagined a wing bone call worth $100,000.
Archaeologists discovered wing bone calls, made from the three wing bones of a wild turkey, at the Eva archaic site in Benton County, Tennessee, in 1940. The bones had been scraped, cut, and fitted together much like the wing bone calls of today. The Eva site wing-bone calls were carbon dated to 6,500 BC.
The modern day turkey call making era is said to have begun in the 1880s when Charles Jordan began production of wing bone yelpers very similar to those found at the Eva site. Following close behind, Henry Gibson was awarded the patent for the box call in 1897. Jordan and Gibson became the first generation of modern day turkey call makers. Both Jordan’s productions, and articles in Forest and Stream magazine about wing bone yelpers, spanned the centuries between the early American Indians and today’s modern turkey hunters, and placed both calls and ancient history in their hands.
One of the greatest names in turkey call-making history, Tom Turpin, was born a generation later. Turpin produced both yelpers and box calls. When he died in 1957, another great name in the up-and-coming turkey call industry, Roger Latham, bought Turpin’s business. Meanwhile, another pioneer of the modern call-making circle, Mike Lynch, had been producing calls in Birmingham, Alabama, since 1939. The Birmingham calls have remained as the higher valued calls of the Lynch line, often bringing hundreds of dollar at public auctions.
By the early 1900s, turkey populations plummeted due to over harvest and habitat destruction. Less than 30,000 turkeys remained nationwide. Fortunately, forward-thinking individuals like Theodore Roosevelt and George Bird Grinnell rallied conservation-minded supporters to start a movement to pass game laws and set aside protected areas for fish and game. Today seven million wild turkeys exist in the available habitat across the nation.
The rebirth of wild turkey populations spurned new generations of turkey hunters. As a result, interest in collectible turkey calls, turkey call art, and turkey calling contests grew at a phenomenal rate. While turkey calls have not yet matched the astronomical values of duck decoys and calls—a set of mallard decoys carved by the legendary Caines brothers of Georgetown, South Carolina, brought an astounding $1,144,600 in 2017 at a Guyette and Deeter Auction House sale—interest continues to grow.
Danny Ellis, a Charlotte, North Carolina, real estate developer, became the envy of turkey call collectors in 2016 when he purchased the Holy Grail of turkey calls, an 8-inch wing-bone-and-cane yelper made in 1888 by the famous Louisiana turkey hunter and writer Charles L. Jordan. Ellis dropped $50,000 on the famous call, making it the largest figure ever spent for a single turkey call. Rumors in the world of turkey call collectors insinuate, however, that Ellis may have later bought a Henry Davis scratch box call for $100,000.
Turkey calling contests became a social phenomenon during the mid-to-late 20th Century, as turkey hunters became enamored with the vocabulary of wild turkeys. Speculation about where the first turkey calling contest was held range from bars to barns. No doubt, the contest involved a bunch of guys arguing about who could yelp the best. We’ll never know for sure.
Contests sprang up almost simultaneously across the country, as interest in everything turkey grew by yelps and gobbles. Sportsman’s clubs and Chambers of Commerce hosted hundreds of small town events, while others attracted thousands of spectators. The World contest began in 1940 in Mobile, Alabama, followed by the Yellville, Arkansas, Nationals in 1946. By the 1970s, turkey calling contests had become a nationwide mania, with the National Wild Turkey Federation’s Annual Grand Nationals becoming the Super Bowl of turkey calling contests.
Turkey calling contests spurned overnight turkey hunting heroes. Contest winners found themselves catapulted into the limelight as they founded call companies, became spokespersons and pro staffers for outdoor equipment companies, presented seminars, and eventually broke into radio, TV, and video productions. Early successes included Ernie Callandrelli, Dick Kirby, Preston Pittman, and Ray Eye. Their services flamed the fires of thousands of turkey hunters across the country. Eye is still a keynote speaker at the National Wild Turkey Federations’s annual convention and is regarded as one of the greatest turkey hunting educators and personalities of all time.
Men dominated the turkey calling circuit until then 18-year-old Emily Oliver, of Crosett, Arkansas, made history by becoming the first female to win a world championship when she won the amateur division at the World Championship Turkey Calling Contest in Mobile, Alabama, in 2012. She credited her grandfather, Larry Linder, and her mother Jami Lindner, as being her most valuable hunting mentors.
Brenda Valentine, the “First Lady of Hunting,” set the stage for more females becoming interested in hunting, particularly turkey hunting, when she was named the official spokeswoman for the National Wild Turkey Federation in 2008.
Perhaps no one has a clear handle on the history of turkey calls and calling quite like that of South Carolinian Rob Keck. A former high school art teacher, he joined the staff of the National Wild Turkey Federation in 1978 and soon rose to the CEO position of the fledgling organization. A natural leader, Keck lead the NWTF to notoriety as one the most successful single species conservation organizations of all time over his 27 year tenure.
A student of turkey hunting and call history, Keck says that art is all in the mind of the beholder. “You can look at the oldest and crudest of turkey calls and appreciate them as works of art,” Keck says. “However, it was in the mid-to-late 1980s that turkey calls came to be better crafted. You could see the pride of the carvers as they explored using a variety of exotic woods and materials and creating something that was not only functional, but beautiful works of art that someone would want to display.”
Keck’s artistic background led the NWTF to begin a decorative turkey call competition. “Those competitions spawned the artistic culture of turkey calls that we see today,” Keck says. “Few would consider taking these works of art to the woods. None-the-less, these astounding pieces of craftsmanship exhibit the beauty, mystique, and greatest features of turkey hunting.”
Neil “Gobbler” Cost became a great source of inspiration to other carvers when he introduced checkering to the lids and sides of his signature box calls in the early 1960s,” Keck says. “Later he began putting inlays into the lids of his calls, and many carvers followed suit. Additionally, he gave turkey hunters something they could carry in their turkey hunting vests with a sense of pride.”
It was Earl Mickel, with the introduction of his three books on turkey callmakers, who brought turkey call collecting into the limelight. “In his last book, Turkey Callmakers Past and Present—The Rest of the Best, Mickel established values of calls,” Keck says. “With those established values of calls, from a highly recognized authority, came a new sense of collectability.”
Turkey hunters and collectors began searching for calls in earnest. Thousands of turkey calls sat on the mantels of private homes, in hunting rooms, and garages. Those who dug the deepest, discovered early calls made by Gibson, Jordan, and Turpin. “When Earl Mickel’s private call collection was purchased by Bill Jones, of Sea Island, for an estimated two million dollars, collectors began to realize that turkey calls might someday approach the values associated with duck decoys and shore bird collectibles,” Keck says.
Regardless of growing values of turkey calls and the mania surrounding the whole turkey art culture, turkey hunters still cling to the core values of turkey hunting, including the art of calling. “I still go back to the basics of listening to real turkeys,” Keck says.
“You don’t have to be a great caller to harvest turkeys,” says Keck. “Delivering the calls with the same rhythm of a wild turkey is the key. I’ve listened to hundreds of people calling turkeys who weren’t particularly good at calling. However, with a little distance in the woods from the birds, and the correct rhythm, those hunters killed turkeys regularly. That is the art and beauty of turkey calling.”
Having been a key figure in the world of all things turkey hunting for nearly a half century, Keck is often asked by turkey hunters what he carries in his turkey hunting vest. “What they are really asking, is what calls do I use,” Keck says. “My personal favorite is a long box call. Materials make the call, and I originally favored a cedar-on-cedar long box call. Then a friend in Pennsylvania designed a box call with an aluminum, curved lid. It produces a high pitched sound that makes turkeys gobble when nothing else will. It is about as turkey as turkey can get. However, I will forever search for the call that trips their trigger!”