Turkey Call Making—A True Art
Imitating the vocalizations of wildlife as a means of attracting them to the gun or arrow can be traced back thousands of years to early Native American relics found throughout North America. The allure of calling turkeys is still one of the strongest attractions of turkey hunting and has created a booming industry in game calls, such as the box call.

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The first box-style turkey call was patented in 1897 by an Arkansas farmer and fence supply manager, Henry Gibson, of Dardanelle. Though there may have been box calls before his patent, Gibson sparked a new industry with many imitators creating box-type turkey calls.

As the demand grew for turkey calls, Alabama homebuilder and cabinetmaker Mike Lynch started mass-producing Gibson-based turkey calls in his Birmingham shop in 1939. This was the beginning of a new era for turkey call production, from which many companies were born.

Though the callmaking industry has grown for nearly a century, many call makers refused to mass-produce their calls. These custom call makers preferred to handle each piece of wood themselves and create works of art in both beauty and sound.

Call collector and author Howard Harlan once wrote that turkey callers were “an enduring American Folk Art.”

One such call maker was Neil Cost, of Greenwood, S.C. Cost, touted as one of the most influential craftsman in turkey callmaking history, built his calls and individually hand tuned each one to perfect pitch and tone. The time and labor Cost put into each call made him a legend in the callmaking industry. His calls were flawless and today fetch thousands of dollars on the collectors’ market.

“Neil put class into the craft of call making,” said Rob Keck, National Wild Turkey Federation CEO. “His wood inlays, hand-checkered patterns and combinations of wood types became the hallmark of his unique designs.”

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Cost was most noted for his development of the “boat paddle” turkey caller, which he developed in cooperation with experts at the NWTF and samples of which sell for over $5,000. Before Cost passed away in May 2002, the last call he built, called the “Fat Lady,” sold for more than $11,000 on eBay in 2001.

Craftsmanship on this level has spurred its own special competition. Each year, the nation’s top call makers submit their best calls to the NWTF’s Grand National Callmaking Competition during the organization’s National Convention and Sport Show. Even now, call makers throughout North America are already preparing their best calls for the February 2007 competition in Nashville, Tenn.

The best in the working box calls division is awarded the Gibson Award, presented to the best-sounding call of that year’s entries. It’s an honor relished among call makers.

Other divisions in both working and decorative calls attract hundreds of entries each year and display some of the most beautiful and skilled craftsmanship found in any competition.

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Modern turkey call makers, such as grand national decorative turkey call champions Dave Constantine and Don Bald, have taken the long-established folk art of turkey call crafting in new directions with delicately carved calls made of exotic woods and inlays. Some in the Decorative Turkey Call Division don’t look like turkey calls at all but instead may resemble a turkey feather lying atop a pile of oak leaves or maybe a fiddle and bow.

“No other callmaking competition in the world brings together more true folk artists than the NWTF’s Grand Nationals,” Keck said. “The calls that are displayed each year take the contest a step higher as artists strive to outdo their creations from the previous year.”

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Calls in the Hunting Calls Division are no less impressive. The craftsmanship that goes into making a piece of wood or slate sound like a turkey is truly an art form. In this division, call makers from across the continent put their reputations on the line as their calls are scrutinized for tone and the overall “amount of turkey” each call demonstrates.

With each year, the callmaking competition gets tougher and the calls more elaborate, taking call making to new heights along the way.


Want to learn more about the Grand National Call Making Championships? Click here for rules and registration information.

Visit the Winchester Museum at the Wild Turkey Center in Edgefield, S.C. to see the beautiful works of art donated to the NWTF by call makers. Also, make plans now to attend the NWTF’s 32nd annual National Convention and Sport Show, Feb. 22 to Feb. 25 in Nashville, Tenn., to be part of the Grand National Call Making Championships.