Every contestant who steps on the Grand National Calling Championships stage has a long backstory, full of challenges, long hours and hard work.
But in Joseph Maher’s case, the tale goes far deeper. In fact, his road to Nashville involved a fight for his life and a recovery that continues today. And when Maher, of Pontotoc, Mississippi, calls at the GNCCs, it might be a testament to the human spirit, with perhaps a boost from the healing power of the turkey woods.
“Just the thought of being able to get back up and keep hunting definitely was a big factor in it all,” he said.
On Dec. 23, 2013, Maher, then 27, and a police officer with the Tupelo Police Department in Mississippi, responded to a bank robbery call. He and fellow officer Gale Stauffer were ambushed by the suspect, and a gunfight ensued. Stauffer was killed, and Maher was shot, with the bullet entering through the back of his head and exiting through his right cheek, missing his brain but causing severe nerve and muscle damage. The robbery suspect was killed five days later by police during an attempted bank robbery in Phoenix, Arizona.
Maher woke up days later in the hospital, happy to be alive but facing issues with his short-term memory and a series of operations and physical therapy.
“When I got shot, it took out the nerve that controls all the muscles on the right side of your face,” he said. “It pretty much knocked everything out, so I had whole right-side facial paralysis. Numerous surgeries have helped some. As far as total surgeries go, I’m not really sure. It’s in the 13 to 15 range. My doctor tells me we’re getting close to the end of being done.”
Physicians said Maher faced a long recovery, but many friends and co-workers contributed financial and other support to help the process. And through it all, the outdoors provided inspiration.
Maher has hunted turkeys since he was young. His father introduced him to the sport, and he killed his first turkey when he was 13. That blossomed into a love of calling, and Maher competed in his first contest when he was 15 or 16. His calling pursuits slowed somewhat as he became involved in high school and then college athletics (he played football at Ole Miss), but after joining the police force, Maher had more time to practice and call. Then that fateful day occurred.
In 2017, more than three years into Maher’s recovery, his friend Vandy Stubbs asked Maher if he’d like to attend the GNCCs at the NWTF Convention and Sport Show in Nashville. He did, competing in the Owl, Gobbling and Headto- Head competitions. At the show, Stubbs introduced Maher to Cuz Strickland and Toxey Haas of Mossy Oak, and they invited him on a hunt in Alabama the next spring. Later that year, he was invited to join the Mossy Oak turkey prostaff directed under Matt Newton.
At about the same time, Maher’s friend Corey Ellis put him in touch with turkey calling legend and NWTF GNCC Hall of Fame member, Preston Pittman, who helped him acquire some quality calls and critiqued his sound.
“I had an old plastic hooter tube,” Maher said. “Preston said, ‘If you’re getting that kind of sound out of that, imagine what you could get if you had a real caller.’”
Maher also worked with a friend who owns Gunter Game Calls to tweak and refine his sound.
“One thing led to another, and I think I have everything figured out and started placing and winning some things, thankfully,” he said.
At the Alabama hunt, Maher met 17-time GNCC winner Mark Prudhomme, who helped Maher with his calling.
“That was like icing on the cake,” Maher said. “I’ve always followed guys like (Prudhomme), who care about it for the right reasons and don’t mind passing it on. At that hunt, we spent a lot of time together. I picked his brain listening to him call, listening to him hunting.”
Maher said Prudhomme gave him tips on running owl hooters and also delivered a special gift.
“He took me to his truck, reached up under the seat, took one of his calls out of the pack and handed it to me,” he said.
Because of his injuries, Maher has to use a mouthpiece while calling to ensure that excess air doesn’t escape. But Prudhomme’s hooter fit Maher well, and through practice, his sound quality began to improve.
“I got home and would do sound clips of turkeys and owls and then send them to Corey, Mark, Preston and Jody Harrison (of Preacherman Custom Calls),” he said.
The work began to pay off. Maher won the State Senior Division at the Mississippi State Contest, and his oldest daughter, Ella Kate, won the Poults Division. And at the 2022 GNCCs, Maher took fourth runner-up honors in the Owl Championship, scoring 237 and then 240 in a subsequent call-off.
“I didn’t place those first few years at the Grand Nationals,” he said. “But this past February, I finally got to be up on the stage at the end.”
This past year, Maher witnessed another milestone, as Ella Kate took her first turkey, a Mississippi longbeard.
“At 5:50 a.m., they started gobbling, and then four longbeards and a jake ran across field, and she smoked (a gobbler) at about 12 steps with a single-shot .410,” Maher said. “She always asked, ‘If I kill a turkey, would you put it on the wall?’ She had passed on jakes before, wanting her first turkey to be a tom. So now he’s mounted, hanging on the wall in the shop.”
Meanwhile, Maher now works for the Pontotoc County Sheriff’s Department as a canine handler and school liaison officer, and he also operates a fitness business. And his recovery continues, with his family by his side. Maher’s wife, Lindsey, is a respiratory therapist and kindergarten teacher at the school their daughters attend. Ella Kate will be 10 in September, and his youngest daughter, Ada Grace, will turn 7 in September.
And of course, Maher plans to keep turkey hunting and competing in calling contests, hoping to improve on the progress he’s made.
“Turkey hunting and calling have been an inspiration to help get better and keep recovering,” he said. “I plan on being in Nashville next year. I hope to be back up there on that stage.”