The competition was more than an hour away, but many of the contestants had already arrived and were warming up vigorously. Most of them sat in a section of bleachers at one end of a large arena at the Indiana State Fairgrounds. The arena was dimly lighted and not very well heated for the month of February. It smelled of livestock, and the dirt floor was covered with hay.
The two dozen men sitting in the bleachers were there for the Ail-American Turkey Calling Championship, sponsored by Levi Garrett chewing tobacco—the big-money event on the gobbler-hailing circuit. Callers had come to Indianapolis from Missouri, Pennsylvania, New York, Illinois, Mississippi and other points to try for the main prize.
Which was, well, $3,000 for first place—not enough, of course, to bring callers flying in on chartered jets. Four contestants from Pennsylvania had worked a sporting goods show in Altoona until late the night before, then had jumped in a van and driven all night to enter the All-American. They planned to turn around and drive home when it was over. If they had anything to celebrate, they would stop on the road somewhere for a bucket of chicken and a six-pack of beer.
In this respect, anyway, the turkey-calling circuit resembles the old days of rodeo riding. Levi Garrett puts up prize money, but contestants pay their own expenses when they go on the road. Unlike the rodeo folks, turkey callers are seldom hospitalized for injuries they have suffered during competition.
December 18, 1989
Just the same, they are serious about their sport. The callers in Indianapolis concentrated as if they were musicians tuning up before a performance. Some of them closed their eyes to shut out the distraction of other callers and bystanders. The sound produced as the callers tuned up suggested a henhouse at feeding time.
To the callers themselves, who occasionally paused to listen apprehensively to rivals, it all sounded good. Real good. "I don't even know a lot of these boys," said Bob Morgan of Blue Springs, Mo., who won the competition two years ago and therefore received an automatic invitation through 1992. "Seems like every time you go to one of these contests, there's a whole new crop of good young callers."
Morgan wears a mustache and has a dark, friendly face. He looks strong but slightly round, like a man who enjoys bacon for breakfast and butter on his grits. He was wearing a tan satin warm-up jacket and a gimme cap with a brim that had just the right curl. Cap and jacket both bore the insignia of the H.S. Strut Company, one of the major manufacturers of turkey calls. Morgan is a member of the H.S. Strut staff, which means he gets some help on expenses when he attends a show like the All-American. And when he isn't working at his regular job as a union wallpaper hanger or doing a little professional bass fishing, he promotes H.S. Strut at sports shows by demonstrating calls.
Asked what sorts of calls he planned on using at the All-American, Morgan said, "Well, this is an open competition, so you can use friction, or air. But I'll be using strictly air calls. You'd be surprised how judges like a mouth yelper in these contests."
A friction call is generally made using a piece of slate or wood. The caller draws a striker of some sort—glass or wood—across it to create the sound of a turkey. An air call is produced when the contestant puts a call, an aluminum, horseshoe-shaped device that is fitted with a rubber reed and covered with surgical tape, into his mouth, fits it against his palate like a partial plate, seals it with his tongue and blows softly over it so that the latex reed vibrates just so, producing the soft, raspy yelps of a responsive hen turkey during the spring mating season. A caller who does not get the sound he likes will pull the call out of his mouth and adjust its shape or the tension on the reed, and then try again.
Morgan was one of the favorites in Indianapolis, along with Kelly Cooper, last year's All-American winner. Cooper, from Picture Rocks, Pa., manufactures a line of calls that he sells through the mail. His slate calls are especially well regarded by serious turkey hunters. Cooper, who is thin, intense and voluble, describes his style of calling as "charismatic."
"I like to put a few extra sounds in a run of calls," he said. "Kind of a bridge from one series to the next. Every sound I make is a real turkey sound, it's just that I do a little more than the rules strictly call for."
When the five judges met with the callers to go over the rules, there was some discussion about how much they would give—or take away—for interpretive calling like Cooper's. One of the judges, Dale Englehardt, said, "I'm listening for what sounds like a real turkey. I'm in the woods at least two hundred days a year, and I know what a turkey sounds like. A lot of guys try to get fancy and baffle you with——. But the way I see it, you're not calling people, you're calling turkeys."
The head judge, Mike Manzo, a professional big-game guide with prominent bones and sunken eyes, set down his criteria emphatically: "As long as it sounds like a turkey, you won't lose points. But you won't necessarily get any, either." Which seemed to satisfy everyone; even Cooper could live with that ruling, though it cut into what he considers his strength.
The debate over calling styles was—like the contest itself—a measure of just how far turkey hunting has come in the past 15 years. It is only recently that many states have had enough turkeys to allow a hunting season. Before aggressive wildlife programs brought the turkey populations back, only a few people hunted the bird. The calls that they used were usually homemade and fairly crude. Hunters simply made the best, most authentic sounds they could on them and tried not to call too much. They just hoped a gobbler would come in to investigate.
As the turkey populations increased and more and more hunters went after them, the calls improved and hunters became more adept at using them. Turkey hunting is now the fastest-growing shooting sport in North America. Some two million Americans consider themselves turkey hunters, and a large number of them are not merely passionate but plainly insane about the sport. To them there is nothing sweeter in all of life than to be in the woods at the dawn of a spring day, a gobbling turkey roosted in a nearby tree. Maybe it is the time of year—though there is turkey-hunting season in the fall, too—with its mild temperatures and woods in the tender blooming stage, or maybe it is the calling, which brings the hunter into the mating ritual itself, or maybe it is the wariness and majesty of the gobbler, with his acute eyesight and his magnificent plumage, which he puts on full display for the hunter who succeeds in fooling him. Whatever the reason, turkey hunting gets into the blood; it is a passion that turns laconic men rhapsodic.
They will talk about turkeys and turkey hunting endlessly, and they will practice calling feverishly, in season or out. They will even pay money and drive all night to enter a calling contest. Other men, with slightly less ability, will pay money to sit in uncomfortable bleachers in a cold arena and listen to the callers make their music.
There were about a thousand of the faithful in the audience in Indianapolis when the first caller stepped onstage at two in the afternoon. Bob Morgan had drawn the first number. He stepped up and laid several mouth calls out on a table. Behind the table stood a screen that hid the five judges, who sat in separate booths with their backs to Morgan, their score sheets on their laps.
Morgan sat down, took a deep breath and made the first of the five mandatory calls.
His tree call sounded quiet and sweet, the way a hen turkey might sound on waking. He changed mouth yelpers and went to a more animated fly-down cackle. After another change of calls and another deep breath, he made a fine, raspy old-hen mating yelp. Then he went straight into a whistling kee-kee run. With eyes closed, he made the final call, an old gobbler yelp. He was the only caller to show so much composure. Virtually all of the others stood during at least some of their five calls, and many of them moved with the spirit of their work. A few actually seemed to strut and scratch like a turkey, which is a fair indication of just how deep into it some turkey hunters get.
Though all the callers who followed Morgan sounded good, none sounded better until Cooper, the 11th of 29, took the stage. Cooper stared at the ground and worked himself into the kind of concentration necessary for "charismatic" calling in the big event.
He sounded, as hunters will often say, "more like a turkey than a turkey itself." His fly-down cackle rose and then fell off and rose again to a kind of climax certain to drive a gobbler wild. Cooper worked with one hand in his pocket, the other covering half his face, and he moved around in small circles on the dirt floor. When he finished, the crowd gave him the biggest hand of the day.
Sitting at the end of the bleachers, 20 feet from the nearest caller, there was a man who looked uncannily like Chuck Norris, the karate-movie man. This fellow had the same neatly trimmed beard and disturbingly intense eyes as Norris. He wore a camouflage shirt from H.S. Strut, and he was clearly working very hard to psych himself up before his five minutes onstage.
While he was waiting, a boy who appeared to be about 10 approached him to whisper something. The man sent the boy away without looking at him or changing his expression.
After a few more callers had performed, it was this man's turn. He stood to make his calls, and though he moved about, there was nothing exaggerated in his movements. Or in his calling, for that matter. If Cooper's calls had been charismatic and interpretive, his were subdued and formal. And perfect, it seemed, in every note. They began and ended cleanly, and there was a raspiness to them that made them seem absolutely wild, as though they could not have been made by a human. When he finished, he knew, as did everyone else in the room, that he had done well.
When the last caller had left the stage, some two hours after Morgan had made his first tree yelp, the judges totaled their scores. The high and low scores for each contestant were thrown out, and the other scores were added up. Each call was judged on a scale of 1 to 10, so the highest possible score was 150. The winning score was 133, earned by the man who looked like Chuck Norris.
His name is Walter Parrott, and he comes from Doe Run, Mo. He finished third in the All-American last year and had been on a streak lately. In the past several weeks, he also had won the Grand National and the U.S. Open, and while it sometimes seems as if there are as many extravagant titles on the turkey-calling circuit as there are in professional wrestling, those two are very prestigious tournaments. The All-American is the biggest of all. For now, Parrott is the best.
Cooper finished four points behind. He examined his scores and saw that the fly-down cackle, his most ambitious piece of improvisation, actually cost him points. He won $1,000 less than Parrott, and his trophy, a brass spittoon, was slightly smaller. "Well," he said as he left the fairgrounds for his hotel, "what can you say. That's turkey calling."
Morgan was third, with a 126. "In this crowd," he said, "I'm happy to win anything at all."
Parrott gave his spittoon to his nine-year-old son, Curtis, the boy who had spoken to him before Parrott took the stage and who stood proudly at his side while he talked to a local reporter. "When I first started hunting turkeys," Parrott said, "I was afraid to call. I was embarrassed by how bad I sounded." He practiced so much that entering contests became inevitable.
Parrott left the fairgrounds with his wife, Linda, and son. They would spend the night in Indianapolis, the big city, before going back to Missouri. He had another competition coming up the next weekend. During the week, he works as a brickmason.
Later that evening, in a restaurant on the top floor of the Sheraton, Cooper and several other Pennsylvania callers ate dinner and remarked over and over on just how flat Indiana was. "You know," one of them said, looking out the window, "you could lay a truck tire down flat and you'd have a hill." There was some mild beer drinking going on, but nothing that approached rowdiness. The boys were mainly telling stories about turkey hunting and turkey calling. But this required sound effects, and every few seconds, across the restaurant, above the sounds of conversation, there would come the—well, the sound of a turkey. At least three different parties were seated in the section of the restaurant where Cooper and the boys were having dinner. All of them quickly asked for tables somewhere else. Nobody in the restaurant wanted to sit next to a table at which someone would occasionally gobble to make his point. It did not seem to matter that the men making those sounds were among the best in the world at what they do.
The callers seemed not to notice—or to care, if they did notice. To most people it might seem crazy to work so hard at sounding like a turkey and to worry so much about it. But if it was crazy, one of them said, "well, then, crazy beats the other thing cold."
Geoffrey Norman lives in Dorset, Vt., and often writes on outdoor subjects.