Mimicking the sounds of game in order to lure the prey closer is a practice stretching back in time far beyond the memory of man. Archaeologists have discovered turkey wing bones used by Native Americans dating back to pre-European times. American Indians taught early settlers to use their natural voices or materials readily available in nature, such as greenbrier leaves or sections of swamp cane, to produce sounds ranging from the vocabulary of the wild turkey to the grunts and wheezes of whitetails, and from the high, lonesome sound of ducks and geese to the cheery mating and reassembly calls of the bobwhite. It was an approach that made hunting more successful and that in turn enhanced survival.
Fast forward to the 20th century, and thanks to the happy coincidence of being one of the relatively few states where huntable populations of wild turkeys survived, not to mention being an area with rich waterfowling and upland bird hunting traditions, the crafting of game calls reached a point where there was a striking intersection of function and art. The much-heralded sage of the South Santee and South Carolina’s first poet laureate, Archibald Rutledge, made turkey calls for his personal use and to sell. These were mainly traditional box calls but also some scratch boxes. They were rather crudely crafted, being little more than rough sawn pieces of wood nailed together with carpet tacks, but they were eminently capable of producing key elements of the wild turkey’s vocabulary such as yelps, clucks, and purrs. Today a Rutledge call with solid provenance fetches several thousand dollars on the collectors’ market.
A contemporary of Rutledge and the author of what is arguably the single finest book on turkey hunting ever written, Henry Edwards Davis of Florence also made turkey calls, along with exquisite furniture, firearms that were true works of art, and more. His personal “go to” call sold a few years back for more than $55,000 — the most ever paid for a single turkey call. Individuals of their ilk, icons of sport as hunters and craftsmen, paved the way for a veritable flood of talented call makers and created a collecting mania where custom calls fetch striking prices while simultaneously bring to the forefront creativity and woodworking genius.
The late Neil “Gobbler” Cost was in the vanguard of this modern upsurge in craftsmen, making such an impact that four books have grown out of his work in conjunction with Ray Berryhill and Scott Branton, along with a fifth coffee table style volume of striking appearance offered by Michael Marks. The pioneering work of Rutledge and Davis, the great growth in wild turkey numbers that forms one of the great conservation success stories of modern times, and the national attention directed to Cost combined to foster a collecting rage for custom-made calls. It also spawned an impressive cadre of craftsmen capable of working wonders with wood, bone, slate, and other materials to create lovely instruments of deceit.
South Carolinians have been well to the forefront in this wonderment of creativity. Individuals such as Darrin Dawkins, Steve Mann, Irving Whitt, Bob Harwell, Mark Prudhomme, and Al Willis are nationally recognized among collecting aficionados. Craftsmen such as they are constantly striving to achieve beauty, come up with new concepts or “wrinkles” that make their calls distinctive, or produce true, sweet sounds that harken back to the irresistible name Rutledge gave his boxes, “Miss Seduction.” Unquestionably, one of the leading contemporary Palmetto figures in that regard is John Tanner.
Just short of two decades ago, after having spent what might be styled a lengthy apprenticeship observing the grand birds, John took to the greening-up woods of a Carolina spring in his home heath of Williamsburg County in quest of a gobbler. It was at that juncture, in the 1990s, that stark reality slapped him squarely in the face. The cheap box and pot calls he first tried, followed by use of a mouth call, then attempts to make his own mouth yelpers from a commercial kit, all produced the same result — minimal success and growing disillusionment. Out of that frustration was born the concept of producing his own calls, and a more or less simultaneous development set John down the appealing, adventure-filled avenue of crafting calls. In short order, what originated as a sort of “do-it-yourself” undertaking that came out of dissatisfaction with commercial calls morphed into a pursuit of passion and a one-man cottage industry making high-quality custom calls cherished by hunters and collectors alike.
The breakthrough came, and in dramatic fashion, with the discovery of ancient, perfectly preserved cypress logs, later verified to be tens of thousands of years old, in sand mines close to John’s home. Note that carbon dating technology only extends back for some 55,000 years, and the logs were older than that. The find understandably evoked considerable interest from myriad angles as word spread and woodworkers realized the cypress logs offered opportunities to create something truly special. Somehow that produced a “Eureka!” moment for John, and he asked the owners of the cypress that he was helping market and promote to grant him exclusive rights to produce turkey calls from the timber. His wife thought it was highly amusing, given that he had a reputation of being a crafting klutz perfectly capable of rendering a straight nail into a badly bent one with just a lick or two from a hammer.
Nonetheless, John acquired some basic woodworking equipment and tried his hand. In his own words “for the first couple of years I made some ugly stuff,” but with determination, more time on his hands thanks to retirement in 2006, and sheer determination to succeed, he went from a rather inept hobbyist to success and, eventually, a full-time second career. As his skills grew and word spread via the ever-active grapevine connected with the crafting of custom calls, he had a couple of major breakthroughs. One came with a commission for a set of limited edition calls for sale through Sporting Classics magazine, a nationally known sporting publication catering to affluent outdoorsmen and devoted collectors. The calls, a box call for turkey hunting along with two types of waterfowling calls, were offered in the magazine’s 2014 holiday catalog.
This brought John’s efforts to the attention of a wide audience and led to a request from the chancellor of Arkansas State University to make and personally present a special call to the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. A devoted sportsman and avid turkey hunter who had hunted the magnificent birds in most states but not Arkansas, Justice Scalia was to be honored with an event the organizers styled “A Fireside Chat with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.” The key moment of the event involved John handing the call to Scalia as he shook his hand and university dignitaries looked on.
In addition to these efforts, John has two calls in which he takes considerable pride. One of them is truly one of a kind. He made a number of box calls from an old cedar that grew near the one-time home of his grandparents that burned down. By sheer serendipity, the grain in the wood from the side of one of the calls conveys an image of a Boykin spaniel’s head that is unmistakable and accurate in every detail.
The second is a near replication of the call he presented to Justice Scalia with the top of the paddle carrying an artist’s rendition of Scalia from the presentation ceremony. Only five of those were made, with the first remaining in John’s hands, another going to the Scalia family, a third to the individual who arranged the ceremony at Arkansas State University, and a pair to a collector who interacted with the justice’s heirs to obtain their permission for use of his image. If one of those calls should ever be sold, in every likelihood the price would rank well towards the top and likely in the top 10 of the highest amount ever paid for a turkey call. That’s mere speculation though, because they aren’t for sale and weren’t done as a commercial venture.
Developments of this type and the recognition they garnered not only encouraged John; they served as catalysts for seeking creative outlets that transcended the aura of working with ancient wood. As has been my experience with other call makers of John’s ilk — and I’ve written about the craft and culture of turkey hunting for four decades — he soon became consumed by a search for perfection even as he realized it was so elusive as to be, in effect, unobtainable. As John describes his compulsion, “Every call I make is an effort to produce the best sounding and looking call I have ever made.”
That in effect translates to a “grow as you go” approach to craftsmanship, and part of that ongoing evolution in craftsmanship involves new designs and calls developed with specific situations or hunting dilemmas in mind. Over the years he has listened carefully as he talked with hunters visiting his exhibit space at shows, and often their description of some woodland dilemma led to development of a new call or a subtle variation to existing calls already being made by other custom call makers. For example, his “Double Play” box call features a standard box call on one side and slate on the other. That translates to diverse capability in terms of being able to render “turkey talk” involving everything from long distance locator calling to the soft, compelling sounds known as purring. Another multipurpose call was the “Hanging Water Trough.”
Through the use of two types of strikers along with two types of surface in the trough call, he provided hunters an opportunity to use a friction call that was operative even in rainy conditions. Moreover, to avoid losing strikers — something any turkey hunter will readily admit can become a real problem amidst moments of intense excitement or the need to change positions in a hurry — he used a lanyard to link the trough call and the striker. It became his bestseller among all the calls he has designed and made.
Currently John is perfecting a trumpet call, which many old-time veterans of the sport consider the finest of all the many types of calls when it comes to replicating turkey sounds even as they also acknowledge it is perhaps the most difficult to master in terms of usage. Suction yelpers, whether turned from wood, fashioned from cane, or using turkey wing bones, are a favorite of many collectors and craftsmen alike, but again, John has figured out a way to craft a combo. It incorporates a small slate call into the body of the trumpet yelper. The striker for the slate is attached to the lanyard holding the trumpet call, so in effect you have a one-piece setup with multiple calling options.
John produces and sells somewhere in the range of 250 to 300 calls annually. Each call represents hours of work in shaping wood, gluing, tuning, finishing, and more. What gives him the greatest satisfaction is to have a customer share a tale of positive results in the spring woods using one of his calls.
Discerning hunters and collectors alike have recognized that John has, over the course of the last decade, made a real mark in the custom call world. He obviously finds that reception gratifying, but it is also abundantly manifest that what moves him most are the essentials underlying the endeavors of any gifted craftsman — producing works of aesthetic wonder, making calls that are as functional as they are fetching, and finding gratification in the success of those who hunt with his works of art.
Long one of the nation’s leading writers on turkey hunting, Jim Casada has been recognized as the National Wild Turkey Federation’s Communicator of the Year and is the author of a number of books on the sport, including award-winning Remembering the Greats: Profiles of Turkey Hunting’s Old Masters.