Custom Waterfowl and Turkey Calls an Investment in Both Hunting and Keepsake Collectibles
Updated: Oct 21
Individually crafted calls, signed by the maker, offer hand-tuned performance
Buying turkey or waterfowl calls can be daunting for novice hunters. Buyers seek opinions from friends, look to social media, or read magazines and watch outdoor television when deciding which calls to buy. While buying a mass-produced call from a retailer may seem the easiest solution, experienced hunters know that calls made in small batches or to custom order by skilled call makers often afford the sweetest bet.
Custom calls are usually more expensive, but hunters who buy from reputable, recognized call makers understand that the product will not only look and sound good, but also have a good chance of holding its value or appreciating, even becoming a collectible.
For many savvy hunters, researching the craftsmen and understanding the nuances of their calls is part of the fun. Custom call aficionados look at who is winning callmaking competitions and attend outdoor shows where these skilled craftsmen exhibit, savoring the chance to personally try a call before buying.
The National Wild Turkey Federation’s Grand National Callmaking Contest is the largest such event in the country, with up to 1,500 calls entered annually. Winning there helps many call makers establish their brand. Some winners parlay success into deals with major manufacturers. Others keep it small, preferring to turn out hand-tuned calls in home workshops.
Note: the first portion of this article is in 2023 USA Today Hunt & Fish magazine.
Incredible variety exists in the types and styles of calls available, especially in the turkey hunting world. Box calls – long, short and one-sided - pot and peg friction calls with glass or slate surfaces and customized strikers, scratchbox calls, wingbone calls and more are all designed to make a male turkey gobble and, ideally, summon him within gun range. Waterfowl calls are differentiated by construction material and shape, plus the type of reed used, as well as the type of bird they are designed to communicate with, from various geese to myriad ducks.
Ohioan Bob Fulcher is a past NWTF Grand Champions,” the highest honor bestowed in the competition. He was inaugurated in 2023 to the event’s Hall of Fame. Fulcher is known for his turkey box calls [https://shadetreecallers.webs.com/] He has helped coordinate NWTF’s Grand Nationals for 5 years and served as the 2023 event’s head commissioner.
Fulcher makes between 75 and 100 calls a year, somewhat typical for a small custom call maker. Competition success, though, often begets demand. Retailers ask for volume orders, but Fulcher believes small equals more exacting quality control, something increasingly impossible when call makers transition to trying to make up to 1,000 to sell in stores.
“It takes six months to make a proper box call,” Fulcher says. After each substantial cut, he rests the wood for months, letting the grain release tension before he reshapes the pieces and assembles the call. “It’s almost like making whiskey; you have to let it sit between stages,” Fulcher says. “Every piece of wood has its own voice, and you often don’t know until they’re finished if they’re good or bad.” The bad ones go in the fire pit. The good ones go to buyers.
“When I’m done, I’m confident that call will sound the same for you in five years as it did the day you got it,” Fulcher says. “Buying one in a store, packed in a blister pack, is a random proposition,” Fulcher asserts. “When you buy a call from a custom call maker, you can pretty much be assured that each call is thoroughly tested and tuned before it’s shipped.”
Fulcher is a musician and believes that boosts his call tuning ability. He tunes “by ear,” noting, “We each have that turkey in our head, the knowledge of what a real bird sounds like. Running a call is a lot like playing an instrument.”
Transition to Bigger Markets
Many companies or brands bearing an individual’s name began small, originating with a single dedicated hunter who wanted to see if he could build a better call.
The late Eli Haydel, a Louisianan, was also a musician. He played clarinet and saxophone, using his knowledge of reeds to design and create duck calls. Haydel created some of the first calls made from acrylic versus wood. Although, it wasn't a handmade call, a DD85 double-reed mallard call that Haydel gave me one cold morning in a Louisiana marsh remains one of my most treasured calls - it still hangs on my hunting calls lanyard.
Acrylic or plastic is more reliable in cold, wet weather compared to wood. Acrylic also isn’t as finicky as wood in manufacturing. Haydel successfully transitioned the business born in the family garage in 1981 to larger production and markets.
Another Louisiana company, Faulk Calls of Lake Charles, also began small. Clarence "Patin" Faulk started making his own duck and goose calls in the 1930s, also teaching his son Dud the craft. In 1951, Dud began making calls and taking them to trade shows. Today, Faulk waterfowl calls are sold in sporting goods stores as well as direct to consumer, but the calls are still made using a small batch mentality, with many products hand-turned on the shop’s equipment and individually tested and tuned before heading out.
Will Primos, Buck Gardner, Harold Knight and David Hale are others who greatly expanded from humble beginnings and became huge names in the business, building large companies, designing and manufacturing calls of all shapes, sizes and materials for all types of critters, flying and terrestrial. For every big-name manufacturer, there are hundreds of individual artisans who didn’t give up their day jobs.
Custom Calls an Investment - Collectible and Practical
Many call-making competitions have both “decorative” and “hunting” divisions. Decorative calls are creative and ornate, often featuring exotic materials. They’re rarely, if ever, used in the field. Then there are hunting calls, made by craftsmen who seek function and results but also demand form and beauty.
The late Glynn Scobey of Tennessee was squarely in this genre. For decades, Scobey and his gorgeous handmade and painted waterfowl calls were fixtures at outdoor shows and festivals. He often sold matched duck and goose pairs. The calls, usually made from walnut or a beautiful curly maple, sometimes seemed too pretty to use in a muddy marsh, but many hunters did. Now, they are increasingly collectible. Custom calls are an investment. Many routinely selling 400% higher or more than their original purchase price 20 or 30 years ago.
Sean Mann’s Eastern Shoreman goose call, which he created in the early 1980s, helped him and others win several calling world calling championships. His unique, nearly 11-inch handmade call, grabbed the goose hunting world by the honker. Mann wrestled with success, unwilling to sacrifice quality for quantity. Eventually, his company grew and now makes many wood and acrylic calls. Those original wood Eastern Shoreman calls, which sold for $100, are highly collectible.
Do Your Homework
Any Google search for “custom call maker” returns hundreds of results. Online resources can help prospective buyers research options, especially if they are looking for callmakers who’ve shown competitive success over the years. There is the Call makers and Collectors Association of America. The NWTF is one of the few organizations staging contests for both call makers and callers.
Calling contest success often drives awareness of custom call makers. Ducks Unlimited also stages sanctioned calling competitions across the country, culminating in the world championship competition, held every November in Stuttgart, Arkansas. Delta Waterfowl also stages an annual callmakers championship contest in Arkansas each August.
Patience, something of virtue to turkey hunters, is often needed when buying a custom call, especially from an “in demand” craftsman. Many calls are made to order.
In terms of being both playable and collectable, calls bearing the imprimatur of a mass-production company are almost always going to be less collectible than calls handmade and signed by individual craftsmen. That noted, some call makers don’t worry about adding accent frills. They simply focus on creating calls that sound like an actual bird. For example, the late John Byrne of Bedford, Virginia, famed for his “Appalachian turkey dogs,” made highly collectible and hunter-friendly wingbone calls. They were austere in appearance, but Byrne believed, paint and other finishes detracted from the perfect turkey pitch he would get from a call.
Another friend, Niles Oesterle, was one of the original creators of beautiful box calls for turkey hunting. Oesterle still likes to use his long box for hunts in the cool Maine woods, where he carries a Parker black powder shotgun.
Virginian Gerald Austin of Buchanan liked making simple box calls using aged, tight-grain wood -- no accents or additional trappings. He played a call he crafted for me, one with a walnut lid and 150-year-old cedar box. “Man, that call has got some turkey in it,” he smiled as he let out a few yelps, clucks and purrs. Simplicity can be beautiful too. I've used that call to pull in more than one big, old longbeard.
Current Call Makers
Below is a small sample of custom call makers, many of them accomplished champions, turning out quality hunting tools.
Ed Terefencko. Uses air-dried and aged wood to create turkey box calls. A fireman by profession. Quote: “if for any reason I am not 100% satisfied with the sound of a call, it will never leave my shop.” A Terefencko one-sided box call purchased at an NWTF Grand National auction event remains one of my "go to" calls for firing up birds.
Billy McCallister – Natural Addiction Custom Calls. Specializing in turkey calls: pot/peg varieties, trumpet calls, and fine, flared-tip strikers. Up and coming with substantial social media presence.
Mike Lapp – Specializing in all types of box, pushpin, trumpet and trough calls, handcrafted one at a time and tuned according to each individual piece of wood.
Tim Oldham Jr. – Creek Bottom Calls. Oldham was a perennial Decorative Division winner in the NWTF’s Grand Nationals competition, but recently swapped a day job for a life as a full-time custom call maker. While he can make a straightforward minimal frills call, many are specific works of art designed for hunting. Custom, commissioned work only.
Brad Allen – Three-time world champion duck caller turned call maker. Makes a mix of acrylic, wood/polycarbonate blend calls. Allen personally tunes every call leaving his Elite Calls shop.
Matt Van Cise – Pennsylvanian Van Cise just won the Senior Grand National Calling Contest by a record margin. His custom calls certainly benefit from the performance.
Brad Samples – Blindsided Calls. A Grand Nationals Champion of Champions. Custom handmade duck calls from basic hunting calls to highly carved collector calls.
Mike Stelzner – C&S Custom Calls. Stelzner makes a wide line of both turkey and, largely, high-end waterfowl calls, many with religiously themed names.
Ronald “Stump” Laun – RM Custom Calls. Has a variety of pre-built (mostly acrylic) calls but does make small amounts of wood and wood/acrylic – mostly custom order.
John Stephens - J Stephen's Calls/also runs RNT Calls (Rich N Tone), begun in 1976 by Butch Richenback, multi-year calling champion. Stephens custom call offerings, though, are described as “the real deal, old-school hand-turned art.
Gene Carter – Sutter Basin Duck Calls. Professional grade, acrylic and wood waterfowl calls.