Spring Turkey Tip: Use a Paddle Call to Force a Gobbler to Make a Mistake and Sound Off

Turkey hunting can be tough when a stiff springtime wind is blowing, but hunters can carry a trick up their camouflaged sleeves with the proper use of a custom-made, Neil Cost-inspired long-box turkey call, works of woodsy art made by modern-day craftsman like Lamar Williams

Spring Turkey Tip: Use a Paddle Call to Force a Gobbler to Make a Mistake and Sound Off
If the wind blows during any of your limited turkey hunting days, pull a Neil Cost-inspired custom-made long-box turkey call made by Lamar Williams out of your bag of hunting tricks. (Lynn Burkhead photo)

As turkey hunters with limited time fill the woods during the spring, there are a few things that can short circuit hopes for success on a wise, old longbeard roaming through the woods.

Especially when there is a stout springtime wind blowing.

From the south the day before a cold front, from the north the day after a front and from who knows what direction in between, strong spring breezes can make it difficult for a hunter hoping to hear a gobbler sound off.

Unless he's got a call that can yelp loud enough to cut through the gale like a hot knife through butter.

Or in this case, butternut.

Which happens to be one of the chief ingredients of a butternut and cedar long-box turkey call, the elongated boat-paddle style call made by renowned Starke, Fla., turkey call maker Lamar Williams (904-964-5691).

While the standard-issue short box call found its genesis way back in 1897, thanks to Henry Gibson of Dardanelle, Ark., the history of the long-box is much shorter in length, beginning sometime around the 1970s.

Most turkey-call historians indicate the late, great South Carolina call-maker Neil Cost – who passed away from emphysema in late May 2002 – came up with the boat-paddle style call, eventually crafting as many as 150 of these woodsy musical instruments.

Cost, generally considered to be the best custom turkey-call maker of all-time, once gave his call-making philosophy to the late Dick Kirby of Quaker Boy Game Calls. In a story penned by Fred Lutger in 2003, Cost reportedly said: "Start with a chunk of wood and take out everything that doesn't sound like a turkey."

So good was Cost at doing that to a piece of butternut, walnut or mahogany, his last paddle style call – known as the "Fat Lady" – sold in a 2001 online E-Bay auction for a reported $11,200.

Before Cost stepped into eternity, he fortunately passed on his paddle-call-making skills to a small number of custom-call makers, including Williams.

Higher pitched and raspier than the tones of a standard issue box call, Williams' long-boxes still produce melodic yelps, cuts and clucks that can bore seductively right through a spring wind and into the heart of a wily old gobbler.

When the chance came to visit Williams' call making shop in northeastern Florida last fall, I jumped at the opportunity to step into a room filled with rich history, the lush smell of exotic woods and the unparalleled sounds of the wild turkey courtesy of one of the top custom-call makers of modern times.

Why are Williams' calls so good? For one reason, he learned and perfected his craft in the living room and work shop of Neil Cost.

For another reason, Williams is incredibly meticulous about selecting the woods he will use to turn out a long-box call.

Drilled, hand hewed and tuned from a single block of butternut (or yellow poplar or Honduras mahogany), each call is paired with a red cedar lid to produce some very sweet turkey sounds.

Lamar Williams custom made long box paddle turkey calls
While short-box calls have been around since the late 1800s, long-box turkey calls have only been around since the 1970s. Despite the short history, the higher-pitch yelps produced from custom-made paddle-style calls, like from Lamar Williams, are often a key tool in getting a wise old gobbler to sound off. (Lynn Burkhead photo)

While some call makers crank out sizable numbers of calls each year, Williams doesn't, instead searching for a rare mix that limits his call production to a few dozen short and long boxes per year.

"Regardless of the style of call that I've made, I've always focused my attention on several key factors," says Williams in his instructional brochure that accompanies each call.

"These are tone and pitch, user friendliness, aesthetics and consistency."

Lest you think such words are marketing lip service, think again since Williams spends hours searching through countless boards looking for sources of wood that meet his high demands.

When he finds a good piece of wood, it is cut into call blanks and lids, then stored in his northeastern Florida shop to fully cure out.

When the time is right, Williams will go to work to lure turkey sounds out of the wood. Despite spending hours to bring such music out of a call, if it doesn't sound right when completed, Williams shrugs and tosses the call into the scrap bucket and starts all over again.

Such is the cost of turkey-call-making perfection, something Williams has been after for more than 30 years now.

"I started making paddle calls in about 1987 or 1988," he said, noting there is a subtle difference in his calls and those of Cost.

"Neil's paddle call is longer, about 3/4 of an inch or an inch longer than mine," said Williams. "I wanted something shorter that would fit on (my) sander."

If the small change from Cost's original design sounds innocent and practical enough, it isn't.

"Anytime you change the dimensions of a call, it's like making a different style of call because the radius (and other things) are different," said Williams.

After getting the details just right, Williams settled on his long-box call design, one he has stuck with up to this very day.

In other words, if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

Especially when it comes to making turkey calls that sing sweet springtime music to a hard-to-get boss gobbler.

What are a few of the keys to utilizing a Lamar Williams' long-box, or paddle call, in the chase of a spring longbeard?

One is to have a call turned from the right kind of wood, something Williams works diligently on with each customer in an effort to match the long-box to the particular surroundings being hunted.

Yellow poplar, which is the best-selling wood out of his shop, gives medium to medium-high tones with a bit of rasp.

Honduras mahogany produces its own medium to medium-high music with a light to medium rasp added in.

And butternut, something Williams calls the original paddle call wood, produces some of the most melodic turkey sounds of all in my humble opinion.

Like other facets of his craft, Williams learned a good bit of what he knows about how to turn out butternut long-box calls from Cost himself.

"When (Cost) started making paddle calls, he got his first butternut out of Pennsylvania," said Williams. "He went up there and picked a tree. They cut it down and he hauled it back (to South Carolina) and let it dry for a year and a half or two years before he ever made anything out of it."

"His first paddle calls were called square-backs," added Williams. "A square-back (paddle call) is just like a box call is, made with a square back. He didn't make many square backs, only a handful. Nobody knows exactly how many he made."

While such rare Cost square-back paddle calls are highly collectible – Williams says despite a flat market today, such calls still command $4,500 to $5,500 among serious collectors – the legendary Cost eventually settled on a round back design for the remainder of his career.

Why? For the same reason Williams turns out such calls today, because of the superior sounds they make.

If obtaining a carefully-designed and constructed call is one key to success, a second is to chalk the call just right.

"Do not use school chalk," says Williams in his call literature. "If you find yourself in a pinch, blue or white carpenter's chalk will work fine. Brown chalk works fine also."

While Williams also recommends the five-inch stick of wax-free chalk he sells for $2 each, he doesn't encourage using too much.

"Most calls don't require a lot of chalk, once or twice a day is fine, depending on how much you use it," said Williams in his brochure. "I normally chalk my personal calls five or six times a season. Don't over chalk."

A final key to properly using a long-box call is to learn how to properly position the lid against the box itself to elicit the sounds of a winsome turkey hen that can drive an old boss tom mad.

While I could make a feeble attempt at describing how to do that, the best way is to learn from the master himself, Lamar Williams. Fortunately, he was more than willing to allow me to record the accompanying instructional video that goes with this piece.

At the end of the day, there is no guarantee a long-box call will seal the deal on a gobbler, even if it was made by Neil Cost or his protégé, Lamar Williams.

But when used properly by a hunter in the field, there is often a magical tone in such calls that can cause even the wariest and wisest of gobblers to sound off and betray his position.

And that's the woodsy music that once made the legendary Cost grin and still makes Williams smile big to this very day.

The melody of a wise old tom gobbling loud and proud to the sounds of a long-box turkey call, no matter how hard the spring wind is blowing.

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