— This town’s popular “Music City” nickname played to the tune of a different beat at the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) convention held Feb. 8-12, at the Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center.
For those five days, music coming from the exhibition hall was not from finely tuned, Nashville-made acoustic Gibson Guitars. Instead, it played from an instrument that is music to the ears of a turkey hunter.
By midmorning on the show’s opening day, the resonating pitch of gobbles, clucks, cackles, yelps and kee-kees coming from custom-made turkey calls of all types easily resonated above the talk of the camo-clad hunters jam-packed on the show floor.
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Turkey call makers accounted for roughly 60 of the 600 exhibitors at the show, with most staked out in small, inconspicuous 10-by-10 foot booths. What lacked in space was made up in volume.
Signs hanging from the booths reflected the small town roots of the makers, the names of which read like towns spread across a map of rural America. “Dead End Game Calls,” “Derby City Game Calls,” “The Last Call,” and “Twisting Creek Calls,” formed a longer exhibitor lineup of hometown, homemade businesses whose advertising is spread more by word of mouth than through a corporate marketing plan.
Florida NWTF member Rick Hanas was among the loyal customers returning to “Dad’s Custom Calls” at the convention. Hanas first heard about maker Jerry White through his nephew.
“I bought my first call from Jerry about eight years ago,” Hanas said. “I like the resonance and tone of his box calls for the birds we have in Florida.”
The Hazelhurst, Ga., call maker was adding the finishing touches on his 15th call for Hanas. Each comes with a hand-inscribed personal message, including the type of tree species used for the box and lid, the owner’s name, and a good-luck passage.
The signature message is a trademark. “Sometimes I’ll come up with my own message, they’re all different on every call,” White said. “It’s a personal touch and source of pride. If you’re not proud of it then you shouldn’t sign it.
“His calls are like collector’s items. He’s a very personable gentleman and clearly passionate about what he does. That’s what keeps me coming back.”
White’s calling came from a personal desire to build a better call, like most of the other custom craftsmen displaying and demonstrating their best works.
“I’d been in the construction business for 40 years,” he said. “I decided that if I could build a house that I could build a better call. I wanted something more refined than a mass produced call and eventually I found it.
“I knew I’d struck the right notes after I’d finally fooled Mother Nature with one of my calls. I’ve been hooked ever since.”
That was in 1997, when White put away the hammer and nails for good. Each call is hand-hewn from a single block of wood. White can use wood from 28 species for boxes and lid strikers crafted in his shop. Orders come from all over the country, and his calls having taken grand slams across North America.
The convention also comes with its share of official business. At its core, the NWTF is a conservation organization dedicated to the preservation of the wild turkey, its habitat and a loyal membership it calls “champions of conservation.”
Keeping with the common thread of turkey calls and calling, the convention features custom call making competitions, game call appraisals and technical calling seminars hosted by experts.
The schedule is braced by a nonstop run of events rooted in conservation, turkey hunting tactics and the headliner of the week, the NWTF Grand National Calling Championships.
Owl Hooting, Gobbling, Team, Head-to-Head, Friction and the Senior Finals are formal titles for competitions scored by judges over the four-day event. Poult, Junior, Intermediate divisions compete around the headlining Wild Turkey Bourbon/NWTF Grand National Champion of Champions.
Callers make the trip to Nashville after having advanced through NWTF-sanctioned events beginning at the local level. The championship events begin with preliminary rounds taking up to four hours to complete. This year champions were crowned in 10 different divisions of the calling championships.
The big winner was Mark Prudhomme, 46, of Georgetown, S.C. The plantation wildlife manager scored a fourth consecutive Champion of Champions title, besting a lineup of previous national and state champions.
Nashville has become a popular destination for the convention. Last year, some 44,000 NWTF members and avid turkey hunters attended the convention. The NWTF plans to return through 2018 for the annual get-together.
“We like it here and a big portion of our membership live within a day’s drive of Nashville so it makes it ideal,” said Josh Fleming, NWTF Public Relations Manager. “We see a great potential to keep growing here with this convention.”
And with that growth will come more music to the ears of the flock of thousands of hunters gathering to hear the sounds calls made to connect them with their passion.