Indiana craftsman takes top turkey call honors

2/18/2014 7:00 AM
By Associated Press

DUDLEYTOWN, Ind. (AP) — A local turkey call maker recently earned top honors in a national competition, but don't expect to see Rick Steward with his own reality television show anytime in the near future.

"I don't plan on making a lot of calls in my lifetime," Steward told The Tribune (http://bit.ly/1fdvJ9b ) Monday from his workshop outside his Dudleytown home.

Steward, 59, and his wife, Maryellen Steward, returned home Sunday from the 38th annual National Wild Turkey Federation Convention and Sport Show in Nashville, Tenn.

During that show, Rick Steward's custom carved decorative box turkey call "In the Timber" outshined the competition.

Steward said he was ecstatic to learn his entry earned every possible award during the 21st annual Grand National Wild Turkey Federation Decorative Call competition.

The carved box call, which took about 190 hours to make, received first place in carved decorative box calls and best of class carved decorative box calls. Steward also won the Earl "Mick" Mickel Purchase Award as call maker of the year and the grand national decorative turkey call competition.

"This takes in everything," Steward said of the awards. "There's nothing higher than this."

That doesn't mean Steward won't be back at his workshop bench carving another turkey call before next year's convention. He's been entering contests since 1999.

"I'm going to keep making calls as long as my hands will hold out," he said.

Steward said his hands — which have grown to be less steady over the years — and his eyes are his most important tools.

And there's actually one additional honor Steward can pursue. That competition would be the Grand National Champion of Champions, which is limited to past decorative turkey call best of show winners (1994 through 2004) and The Earl Mickel Purchase Award winners (2005 to 2014).

Steward didn't get to bring home his winning entry.

In fact, none of the entrants bring their calls home after the competition because they are sold at an auction used to raise funds for turkey federation projects.

Steward's winning entry, however, will wind up in the federation's museum in Edgefield, S.C.

The competition is judged by five people. Each decorative call is judged for eye appeal and artistic beauty, craftsmanship, originality and creativity uniqueness in design.

And there's one other important test.

"They have to sound like a turkey," Steward said. "I try for the best sound."

Steward, who has worked for Seymour's sanitation department the past 35 years, said his wife has always been supportive of his hobby.

"She enjoys the camaraderie of it and the fellowship of other wives whose husbands make calls," Steward said.

"It's kind of a different group of people. We hang out together and see who can tell the biggest stories."

Steward said his business, Back 40 Custom Calls, is not Walmart, and you can't come in and just pick a call off the wall and buy it.

"There is a six-year waiting list," Steward said. "It's not that there are that many customers. I just don't make that many calls."

Waiting is generally not an issue for hunters looking to purchase one of his custom-made decorative calls, he said.

Steward can and will make calls to be used for turkey hunting, but the decorative calls are a little pricey to be used for that purpose.

The process of making a call begins with a piece of wood and an idea.

From that piece of wood, which can be walnut, ebony or pink ivory, Steward makes a blank, and from that blank he begins carving details based upon a theme for each call.

This year's winner featured two hunters sitting by a tree in woods with weapons pointed at a turkey.

Steward also makes wing-bone calls out of turkey bones, turn-barrel yelp out of wood and slate calls.

He said if he makes a mistake along way, the call is not ruined because he just turns the mistake into another feature.

For instance, if he accidentally cut down one of the trees in the call, he would turn it into a tree stump.

He said he knows he's finished with a call quite simply.

"When there's nothing more to do," Steward said.

And when the show is just three days away, he added.

Steward said he traces his love of making turkey calls back to the early 1970s when he started hunting turkeys. He began making turkey calls in 1978. His first was made out of a piece of 2-by-4-inch lumber and a piece of tile roofing slate.

"I don't think you could buy turkey calls in the store back then," said Steward, who is member of the turkey federation's Muscatatuck River Longbeards in Seymour.

He said he's continued to make turkey calls over the years because it is a unique hobby and something he enjoys.

He said he doesn't want to give too much of his time to making turkey calls, however.

"The more calls you make, the more it takes away from your life," he said.

And while he still hunts turkey, Steward said he enjoys being the turkey caller more than the hunter.

"It's not the amount of turkeys you have taken but the fun you have doing it," he said.

To that end, you can often find Steward out turkey hunting with his sons, Daniel and Dustin, and Dustin's sons, Wyatt, 10, and Lane 7.

"He's an up-and-coming hunter," Steward said of Lane.

Steward said his carving calls is a good way to relax and unwind, and when he's not busy making calls, he carves jewelry out of bone and ivory for his wife and other women in their circle of friends.

"They like the jewelry," he said.

___

Information from: The (Seymour) Tribune, http://www.tribtown.com


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