Talking Turkey: Gary Herd Has Hand-Crafted Turkey Calls for 33 Years

Doug Berger/Herald Gary Herd with the parts to some of his turkey calls.

by Doug Berger

For 47 years, Gary Herd has been in the woods near his Thornfield home during the spring and fall seasons hunting turkeys. But since 1987 he has gone hunting with calls he has crafted himself. Today these calls go into the woods with many other turkey hunters, and are also found in collections that never have been used to call turkeys. 

“The first turkey call I ever made was in 1987. That call was too deep to sound like a hen, but it imitated the sounds of a gobbler perfectly, and I have used it many times and taken gobblers with it,” Herd stated.

“I wanted to see if I could call a turkey with one I made,” Herd stated as the reason he started making calls.

“I had no intention of every making calls to sell, or having a website, or ever going to call making competitions. I just wanted to see if I could call a turkey with something I made.” 

“It was six years later, that I began the scratch box. A scratch box is the most difficult, I think, of the turkey calls to use. But I came up with a design where when you hold it you are in full control of the call where you can make extremely soft calls or extremely loud calls, whichever you want to do. And the strange thing about this little call is you can run high on the striker and it sounds like a young hen, you can run low on the striker and it sounds like an old raspy hen,” he stated.

Herd has gone on to continuously develop his turkey call making skills. These skills have been recognized at the Grand National Call Makers competition sponsored by the National Wild Turkey Federation held at Nashville, Tenn. He participated in this and other competitions for three years, receiving second and third place finishes in divisions with 200 to 250 different competitors.

Today he sells his calls through shows and a website.

Herd remembers the first gobbler he ever saw up close was in the back of a pickup on the day of Missouri’s first spring turkey season. He was a high school student, and on a stop, their school bus driver let them get off for a short time to see the turkey. He started hunting turkeys in 1973, and has also hunted most fall turkey seasons since Missouri began a fall season in 1978.

Herd was no stranger to woodworking when he made his first call. He was a self-employed woodworker, making panels for taxidermy shops and had customers in seven states. He also has made mountain dulcimers and mandolins. He has since sold the business and now concentrates on turkey calls.

“In making calls I try to be innovative, try to create something that sounds great, but yet looks like nothing else a turkey hunter has used. My main box call is a one sided box, and it has a unique lid design that allows the lid to set flat on the call like it would on a two-sided box. So anyone who is used to using a two-sided box call can easily just make the switch to this one-sided call. This lid design is unique. I don’t think you’ll see it anywhere else,” he stated.

Herd makes three styles of calls-box call, friction call (slate call), and scratch box. He indicated that the scratch call has become the most popular.

“I enjoy experimenting with woods that maybe you wouldn’t ordinarily use for turkey calls, just to see what they will do.”

He even has some calls in his personal collection made of woods that are not included in the calls he would ordinarily make for sale. He has a personal call he has made from a combination of Paw Paw and Dogwood. The trees producing these woods do not normally grow big enough to make a turkey call.

“It is mine. One of a kind,” he added.

The woods are an important part of the calls for Herd.

“For box calls, the most common wood and my favorite, is walnut for the box with purpleheart for the lid. Purpleheart grows in the rain forest of Brazil,” he stated. 

He also said it is getting more difficult to get because of limits on exports of this timber.

“There was a time I could buy purpleheart for the price of walnut around here and now it’s five times,” he said.

“Purple heart lives to its name. It’s a slightly brownish color, but when it’s exposed to the sunlight, the wood turns a royal purple. It is not stained, it is natural,” he said.

Herd’s scratch box is walnut and cedar (eastern red cedar). The handle section is walnut and the sound board is cedar.

The slate call can be made from a variety of woods.

“I have learned to cut the different hardnesses of woods different ways to make almost any wood work for a friction call. It requires a different thickness, but any wood will work,” he explained.

“My slate all comes from eastern Pennsylvania. It’s the best in the world,” Herd stated.

Herd stressed the importance of wood grain in a turkey call. 

“Grain is important in a call just like it is in a musical instrument. All the woods are quarter sawn, just like musical instruments. Because a turkey call, in a sense, is a musical instrument,” he said.

“My box calls are not glued up boxes. The box is cut from a solid block of wood,” he added.

Herd doesn’t feel he knows himself, how long it takes him to make call. He explains that the calls are made in steps and they are made in batches. He usually starts with 20-25 scratch boxes at a time.

The woodwork in the call will be adjusted in the final “tuning” of a call, Herd stated. He explains that a custom made call will be fine tuned by the maker until they get it to the sound they want. That is the big difference between a commercial made call and custom made calls. 

Herd stated that many times custom turkey call makers are asked how do you make it sound like a turkey and they will reply “take the wood off until it sounds like a turkey.” This sounds like a smart aleck  answer, but it is true, he said. He indicated that he will many times use an exacto knife to take the final slivers of wood off in the tuning process.

“There is a uniqueness about every call, which means it must be hand tuned to get it to sound exactly right,” he said.

But the tuning also requires the maker to know the sounds of a turkey.

“If you don’t know what a turkey sounds like, you’re not going to tune a call,” he said.

“That came from being in the woods and observing and I would say that was acquired over 25 years,” Herd stated.

“I can produce around 14 different turkey sounds. That’s probably going to shock some people, because most of the hunters will only use probably a yelp, a cluck and a purr,” he said.

In his own hunting, Herd may carry up to four calls into the field.

“I have particular calls I use for fall, and particular calls that I use for spring. One very unique thing that I will do in spring is a fighting purr on a slate call were I use two strikers to make the call. The call is held between my knees with a striker in each hand, and it sounds like two gobblers fighting,” he stated.

“The call that I will use in the fall is made of a very hard wood, which produces a very high pitched sound for the kee kee, of a few month old poult.

“You need a different call for fall then you do for spring, but even more importantly, you need different calls for spring. That said, most people only know a few of the turkey sounds. You need to pick a call that will do something different,” he explained.

“I most generally carry four calls with me when I am hunting. There are times to be loud. There are times to be very soft. If you have one call and you can’t get down soft with it, more times than not, the bird will come in so close and hang up,” he said.

“I will use one call. I may lay it down and pick up another call with a slightly different pitch. So then I sound like two hens out there instead of one,” he explained.

“I have called turkeys a long way off. I called very loud and as they came in I started to get softer and softer and sometimes I’d change calls to get softer. The ability to call loud and the ability to call soft, produces more kills,” he stated. 

“I have hunted 47 years and to date the furthest from home I have taken a turkey is about five miles.”

“The thing that keeps me interested, more than anything, about turkey hunting is totally different than deer hunting. Deer hunting, it becomes kind of the same-ol’ same ol’. I hate to say that, as much as I enjoy it. In the 47 years I have turkey hunted, I find myself saying, well, I never had that happen before. Those words usually come out of my mouth every turkey season,” he stated.

Occasionally Herd’s turkey calling brings in more than turkeys.

“I have called up many coyotes. One morning, five or six years ago on opening day of the season, I was plagued with coyotes. I called in three that morning. I’d never had that before. In the fall I have called up two bobcats.”

Herd even takes one of his calls out on occasion to specifically hunt coyotes. Herd, who also makes you-tube videos, and even has a video showing an interaction between a donkey and turkey.

He stated that now the turkey population is important to his decision to participate in the fall hunt. If the turkey population is down, he may not hunt. He indicated that the population is down now and he is not hunting. 

“If you get a cold rain right after a hatch, the little guys will chill and die off quickly, and we have had about four years that have taken our turkey population way, way down. It’s not predators. It’s not hunters, it’s cold rain,” he said.

“The best bird I ever killed had six beards and the bird scored 141.5 points,” Herd stated.

He explained a turkey is scored by weight, plus all beards multiplied by two, plus both spurs multiplied by 10. An example would be a 20 pound bird with a single 10 inch beard and one inch spurs would score 60 points.

Herd stated that he has enjoyed the experiences he has had at shows when selling his calls and the interaction with those attending. Three of these interactions stand out to him.

“One was at the Bean Festival in Mtn. View, Ark., a few years ago. When a lady came up to my table, who I would say was in her mid-70s. She began to talk turkey and then in a couple of minutes, she reached into her purse and pulled out a very thick photo album. This photo album had no grandkid pictures in it. It was all her with turkeys she had killed back through the years. The amazing part of the story, to me, was that of all those turkeys she showed me pictures of, she had only used the call one time for each turkey and then the call was retired to her trophy room. A picture of her trophy room revealed numerous shelves up the wall with no telling how many turkey calls, with a turkey beard hanging in front of each call. She told me there were years she hunted both Arkansas and Missouri and that meant that she went out and bought four new calls for spring hunts,” he said.

“Another story stands out in my mind. It was at the West Plains gun show. A man kept looking over the calls. I couldn’t really tell if he was interested in one or not, he wasn’t saying anything. Finally I made comment about the Martin guitar cap that he was wearing. The conversation quickly changed from turkeys to blue grass jams. And he began to tell me about a guitar he had just bought with beautiful Brazilian rosewood. I commented that I made a couple of calls out of Brazilian rosewood. ‘Where they at, got to see them.’ I said well, I have one under the table. ‘Why’s it under the table. Why don’t you have it on top of the table?’ I said well, just like your Martin guitar, environmentalists have about shut down the exporting of Brazilian rosewood. So Brazilian has become the rarest of the rosewood species. And I laid the call on the table with the wood facing up. He leaned over and said ‘wow’ that looks just like the back of my guitar. And without trying out the call, and without asking the price, he reached in his billfold and threw down a, let’s say a large bill, and said I hope that will cover the price of that call. I said yes, that will do nicely. I doubt that call has ever been in the turkey woods, but I bet it has been to every bluegrass jam in Howell County displayed alongside his Martin guitar,” Herd related.

“I have a feeling a good part of my calls have never been to the woods, and it’s because of the woods used, the uniqueness of the design and just to add to their collection. There are many people, who are just call collectors. They may have one or two particular calls they will take to the woods.”

Doug Berger/Herald
Some of Gary Herd’s turkey calls, including the lower call in the photo made of woods not normally found in a turkey call-Paw Paw and Dogwood. Herd says this is a one of a kind call he has made just for himself.

“At a Springdale, Ark., show there was a man with a little girl, that I would say was about six years old, came up to my table. The little girl looked very bored, following daddy around in a gun show, and she stopped at the corner of my table. He daddy continued on down the long table until he got to the other end. And then about three gentlemen, sizeable gentlemen, stepped between the little girl and dad, where he couldn’t see her. It’s moments like that when bad things can happen to a little kid so I began to keep an eye on her, because daddy wasn’t, and I picked up a couple of calls and took them to the end of the table where she was, and I said, would you like to try to sound like a turkey? She shook her head yes. I put the call in her hand and it was a scratch box, and showed her how to hold it. She was the perfect student. She did everything that I showed her to do and then I told her to just bear down on it more, where it would sound loud. Then I got up and went back to my seat behind the table. She began to call louder and the yelp was beautiful. Pretty soon her dad leaned forward to see who was making all these great calls and his mouth dropped open to see it was his own little girl,” he said.

Herd stated the ability to learn to use a call can vary.

“I told you the story of the little girl. That little girl picked it up in 30 to 40 seconds. I’ve seen guys that I have messed with for 30 minutes and longer and they still couldn’t get it right. It’s an individual thing. Most of the time there is a call people are more coordinated for. Some people I don’t think could every run a friction call and they can pick up a box call and use it. Everybody’s coordination dictates the call that is best for them,” Herd stated.

Learn more about Gary’s turkey calls online: tom-turkey.com.