The State Folklorist’s Notebook is a regular column written by state folklorist Emily Hilliard for Goldenseal Magazine. This article appears in the Spring 2017 issue.
It’s early November, and I’m sitting in the small, dusty wood shop of Aaron Parsons, age 20. A large woodworking lathe spans the width of the room, a fox hide and metal traps hang from the walls, and strange sounds emanate from inside: cluck cluck cluck, scrrrrrrraaaaape scrrrrrrraaaaape, purr purr purr purr.
Aaron isn’t showing me a new video game, nor tormenting the family cat, but demonstrating turkey calls he makes from materials found on his family’s Jackson County land. This particular call was made from red slate repurposed from an old house shingle, paired with a black-walnut striker which is dragged across it to produce sound.
As with many of Aaron’s hobbies—which include trapping, skinning and tanning hides, bow-hunting, and making sinkers and bullets—he has absorbed some knowledge of the craft from his family but is largely self-taught: “My family’s been turkey hunters as long as I can remember. My grandpa’s in the turkey-hunting hall of fame, and it’s just been a family tradition.”
Years ago, Aaron found a turkey call his grandfather had made out of a broom handle and a dowel, and it inspired him to make his own. His first calls were crafted from old snuff cans and slate, which he cut with a file, scissors, and a hacksaw to fit into the can. He hand-carved his first striker from a piece of white oak firewood. Now, he uses a lathe to fashion his strikers.
To be good at making turkey calls, you have to have a keen understanding of turkey behavior and turkey-hunting strategy. In the spring, when the gobblers, or male turkeys, are looking for a mate, hunters use calls to mimic hen sounds, drawing a gobbler to them. A hunter needs to be able to make several different types of hen sounds, depending on the time of day, point in the season, and position in relation to the turkey.
Aaron says, “In the morning, you want to get them gobbling on the roost so you know where to start. Then, once it’s daylight, you use different calls to get them to respond to you on the ground, and then, so you can get close enough to actually get a shot on them. The rhythm of the yelp changes from time to time throughout the day.” In the first few weeks of spring season, trees are bare, so sounds travel further than they do later in the spring when leaves are lush and muffle sound.
Aaron takes this into consideration when he’s crafting his calls and strikers: “The softer the wood, the more mellow of a call you can get, but [with] these real hardwoods, you get that raspy, scrapey sound. I have one carved from pine that I lathed down, but it was too soft—it wouldn’t even make a sound at all, so I had to fire-harden the tip.” Aaron’s calls are beautiful as well as practical. His newest striker, turned on his lathe, looks like a fine chair leg or stair railing: “It’s just a personal thing. I like having the arch. . . . I like having the lines on there. I just think it looks better like that, he says of the fine detailing.” He’s drawn to the craft for the aesthetics as much as the functionality.
While Aaron could probably sell his calls—he says there’s a decent-sized market for them now—but most companies who produce them make them from plastic and glass. “It’s hard to find a wooden slate call store-bought anymore,” he says. But he’s not particularly interested in selling his calls, offering them as gifts, rather than commodities. “I’ve never sold a call,” he says. “I’ve gave a lot away to family members and stuff, but I ain’t sold one yet. I probably should, but it takes some of the fun out of it. Then it’s a job instead of just a hobby.”
For Aaron Parsons, turkey call- making and hunting are family pursuits that allow him to develop a close connection with his people—past and present—and the land they’ve lived on for generations. Whether he’s sourcing materials for calls, following his traplines, or hunting, he walks the family’s acreage daily, learning its specific geography and ecosystem. His hobbies are not passing fancies; rather, they lead him to other, deeper studies and skills in hunting, trapping, fishing, and land husbandry. “I see something and I want to try it and start into it,” Aaron says. “Then I just get way overboard, and it’s the only thing I do for a year, and then the next year—same thing. It’s been like that ever since I was little.”
At age 20, Aaron has found what promises to be a life of learning, and craft, bound up with people and place.
The 2017 spring turkey season in West Virginia—for bearded turkeys only—runs from April 17 to May 13. Learn more about hunting in the Mountain State here. To learn more about turkey calls, see “Turkey Talk with Peck Martin” by Bruce Ingram in the Fall 2005 issue of Goldenseal.