Turkey hunting success all in the call

CorrespondentMay 1, 2013 

Rich Shively calls to a gobbler using one of his Super Yelper scratch box call. Using different woods gives the calls different sounds. This one is made of wormy chestnut.


— A turkey sounded off on his roost, shock gobbling at the screech of a red-tailed hawk. From his hiding place 150 yards away, a hunter’s hand moved ever so slightly, drawing a small flat box across a half-round cedar dowel. The dowel was covered in brown chalk to increase friction. The result was a sound that mimicked the yelps of an amorous hen turkey.

“He’s answering,” said Richard Shively, a national champion turkey call maker from Wilmington. “Hear him gobbling when I run the call?”

Shively was using one of his Super Yelper scratch boxes. The call is a modern version of a crude, antique turkey call he discovered in Alabama. But his pathway to turkey hunter from a kid who hunted turkeys had plenty of pitfalls.

“I made my first turkey call when I was 14,” he said. “It was just a piece of slate with an oak peg striker that had a corncob at the end. That was in 1957 and I didn’t kill a turkey with it, but I bushwhacked a turkey that came by while I was squirrel hunting. From that day, my interest in turkey hunting kept growing.”

Shively made his slate-and-corncob call made by copying the call of an old turkey hunter who didn’t tell him how to make the sounds of a hen. Back then, no one had given names to what are known today as the yelp, cluck and purr. In fact, turkeys were so rare that successful turkey hunters kept everything they knew close to the vest.

“Turkeys were hunted in the fall,” he said. “Now, turkey hunting is most popular in spring, although some states still have a fall season.”

In the early 1970s, Shively called his first turkey to his gun using a Lynch box call. In 1979, he hunted with Ben Rogers Lee, a world champion turkey caller and call maker.

“I won an all-expense-paid trip to hunt with Ben in his home state of Alabama,” he said. “The NWTF (National Wild Turkey Federation) had a contest to see who could sign up the most members and I placed second to win the trip. We stopped by an old grocery store and Ben picked up a scratch box call off the counter and ran it. That sound penetrated my ears and just stayed in my mind. I loved the sound, even though, at $15, I couldn’t afford it. At that time, I was president of Virginia NWTF. We had a fundraiser and one of those same calls showed up at the banquet and I wanted it in the worst kind of way, but it cost $35, way beyond my means. I thought if I couldn’t afford one, I could make one.”

Shively made his first scratch box call of western cedar in 1979. A friend heard him calling with it and Shively asked what he should call it. The friend said it sounded like a super yelper and the name stuck. Some years later, someone asked if Shively if he still had the first Super Yelper ever built and offered him $600 for it.

“I turned it down,” he said. “The call is in the museum at NWTF headquarters in Edgefield, S.C.”

Hallmark of the Super Yelper is the different woods used in its manufacture to create different sounds. The first Super Yelpers were cedar, followed quickly by cherry and walnut. In 2011, purple heart was added.

“Purple heart is from South America,” he said. “It’s beautiful but hard to work into a call because it splits easily. I have enough wood to make 500 to 600 purple heart Super Yelpers then that’s it.”

Shively will use an even rarer wood to make about 30 calls. Wormy chestnut is a relic of lasting beauty, fading from the world with the demise of the American chestnut from blight in the early 1900s. He said the chestnut with its wormholes is distinctive and beautiful and makes great sounds. Today, he makes the strikers from cedar, but the original strikers matched the woods of the calls. He also once rubber-stamped the name and other information onto each call.

“Now they are laser engraved,” he said. “At first, I was making them all by hand and selling them for $5 and could only make five calls a week. Then I got an order from a jobber for a gross and that gave me enough money to buy a sander, which I still use. I added other power tools and once had seven part-time employees. Now I make them entirely by myself, again.”

However, Shively never sends a call out without tuning it himself. Each call is painstakingly crafted and tuned, lettering and artwork added, a finish coat added, then the tuning checked again. He has tuned tens of thousands of Super Yelpers.

“The secret to their sound is my ear,” he said. “I sincerely believe my ability to tune a call is a gift from God. The secret to their success is that it’s a sound turkeys haven’t heard before. You take it to a public land where the gobblers have been beaten to death with box calls, slates and diaphragms and they will gobble and respond.”

Shively lived in Pennsylvania and Virginia then moved to North Carolina seven years ago, a few years after retiring from AT&T. He said he moved to take advantage of climate, although he still has trouble adapting to gobbler hunting in the cypress swamps and pine plantations of the coastal plain after hunting in the mountains most of his life.

“I’ve hunted turkeys in Pennsylvania in 25-degree weather, in Virginia covered with snow and in Mexico when it was over 100 degrees,” he said. “Thanks to my calls, I’ve been invited to hunt in every state. I never made much money from them. I made them because I enjoyed what I was doing and it made my fellow turkey hunters successful. The legacy I would like to leave behind is having built the best scratch box call ever made.”

At 70, Shively has taken more than 100 turkeys over 1,500 spring dawns and both he and his calls have helped thousands of other hunters get their gobblers. A turkey hunter from Macon, N.C., telephoned following Shively’s morning hunt to request four Super Yelpers sent overnight, having just downed a gobbler with the help of a friend who used one to lure in the bird. Shively smiled at another believer who was so impressed he would pay dearly for express shipping rather than allowing a single day of the season, and maybe a gobbler, to slip away.

“There are turkey hunters and there are people who hunt turkeys,” he said. “I hope I am remembered as a turkey hunter.”

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