Turkey hunters who have been taking to the woods for less than 30 years do not remember a time when turkeys were so rare that walking out of the woods carrying one over a shoulder was on par with bagging a ghost. Nowadays, turkeys are so ubiquitous people see them in the fields and pastures, alongside roads and walking on golf course fairways.
Despite the fact that there are more of them, hunting them successfully is still not easy. However, it was much harder before restoration projects began, according to Guy “Jeep” Kessler, a veteran call maker who began hunting them back in 1957.
“We never lost our turkeys, so we had turkeys long before anywhere else where they were eventually restored,” said Kessler. “I don’t know how many turkeys I’ve killed, but it’s probably 200.”
Kessler is 84 years old and lives near Honey Hill in the heart of Francis Marion National Forest. After retiring from the U.S. military and earning his nickname, he worked as a U.S. Forest Service timber harvest inspector. While the work allowed him to roam more than a quarter-million acres of prime turkey habitat, the walking exacted a toll.
“I haven’t hunted much in 10 years,” he said. “My legs are worn out from cruising timber for 30 years.”
Kessler’s favorite turkey call is a yelper. While many calls make yelps, which are the one of the loudest calls hunters make to mimic an amorous hen turkey, Kessler was referring to a mouth call blown like a tiny trumpet, but in reverse. The user sucks or kisses the mouthpiece. Hunters often make this type of call by gluing together the three major wing bones of a turkey, resulting in what they call a wing-bone call. However, Kessler made the yelper he was holding from mahogany. He burned his name into the call along with its date of manufacture, 5-22-07, and #28. He also rubber-stamped it “Jeep Special.”
The call was about 10 inches long and disassembled into three pieces – a long, thin mouthpiece, a mushroom shaped barrel and a cylindrical sound chamber. He drilled the holes aligned through each section with a sharpened piece of coat hanger wire.
“I used the yelper because it sounded most like a turkey,” he said. “I made it in sections to make it easier to stow. A magazine advertised turkey calls, so I bought one and liked it. Other people wanted them after that, so I started making them. I made hundreds of them for my friends, but this is the only one I kept.”
Kessler began selling yelpers in 1990, charging $65 for mahogany yelpers and $55 for yelpers made of other woods. He began tinkering with other types of calls and kept several box calls, which he made from various woods. The most beautiful is made of black mamba, also called ebony. The call has a dogwood lid, or striker. He also kept calls made from pecan, mahogany and other woods.
“I got the wood from a furniture manufacturer in North Carolina,” he said. “I came up with the design myself and killed turkeys with the very first box call I made. I made a couple hundred of them and signed them and numbered them like I did with the yelpers.”
About the same time Kessler was starting to make box calls, a pastor whom he had taught to hunt turkeys made a scratch box call. A scratch box is a small wooden box the hunter draws across a striker. The striker can be a small dowel or even the stock of a gun, which also led to its other name, “gunstock call.” Like the lid of a box call, the hunter chalks the striker of a scratch box to increase vibration. Since anything to do with hunting turkeys was Kessler’s calling, he happily helped his friend.
“The pastor made his scratch box too high,” he said. “So I started cutting it down until it sounded right. After that, I probably made 300 scratch boxes.”
His finished cedar scratch box was 13/4 inches high, 1 inch thick and 5 inches long. The half-round striker was 3 inches long and a half-inch thick. As with his other calls, Kessler signed, numbered and stamped each scratch box. Since he no longer makes turkey calls, any hunter who possesses a “Jeep Special” has something unique to treasure, the hallmark of a gifted hunter that harkens back to a time when turkeys were hard to come by and good calls and their makers were even rarer.