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Oshkosh Artist Crafts Killer Turkey Calls

If tom turkeys had any respect for artists or knowledge of their work, they wouldn’t let hunters sit idly against giant oaks, admiring the sound and craftsmanship of a wingbone call.


No, an appreciative gobbler would hear my call’s distant yelps, and strut down the ridge to see what wondrous hen was talking so seductively. And then I’d shoot, smiting the bird so cleanly and swiftly that it would die with no hint of a false hen’s betrayal.


I daydream such lethal intents without guilt, even though it would disappoint Mark Twain, America’s finest writer. Twain considered it an abuse of trust to “imitate a wild animal’s call and shoot it when it honors us with its confidence and comes to see what we want.”


He shared that misgiving in his 1897 book “Following the Equator,” and expanded on it in his 1906 short story “Hunting the Deceitful Turkey.” Twain’s boyhood story is mostly about a hen faking an injury to lure him far from her nest when he was hunting. First, though, he recalled the irony of using bones from one turkey to lure another turkey to its death:


“The hunter concealed himself and imitated the turkey’s call by sucking the air through the legbone of a turkey which had previously answered a call like that and lived only just long enough to regret it. There is nothing that furnishes a perfect turkey call except that bone. Another of Nature’s treacheries, you see. She is full of them; half the time she doesn't know which she likes best — to betray her child or protect it.”


It’s wrong to say only a turkey legbone makes a great turkey call. Most craftsmen today use three wing bones — the radius, ulna and humerus — to make yelpers.


True, some yelpers feature a turkey’s tibia, including the spur, at the call’s midsection. That bone holds the call’s bell on the far end, and the mouthpiece on the near end. But most craftsmen use the ulna bone for the midsection.


Still others craft the midsection from a rifle’s brass shell casing, a chunk of soft-rubber tubing, or a beautifully turned and drilled antler tine or decorative wood. Either way, most attach a radius bone for the mouthpiece, and a humerus bone for the bell.


None of these artists, of course, invented wingbone calls. Archaeologists think American Indians were making yelpers at least 6,500 years ago.


Still, most call-makers past and present add unique flourishes to their creations. Clarence E. “Butch” Koch, 79, of Oshkosh has made about 100 wingbone yelpers, including one that features a turkey’s radius bone for the mouthpiece and a white-tailed buck’s hollowed-out antler tine for the bell. Koch also owns an antique suction call with a radius-bone mouthpiece, black rubber tubing for the midsection, and a hollowed out cow-horn for the bell.


“It sounds OK,” Koch says with a shrug.


Koch, of course, favors his own turkey calls, and those made by his older brother, John, who died in February. After you hold one of Koch’s calls, admire its craftsmanship, and suck a yelp from its three artfully conjoined wingbones, you won’t feel guilty using it to trick wild turkeys. You assume the gobbler would feel honored.


Sure, you can buy good mass-manufactured “wingbone” calls, and these plastic versions work fine. But no matter how good they sound, they’ll never be eye candy, and you’ll never boast about their origins.


In contrast, even the most basic handcrafted wingbone calls please eye and ear alike. But Koch takes no chances. He signs and dates his artwork, as did his brother. He admits he and John were proud, competitive craftsmen. But he concedes John was a better painter.


“John did the real artwork,” Koch said. “I wish I could paint feathers halfway as good as his. They’re really good.”


As with most talented artists, Koch makes the craft sound easy. “You just boil the bones to get the meat off, but not so long that you soften them,” he said. “Then you just cut the ends off, clean everything so there’s no fat anywhere, and sand the ends to fit them together. I also fill the mouthpiece with epoxy to strengthen it, and then drill out the opening. Some people cut the bones square. John and I always cut them at an angle. We argued about the best angle, but they all work the same.”


Koch is more certain about which turkeys make the best bones for crafting yelpers. “I like the wingbones from hens and jakes (1-year-old males),” he said. “A gobbler’s really big bones just work OK.”


Koch loves the looks, history and artistry of wingbone calls, but values their deadly utility the most. “Sometimes it’s the only call a gobbler will answer,” he said. “Some guys don’t practice enough with them. They take a little practice to master.”


Koch should know. Besides making wingbone calls, he has a patent on his “Double Talk” pot call, whose top surface merges a slate with glass so you can sound like two different turkeys when calling. He has also killed 47 turkeys with his compound bow, and hopes he’ll arrow three more to reach 50.


Age and commitments at home keep moving that goalpost, but he has no complaints.


“I’m not afraid of dying; just the process,” Koch said. “John did it pretty well. He had just turned 80, and he was out shoveling snow. He finished the job, put away the snowblower, put away the shovel, and sat down on his truck’s tailgate to rest. When the neighbor looked out, John was lying in the back of his truck. He didn’t suffer and he didn’t burden anyone. He did it about right.”

Wingbone calls made by Clarence E. “Butch” Koch and his late brother, John, in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, are works of art that have coaxed many gobblers to their deaths.Patrick Durkin photo

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