Jake Biddle carries his most prized possessions — a collection of wild turkey calls — in a small plastic box. There are slate calls, box calls and mouth calls, all of which he uses to create the sounds of one of the country’s most popular game birds.
Dressed in his hunter’s orange vest, he sits in a chair next to his parents, Margie and Steve Biddle, just before the Missouri turkey calling championships at Bass Pro Shops in Columbia last weekend. He carefully pulls out each item and shows it off.
“This is my box call,” he said, before using it to create a loud rendition of an excited hen turkey.
“This is how I annoy her,” Jake said, grinning and pointing toward his mom.
“Yes, he does!” Margie Biddle responded.
Jake, 10, was one of five youngsters competing in the JAKES youth division of the annual turkey-calling contest. JAKES, or Juniors Acquiring Knowledge, Ethics and Sportsmanship, is a program sponsored by the National Wild Turkey Federation and is designed for those 17 and younger who have an interest in the outdoors.
This was Jake’s second year of competing in the calling championship. After finishing fourth last year, he thought his knowledge of the contest and his familiarity with the other competitors would help him. This year, he even competed against his cousin Nick.
“We didn’t even know he was going to be here,” Margie Biddle said. “That’s fun!”
Along with the JAKES, the open and friction divisions of the contest brought more than 25 competitors to Bass Pro, a mix of beginners and past champions. The callers wandered the store, practicing their calls as they went up and down the aisles. The purrs, clucks, putts and yelps brought many of the store’s customers to the calling stage to find out what was going on.
Jake wandered the crowd while practicing his slate call, listening closely with each stroke. Calling practice, he said, has made him a better hunter. He likes to take his calls to school and show his friends how to work them. When he gets home, he takes his box of calls outside and makes some noise. He mostly uses the hand-held friction calls but is trying to get better with mouth calls. He also likes practicing with his father.
“We call back and forth to each other,” Jake said. They practice together so much, in fact, that Steve Biddle can pick his son’s sounds out of the cacophony of calls throughout the store.
“That’s Jake,” he said after hearing a gobble from the other side of the crowd.
Jake’s interest in turkey hunting began when his dad’s friend showed him a beard from a tom he had killed. Jake bagged his first bird — a 19-pound gobbler with an 11-inch beard — last spring.
“The excitement about when you shoot the bird is the best thing,” Jake said. “This year, I want a 12-inch beard.”
Once the competition began, Jake sat anxiously in the audience as the other participants took the stage one at a time. Finally, it was his turn. With three different slate calls hanging around his neck and his plastic box in hand, Jake walked calmly to the stage. He complied with the judges’ requests, making two series of each type of call they demanded, listening with his ear cocked toward his call and giving a quick nod after each effort.
“I try not to get nervous and stay calm,” Jake said of being on stage. “I just concentrate on my calls.”
Jake finished fourth in the contest again this year, and he plans to start practicing now for next year’s event.
National calling champion Chris Parrish of Centralia, who, with fellow champion Steve Stoltz of St. Louis, held seminars on turkey calling tactics before last week’s contest, said he’d like to see more youngsters get interested in calling contests.
“We need to work on building up youth and getting callers more involved,” Parrish said.
Parrish, the 2006 Grand National Champion of Champions and U.S. Open Champion, said his interest in calling competitions was a logical extension of his enthusiasm for hunting.
“I was just trying to become a better hunter,” he said, adding that the key to better calling is simply listening to wild turkeys, whether in the woods or on a recording.
Stoltz, the 1998 Grand National Champion of Champions, agreed.
“Sounding more like a real turkey is more important now than ever before,” he said. “When I see a judge go behind a screen, I want them to listen to real, live turkeys, not for a person trying to sound like a turkey.”
Dave Murphy, executive director for the Conservation Federation of Missouri and master of ceremonies for the event, said judges meet before the contest to decide which of the many turkey calls they’ll ask the competitors to mimic. Competitors then are asked to do two series of each call. The judges, who sit behind a curtain so they can’t see the caller, score the contestants on the accuracy and cleanliness of the sound.
Murphy said the top callers in some ways are better than the real thing.
“In the wild, real turkeys don’t care and make mistakes in their calls,” he said. “These guys competing must be absolutely perfect.”
Parrish said turkey calling competition “is dead serious.” That’s because the top callers in some events can be competing for as much as $10,000.
The Missouri Open Champion, Keith Wahling of Villa Ridge, won $500, a plaque and an all-expenses paid trip from Bass Pro Shops to the U.S. Open National Calling Championships, which will be held in Pearl, Miss., this March. The open division allows competitors to use friction calls, mouth calls or a combination of both.
Other winners were Cody Harrison of Hillsboro in the JAKES division and Steve Morgenstern of Edina in the friction division.
The Missouri championships, sponsored by the National Wild Turkey Federation, also serve as a qualifier for the 2008 NWTF Grand National Turkey Calling Championships, known as the Superbowl of turkey calling.