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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Functional art: How Dan Wittenberg makes turkey calls that last

The old turkey call is lined with notches. Dan Wittenberg adds one for each legal turkey the call draws within shooting range. He’s careful to say he’s not the best turkey hunter in the world, but he knows how to talk to birds. While helping young hunters during youth seasons earlier this month, he called in 19 male turkeys. That’s 19 more notches for the old call.

The call is a long box, made of Eastern red cedar and butternut. For 15 years, he’s been rubbing the lid against the soundboard, producing realistic yelps, clucks and purrs that have fooled somewhere north of 300 turkeys.

It’s one of more than 500 calls he’s made over the past two decades at his home on Spokane’s South Hill, the place where a hobby turned into a business.

Over a couple of decades, Wittenberg has made calls for hunters all over the country. His calls are used by people here in Spokane and in New Jersey, Massachusetts, Tennessee, Georgia and more.

He makes about 30 a year, tuning each one to perfection and adding bits of detail that make the calls his – his name, an inscription, a turkey-shaped logo and a thin strip of decorative banding down the sides.

The hunters who buy his calls are searching for something more than a tool to help them kill birds. They want something unique, something they can cherish, something that will last.

The proof is in the notches on the old call. Wittenberg, who is 74, plans to pass the call down to his son. Others who own his calls are making the same plans. It’s a legacy, and one he couldn’t have imagined when he first got interested in joining two pieces of wood with a screw.

“I wanted one to hunt with,” he said.

The conversation

Serious turkey hunters will tell you that their favorite part of hunting isn’t killing the bird, or even eating it. It’s the part that comes before they even shoulder the gun – the conversation between human and turkey, a delicate dance that has to go just right to bring a big tom close enough for a shot.

There are a lot of different styles of calls. Some are locator calls, which usually imitate a different animal in the hopes of eliciting a far-off gobble that tells a hunter where the birds are. When a hunter is ready to talk directly with a male turkey, they’ll turn to the styles that imitate hens, such as diaphragm calls – placed in the mouth and blown – or handheld calls.

One form of the handheld calls is a pot call, a piece of slate or other material that’s scratched with a striker. Another is the box call.

Box calls are made of two pieces of wood – the lid and box. A single screw holds the two together, allowing the lid to be swung out and back. The sound comes when the lid hits the soundboard, or the lip of the empty box.

Most box calls are short, not much bigger than a hand. Wittenberg makes boxes that are 12.5 inches long. The size allows for longer strokes, and it makes them more versatile. A long box call can be loud or quiet, high pitched or low pitched.

Wittenberg uses them exclusively now, both for locating gobblers and at close range. But for years, he’d never touched one. For years, he wasn’t even a turkey hunter.

He grew up an Air Force brat, moving all over the world before settling in Puyallup, Washington, for high school. He went to Central Washington University and then became an Air Force adult, training as a pilot.

He flew for the Air Force for 20 years, and he resumed the pattern of moving all over. Along the way, he hunted and fished, but his first turkey hunt didn’t come until he was close to 30 and living in North Dakota. He took a trip to southeastern Montana with a store-bought call and no idea how to chase the birds.

“I didn’t know jack,” he said.

But he was able to fill his tag. The next year, he returned and did it again.

In the early 1980s, he moved to Spokane for the first time. Turkey hunting wasn’t popular then. Washington had planted the birds for decades, and hunting seasons had been open since 1965, but few people participated. Wittenberg didn’t either.

In 1984, the Air Force sent him to California to teach people to fly B-52s, but he was able to return to Spokane for good in 1989. He retired from the Air Force in 1991, then worked as a pilot for Delta for a couple of years before joining the Spokane Valley Fire Department in 1995.

Meanwhile, turkey populations were growing. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife had been trapping birds in places where they were overpopulated and moving them into suitable habitat elsewhere, and the work was resulting in a wider distribution of huntable populations. As a result, hunters got more interested.

Wittenberg still didn’t know anything about them, but he was interested. He started hunting with a friend from the fire department who knew the birds well, and he started copying what he did. Soon, he was getting pretty good at bringing birds home, and it became his favorite kind of hunting.

He loved the interaction with the birds, and the thrill when the delicate dance went well.

“That’s the fun of it,” Wittenberg said. “Calling them in.”

The instrument

One day, a friend of Wittenberg’s brought a long box call on a hunt. It was a reproduction of a call made by the late Neil Cost, a renowned callmaker credited with pioneering a certain kind of long box.

They were at a spot Wittenberg knew well, a place he thought they should be able to find some gobblers.

He tried his pot call. No response. He tried his diaphragm. Still nothing.

He knew another spot they could try. They got ready to move, then he remembered his friend had brought the long box. He told him to try it.

A few yelps later, they got the gobble. It came from across the clearing, probably 400 yards away.

They stayed put and kept calling. The turkey popped out and started moving closer to them.

“Here he comes across this pasture,” Wittenberg said. “I couldn’t believe it.”

When it got close enough, Wittenberg shot it. Then they moved to another spot, and the long box brought in more turkeys.

“I was just amazed at how effective it was,” he said.

Immediately, he knew he wanted one. His friend purchased the call at an auction for more money than Wittenberg wanted to spend, so he got to thinking if he could make one. He’d picked up woodworking years before, through a furniture-making class at Fairchild Air Force Base, so he knew how to shape wood into something nice. He borrowed the call, measured it and got to work.

Nobody could teach him how to do it. He scoured books about Neil Cost and his process, learning what materials he preferred – always Eastern red cedar for the lid, and he favored butternut and Sitka spruce for the boxes.

The materials and the dimensions were the easy part. The sound was another matter. Lids are cut thin, their bottoms gently curved. The box is tapered at a 5 -degree angle, from top down. A drill cuts the hole in the box, about an inch and an eighth deep. Soundboards are thinned carefully – going too thin makes the sound tinny and rattly, producing a call fit for a trash can.

“It boils down to trial and error,” he said. “And you’ve got to be willing to throw calls away that don’t sound good.”

On his 10th attempt, he finally got a call that sounded right. He still has that call. Compared to the ones he sells, it’s dressed down. No inscription, no name, no decoration. But it still sounds good. He likes it more than he likes a mass-produced Neil Cost replica he owns.

It gave him the confidence to keep going. As he made more, he started giving them away to hunting buddies and to his son and son-in-law.

Word spread. Out of the blue, a friend of a friend asked if Wittenberg would sell him a call. Selling them was never on his mind. He didn’t even know what to charge. They settled on $50.

It was the first domino to fall. That one call prompted a man from Seattle to call Wittenberg and tell him that the instruments he was making were special, and that they were worth some money.

Wittenberg told the man he wasn’t really in the business. The man ordered two calls anyway, and asked him to set a price. Wittenberg came back with an ask of $95. The man told him that was too low – he should be charging $100.

Suddenly, Wittenberg was in the business. He made a website, and he started getting more orders. Orders came by phone, so he got to know the hunters who were buying his calls. Some of them became friends. He got to know other callmakers, and occasionally traveled east to see some of them.

At one point, he went to a big callmaking convention in Georgia, an event focused entirely on turkey calls. Big-time callmakers go there. They have tables and they sell their calls, and they’ve all had tables for years, Wittenberg said. It’s impossible to get one.

He was excited to be there, to be around guys who churn out hundreds of calls each year, and he expected to be a nobody.

Make enough of something special, though, and people start to notice. Those other callmakers, the big timers?

They knew who he was.

The heirloom

There’s a table saw in the garage. In the basement, there’s a workstation with a router. Upstairs, there’s a sewing machine – Wittenberg makes a case for each call, a way for hunters to keep the calls from making noise as they walk.

Lids sit in coffee cans on the table in the kitchen, ready to be attached to boxes. The next batch will put his total at 525 calls, and he’s got 40 more to finish once turkey season is over.

He started by copying the Cost calls, and he calls himself a disciple of the famous callmaker. Over time, though, he’s developed his own style. Small details that make his boxes different. Places where the edges are rounded. Thumb-sized indentations in the handle, where the call is meant to be held. The banding on the bottom and the turkey tail painted on the bottom of the lid.

Each call takes about 15 hours to make. The price is now $175, has been for more than a decade. That’s high, and he knows it. It’s not about making money; it’s about keeping demand where it is, at about 30 a year. This is all he does now, having retired from the fire department in 2009, but it’s still a hobby, not a cash cow.

“I just like making good -sounding calls that people will cherish,” Wittenberg said.

Sometimes, he’ll take a call out onto his deck and test it. On good days, when nobody’s running a weed whacker nearby, the South Hill turkeys will respond, letting him know the call sounds right.

Not that he needs their help.

“He has the ear for it,” said Chris Cornelius, a friend who has bought more than 10 calls from Wittenberg.

Cornelius works for the Spokane Valley Fire Department, and that’s where he met Wittenberg. They’d occasionally be on a shift together. In their downtime, they’d talk fishing and hunting. When he heard about Wittenberg’s turkey calls, he asked if he could buy one.

Once he started using it, the long box changed how Cornelius approaches turkey hunting. Instead of wearing a vest loaded with a full arsenal of calls, he carries just two: a diaphragm call for when his hands need to be on the shotgun, the long box for everything else.

To him, it’s more than a turkey call. The inscription on the top of the box describes the call’s anatomy – a lid of red cedar from Tennessee, a box of Sitka spruce from Alaska. It’s one of a few things he cherishes, a piece of functional art that he’ll save forever.

“It’s special,” Cornelius said. “The call I have is the only one of these that exists.”

That feeling is why he keeps going back to Wittenberg to buy more calls. The one he has is the only one he’s kept. The others he’s given as gifts to other hunters. Just this week, he picked up five more. He knows any hunter who receives one of the calls will hold it as dear as he does, and that the call will last.

The instruments are deceptively simple. Two pieces of wood joined by a screw that happen to produce a realistic imitation of a hen turkey. Over time, Wittenberg said, the sound doesn’t change. The lid and box marry, and the calls stay in tune.

It’s why he still likes the sound of the 10th call he ever made. It’s why he keeps putting notches in the one with which he hunts. It’s why he’s sure that years from now, somebody somewhere will be calling in a turkey with a box crafted on the South Hill.

“It’s not immortality,” he said. “But these calls are going to be calling turkeys after I’m dead. And that’s something.”