By Terry Simpson
A new season of “Turkey Dynasty” — could it be? Wait… turkey? Isn’t it Duck Dynasty?
“Duck Dynasty,” the television show based on a family who made it big with their duck call business in Louisiana, has become quite popular across the country.
Yet, right here in Monroe County, we have the makings of our own “Turkey Dynasty,” as Tooley’s Custom Game Calls — located on Gamaliel Road and owned and operated by Mark and Debbie Tooley — has become a bit of a booming business itself.
Why turkey calls — why not duck calls like the show?
According to Tooley, “There aren’t many duck hunters around here. Turkey is dominant. I’ve always liked to hunt and fish — more in the past than I do now.
“I don’t have as much time as I would like and there is always deer, but me, I like my turkey hunting,” he added.
Tooley recalls some years ago when turkey were sparse in this area as well.
“When I was real young, I would have given my eye teeth to go turkey hunting, but we didn’t have them here. I remember when Kentucky Fish and Wildlife first came in and restored the population. I was so excited, and I asked my dad to go hunting with me.”
In preparation of the venture, he read everything he could find on the sport.
He explained to his dad everything he had learned, such as the need for turkeys to roost and that they would need to go the evening before their hunt and “just listen.”
He knew that the next morning they would have to get “above” the turkey in order to have the best chance of bringing one home.
That first hunting trip took an hour and a half to get uphill from where the turkeys had roosted the night before and both men were out of breath when they reached their destination.
Yet, it was worth it, Tooley said, “I let dad go out in front to hunt and I stayed back with my call. I wanted the turkey to be looking for me and my call, and he did.
“That turkey walked all the way up to me and did a drum, a strut… and he was so close I could feel the ground shake. I let him go and my dad shot him,” Tooley recalled.
“That was the first open season the newly-released turkeys had ever been hunted and they weren’t nearly as smart as they are now,” he continued.
Back then, as Tooley laughed and explained, you could slam a truck door and one would come running.
Over the years the birds’ intelligence has advanced, and now they are much harder to outsmart, he added.
Tooley made his first turkey call with the wing bone from that first father-son turkey harvest and he was hooked.
He started with copper pipes, saving all he could find.
“They may not have been much to look at, but they worked.”
It was several years later before he started making calls such as the ones he’s produced in the past few years.
He’s branched out from just turkey calls and does make the occasional special-order duck call, as well as predator distress calls, coyote howler calls, squirrel, crow, owl…wait what?
“People hunt owls?”
My question received quite the chuckle from Mark and Debbie.
“No, owls are a protected species,” but, as Mark explains, “A lot of calls work in mysterious ways.”
For instance, Mark continued, an owl, woodpecker or even a peacock call may be used to draw out other animals.
These are known as locator calls, Tooley noted, saying “A turkey is like most guys, he hears something different, and he is going to come and check it out. You have to beat him at his own game.”
That is part of the mystery and intrigue which drew Tooley to making his own calls.
He explained that if a hunter purchases a call from a retail business, that call will sound the same as any other call made by that business.
With turkey hunting especially, but also in other calls, you want different, he added.
Tooley also noted that with big chain calls, hunters may assume they are buying glass when it is actually imitation, and, in his opinion, nothing replaces the real thing.
His calls, known for their durability, are made from many different materials including slate, copper, crystal and wood, with the sounds changing with each pairing.
“What attracted me was not making the same thing over and over,” he said.
“I could work the rest of my life and not make the same one. That is interesting to me.”
What was also interesting to Tooley, just like the yearning for knowledge of turkey hunting in his younger years, was learning about the wood used in making his custom calls.
He can tell you anything about pretty much any tree or wood used in call making. From Holly, which is naturally white (but has pink coloring in it as well), needs to be processed quickly before losing its color. The Bradford Pear trees, which produce brittle limbs like pecan trees, can take up to days to cut up due to the sap freezing inside.
These trees produce hardwoods and those are better in his opinion.
“But some hunters prefer cedar,” he added. He would like the chance to procure some “ancient wood, sinker wood, that has been around over 100 years or wood that has been under water for some time” to make some special calls.
His favorite trees for call making, though, would be fruit trees.
Apple, plum and other fruit trees are considered “tone wood” and are used in making musical instruments, Tooley explained.
“If you think about it, you are playing a musical instrument when you use a call.”
A six-foot-long log will be sawed, processed, dried for up to a year per inch of thickness — sometimes even dyed, can render up to 18 calls.
These logs are reclaimed from all over the county, as he likes to keep things local, but says he may eventually look for wood in other areas.
Sometimes people contact him to come out to their property and remove the trees and sometimes he will be out driving and see something he finds interesting, as his wife states, “I’ll be driving down the road and see a tree knocked down and know he will want it.”
Tooley says he will never cut down a good tree. He looks for those that have already fallen, those that are going to die anyway or those that belong to people who have contacted him for removal.
Some customers have even brought him wood with sentimental value, such as from a grandparent’s cabin.
He takes the wood and turns it into a priceless heirloom, to be passed down through generations, which is possible thanks to the durability of his product.
Tooley and his team make each call by hand, one at a time, in his garage, affectionately named “Pop’s Garage” by his granddaughter Kinsley (daughter of James and Amber Gallup).
“Kinsley is my little helper and her brother Kaden helps a lot, too. He is working on a miniature pot call right now. Amber is also a big help, making labels,” Tooley added.
Each call is tediously made with drying and sanding time in between each step, so a call that might take two hours could, in reality, take two days to finish.
Tooley has always been a bit of a “professional hobbyist,” as dubbed by his wife Debbie, who spoke of her husband with obvious pride.
When he is not working 12-hour shifts at the Kingsford Charcoal Plant, he is always working on something either in the garage, outside or in his hobby room, she added.
“Just look at this,” she says, picking up one of the calls, “This is beautiful, and it came out of a block of wood.”
Tooley spoke just as fondly of her, saying “She supports me, and she puts up with me, always has.”
Through Debbie’s support, a lot of hard work and talent, a little bit of creativity, the aforementioned blocks of wood and whatever time he can squeeze in — the little business has quickly grown.
What started with a love of turkey hunting and copper pipes, now provides calls to several surrounding counties and five states.
Word of the one-of-a-kind custom calls has spread quickly with a Facebook page and word of mouth. This has led to many honors, such as Tooley being asked to sponsor a predator hunt (featuring coyote, bobcat and fox among others) in West Virginia, where winners were awarded three of his donated calls, as well as a guide in Pennsylvania who uses his calls on hunting excursions.
“Pop’s Garage” has grown as well, over time adding a small mill, a lay, saws, a laser engraver and other equipment, with the hope of eventually adding another building.
Time, and of course money, seems to be the only thing halting that dream. With Post-it notes of orders lining a board in the garage, there is no worry of not having enough to keep him busy, but with his “real job” demanding of his time, it is a slow process.
Tooley isn’t all that interested in a “Duck Dynasty” type fame anyway. He would just like to have a business he can pass down to his grandchildren someday, and to be remembered for his trade, talent and the mark he made on the world. He’s forever humble, but that’s okay — because his custom calls speak for themselves.
If you would like more information on purchasing any type of call from Tooley’s Custom Game Calls you can check out his Facebook page or email him at Tooley’firstname.lastname@example.org.