Part Call and Part Art: Montana Man’s Handiwork Helps Put Birds on the Table

Story by Tom Kuglin, for Montana 55
Photos by Thom Bridge, for Montana 55

In the expert hands of Bob Gibson, the dark brown walnut paddle met reddish cedar with a tiny puff of blue chalk, producing a rhythmic yelp that echoed in the smallshop.

“The cedar has long fibers and vibrates, but the other thing I like to look for is pretty wood, and it has all these knots that really look nice,” he said, repeating the yelp and tilting his head to listen.

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Bob Gibson, 83, a former supervisor of the Helena National Forest and current Bozeman resident, recalls his first turkey hunt.

Thin patterns of grained wood sat on the workbench – the half dozen or so pieces that form one of Gibson’s handcrafted turkey calls. Behind the wood, a row of completed “scratch boxes” rested against the wall awaiting a number and signature before going to their final owners.

“I’ve never timed how long it takes me to build one, but it takes a hell of a long time to do this,” he said. “If you do anything with your hands, they can’t be perfect and every one of them is a little bit different.”

Gibson, 83, a former supervisor of the Helena National Forest and current Bozeman resident, recalled his first turkey hunt.

The year was 1958 and the first year the state of Montana held an open turkey season. A posse of gobbler-getters ventured to Jordan with little knowledge of the wily birds and only one turkey call between them. Gibson and a fellow hunter returned that morning to the truck unsuccessful, but when he slammed the tailgate, an enraged tom responded nearby. A short sneak into position and he bagged his first bird as it came up the hill.

“It’s was so terribly exciting to hear that,” he said of the gobble. “That was my first hunt, and since then I’ve hunted turkeys all over eastern Montana, Wyoming and South Dakota.”

Bitten by the turkey hunting bug, Gibson visited a sporting goods store and looked at the commercial calls for sale. “I said, ‘That’s nothing, I can make that damn thing,’ and $5 or $6 was a lot of money in those days,” he said. As a hobby woodworker, Gibson started constructing calls. He produced scratch boxes, made up of a small cedar box and separate peg, and box calls, using an attached paddle to yelp, purr and even gobble when the time is right. His earliest models were a work in progress.

“The only thing I remember about them is they weren’t well constructed,” he joked. “It’s small work and not easy stuff to do. … I’m sure I had some screw-ups, but they make good firewood.”

Gibson refined his calls into works of folk art. He has produced plenty for friends and fellow hunters, and typically donated several each year for local conservation groups to auction, often netting $400 or more.

The meticulousness of call building translates into much of his life spent hunting. As he sat in his basement surrounded by antlers, beards from turkeys and mounted fish of considerable size, Gibson flipped through journals documenting every hunt for decades, including 97 turkeys.

Gibson hopes to one day hit 100 and to publish his journals. Longtime hunting partner Charlie Decker is in many of those stories.

“Bob just has a gift I’d say,” Decker said of his call-making. “They have a really good sound and anybody can use them that’ve hunted turkeys.”

Bob Gibson handles one of his handmade turkey calls in his home workshop in Bozeman recently. “I’ve never timed how long it takes me to build one, but it takes a hell of a long time to do this,” Gibson said. “If you do anything with your hands, they can’t be perfect and every one of them is a little bit different.”

Bob Gibson handles one of his handmade turkey calls in his home workshop in Bozeman recently. “I’ve never timed how long it takes me to build one, but it takes a hell of a long time to do this,” Gibson said. “If you do anything with your hands, they can’t be perfect and every one of them is a little bit different.”

Using a call his friend hand built undoubtedly makes the hunt that much sweeter.

“It’s like somebody building a traditional bow and arrow and hunting with it. It makes it that much more gratifying,” Decker said.

As he builds each call, Gibson settles into a mix of concentration and dreaming of days afield.

“When I’m working on one, I’m interested in the call because I want it to be sound, but I’m also thinking about how I talked that gobbler in until he was almost standing on my back.”

Gibson’s witty humor notes he cannot climb mountains as he once did. But he can still negotiate the
gentle slopes of his secret turkey hotspot.

“If you do hear one gobble, you want to get towards him as close as you can but not too close because
they have eyes like a whitetail,” Gibson said. “If he answers you, hold your breath because he’s probably coming. You can’t help but get excited.”

Tom Kuglin is the natural resources reporter for the Helena Independent Record. He can be reached at
tom.kuglin@helenair.com. Thom Bridge is the photographer for the Helena Independent Record. He can be reached at thom.bridge@helenair.com

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