oing into this year’s National Wild Turkey Federation Grand National Calling Championships in Nashville, Tennessee, Rick Steward was eligible for a top honor.
The 60-year-old, who lives south of Dudleytown, had a lot of success in his 15 years of competing, so he felt it was time to go for the Grand National Champion of Champions award.
That category, only in its second year, is limited to past decorative turkey call best of show winners and Earl Mickel Purchase Award winners. Steward earned both of those honors in 2014.
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Steward was one of only five people in the nation eligible for the award, and he earned it with his custom-carved decorative box turkey call, The Dogwood.
“I kind of just wanted to do something a little bit different,” he said. “I competed for all of these years and have done very, very well, far exceeding a lot of other individuals that work very, very hard. I was just thinking there’s really no place else to go but this next category to exceed what I had already done.”
Steward said he bumped his turkey call up a notch from last year.
The Dogwood is made of walnut and decorated with scrimshaw carving of dogwood flowers and leaves and a lot of stippling of small dots. There also are an oval-shaped inlay with a scrimshaw carving of a feather and a small carving of a deer antler, both of which are made out of bone. The antler and a nameplate sit on a purple base.
Also on the turkey call is a carving of a mushroom used as a screw plug along with chestnut sound boards.
Steward said he spent around 160 hours on the turkey call. Most of the work was done from the first of the year to three days before the 22nd annual competition, which was part of the 39th annual NWTF Convention and Sport Show Feb. 13 to 15.
“If you figure the hours, there’s a lot of packed hours real quick,” he said. “I ride a motorcycle, I hunt, but I don’t let anything interrupt that. This competition does not interrupt my deer hunting whatsoever.”
During the event, nearly 800 booths were set up in the convention center. Most were related to hunting, and call makers sold wares. Steward said he and his wife, Maryellen, like visiting with other call makers.
“Fellowship is a big thing for me because I only see those guys once a year because they are from all over the nation,” he said.
While there are certain regulations and criteria competitors have to follow, they are able to use their creativity in designing their entry.
“Duplication is not something that’s practiced. You don’t want to make something that somebody else has already made,” Steward said. “You’ll never see at a competition two of the same ideas. Periodically, you do see little things that guys try to incorporate into their call that you know you may have done on a call in the past or someone has done.”
Steward said The Dogwood was the 100th turkey call he has made since starting his business, Back 40 Custom Calls, in 1999. He built his first call in 1976 and still uses it today.
For every turkey call he makes, Steward keeps a log book of its description, when he made it, awards he received, cost estimate and final selling price.
Last year’s turkey call wound up in the NWTF’s museum in Edgefield, South Carolina.
Since this year’s entry garnered Grand National Champion of Champions honors, it was sold at an auction, with Steward receiving 70 percent and the NWTF getting 30 percent. In the other categories, the money is split 50-50.
In his years of competing, Steward said he has never placed lower than fourth, including taking first nine times. He has entered in the decorative carved box call category for the past four years. Prior to that, he entered slate calls, wingbone calls and turned barrel yelpers.
Steward said you can enter up to two calls per category, and the most he has entered in one competition is six.
Even though he has earned the competition’s highest honor, Steward said he is going to keep competing.
“Now, I will go back and do some of the other little things that I used to do. I’ve got a turned barrel yelper that I’m working on right now just to see if I’ve still got it,” he said with a smile.
Steward said he will continue his hobby as long as it remains fun.
“I really enjoy the friendship, the fellowship and myself and four of the other call makers that I compete with on an annual basis, we all get along very well. We talk periodically about making calls,” he said.
He said his wife has jokingly told him to retire, but he isn’t planning on doing that any time soon.
“A lot of guys reach a certain point and retire. Me, I don’t want to retire from it, even though if I get knocked down a notch or two notches or five,” he said. “A lot of the young guys are extremely tough, and I meet them every year.”
It takes the younger guys to keep the competition going, Steward added.
“If you don’t play, you won’t know. You can’t win if you don’t play,” he said. “I tell the young guys, ‘All you have to do is stay at it, bump your game up.’ That’s what you really seriously have to do to continue to play because everybody else does it.”
Name: Rick Steward
Family: Wife, Maryellen Steward; sons, Daniel and Dustin Steward
Accomplishment: Won the Grand National Champion of Champions award for his custom-carved decorative box turkey call, “The Dogwood,” at the 22nd annual National Wild Turkey Federation Grand National Calling Championships in Nashville, Tennessee