MADISON – Norman Sisson is learning that if you do what you love, the money will follow. Eventually.
Sisson has become nationally recognized for his turkey wingbone calls with intricate scrimshaw carvings and a celebrity to turkey hunters everywhere.
“This call-making experiment was never intended to be a profit-based venture,” said Sisson. “I started in this because I love it, and still do.”
Sisson, who began hunting turkeys in 1974 while majoring in art at Mississippi State University, started experimenting with carving wingbone calls around 1977, he said.
“These early wingbone calls, which were typically made from Thanksgiving turkeys and were very crude in appearance and sanitation, made a passable turkey yelp,” he said. “Since I was young and impatient, I was not interested in spending much time learning how to play the call, and I drifted away from making calls for many years.”
In 1995, Sisson and his family returned to Mississippi where he became involved in the Greater Jackson chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation.
“The president of the chapter was a fellow named Boyd Burrow who helped me out tremendously by showing me some areas where there were huntable populations of turkeys,” Sisson said. “On opening morning of the following season, I killed a turkey at one of the spots he had shown me. This wonderful gesture had a real impact on me and began a great friendship. In appreciation, I made a wingbone turkey call from the bones of that first turkey, scrimshawed a rough image of a turkey on it and gave it to Boyd. I made another call from the other set of wingbones and donated it to the local chapter for auctioning at their annual fund-raising banquet.”
Sisson’s intricately-carved scrimshaw wingbones were so well received that he was soon deluged with orders.
“The number of requests quickly exceeded my available stock of turkey wingbones, and a growing list of people were put on backorder,” Sisson said. “In 1998, I entered a call and presentation box that I had made in a turkey call-making competition sponsored by the National Wild Turkey Federation at their annual national convention. That call, named ‘Black Tie Affair,’ showed a gobbler displaying for a foam rubber hen decoy complete with her blank, vapid stare. I wound up winning first place in the nation in that category and was completely dumfounded. In 1999, I again entered a call in the same competition and took second place. That call was in a hand-carved box and showed a color scrimshaw depiction of the wild turkey gobbler from the collection of bird plates by John James Audubon.”
Sisson has watched in amazement, he said, as bid prices continue to rise for the wingbone calls he donates annually to the local NWTF chapter’s auction.
“The basic call itself has changed very little for centuries, so I rely on the scrimshaw imagery to provide product differentiation and collectibility,” Sisson said. “I feel a real obligation to those people who have invested in one of my early calls to help escalate the collectible value of them. For that reason, all of my calls are now signed and dated. This helps future collectors to establish a date line for scarcity.”
Several years ago, Earl Mickel, a turkey call collector and author from Pennsylvania, published a book about turkey callmakers in the U.S. The success of the first book led to a second one on the same subject titled “Turkey Callmakers: The Rest of the Best,” Sisson said.
“A segment about my calls appears in the second book,” he said. “Bobby Cleveland, outdoor editor for The Clarion-Ledger featured an article about the calls in a Sunday edition in May of 1998. I will be featured in a segment of the television program ‘Mississippi Outdoors’ that is scheduled to air on Thanksgiving Day at 8 p.m. on ETV. Between the book, Bobby’s story and other appearances, I have stayed very, very busy making wishbone calls.”
Because of the demand, Sisson created a line of moderately-priced turkey calls that contain limited scrimshaw, he said.
“These appeal to hunters who want to go in the woods with unique custom calls without the having to worry excessively about breaking or losing them,” Sisson said.
Sisson, who works for Groen in Jackson and recently received an MBA from Belhaven College in Jackson, said his initial strategy was to address a niche market of hunters interested in high-quality custom pieces.
“More than likely, those hunters had all the commercial turkey calls that they wanted,” he said.
As the popularity of sporting collectibles has risen in the past few years, Sisson’s timing was on the mark.
“An interest in collecting turkey calls was just developing and I saw an opportunity to become part of an exciting facet of a sport that I find completely captivating,” Sisson said.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.