Story Zack Plair | Photographs Luisa Porter
Sitting in a small office space at the Longleaf Camo facility in West Point, Preston Pittman rubs blue chalk on a wooden traditional box turkey call.
Next, he drills in the screw that holds the top and base together, pausing occasionally to test the call, striking the top against the base to find just the right pitch.
“It just needs a quarter turn, and it’ll be there,” he says of the screw. “With these calls, I like to hear a little yalk and the end of the yelp.”
Sure enough, that last touch finishes the call to his satisfaction.
“I kill a hell of a lot of turkeys,” Pittman continues. “It’s like if you play a guitar for folks. Only my audience is a wild turkey, and it tells me what it wants to hear. You learn from that experience.”
Since his childhood in south Mississippi, Pittman’s love for tinkering and the outdoors has brought him renown as a world champion turkey-caller, high-profile hunter and successful call developer. A 30-year veteran of game call manufacturing, he’s partnered with Mississippi-based Longleaf for the past seven years to build call prototypes for mass production.
Sales of Pittman calls, which include various box, slate, pot and diaphragm calls, reach nearly 100,000 units each year. His newest development, the two-face series that uses two types of wood in one call, is also gaining popularity.
Hardly what you’d expect from a man who struggled with dyslexia in school and spent 17 years as a hairstylist.
“I grew up in the outdoors, and it was always a dream of mine, even from a kid, to be in the outdoor industry,” Pittman says. “I used to think my dyslexia was a disability, but now I think of it as an asset. It forces me to think outside the box and work things out.”
Pittman’s “Dirty Room,” as he calls it, serves as the imaginarium for his prototyping. Tucked away in a small room in the back of the Longleaf warehouse, he sands, cuts and molds the materials strewn about the un-air-conditioned space into precise instruments of sport. Rock, aluminum, glass and all types of wood — it really doesn’t matter to Pittman. If he can get his hands on it, he can make it into an effective turkey call.
Many of his prototypes are mass-produced at plants in the upper Midwest before returning to West Point for assembling, finishing, engraving and tuning. Then they are distributed to sporting goods outlets nationwide for retail.
“He’s one of the pioneers of the industry,” Longleaf Chief Operations Officer Radale Reed says of his business partner. “He’s as well known as any of them, and we’re glad to have him on our team.”
Pittman, who lives in Pickens, won his first turkey calling contest when he was 16, and he’s accumulated scores of state, national and world titles since. In fact, he’s the only person to hold five different world game calling titles.
Over the years, he says his call-making has also become increasingly refined.
His first glass call employed an old quart beer bottle he found near a creek bank and the bottom of a flowerpot. As a teenager, he built mouth calls using non-lubricated condoms he bought from a gas station bathroom and plumber’s sheet lead.
By age 17, he was building more than 400 calls a year, so he had to start buying boxes of condoms from a local drugstore to fill the orders.
He says one evening after a trip to the drugstore, he went to pick up a date only to discover she was the pharmacist’s daughter. Pittman, at that point, saw it appropriate to demonstrate his talents for the sake of his integrity … and so that he could actually go on the date.
“When we went to leave, [the pharmacist] sent his daughter outside,” Pittman remembers. “Then he told me, ‘The only place that condom better go is in your mouth.”