- Lynn Burkhead
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ATLANTA On a chilly and damp Saturday afternoon in Georgia, the world's best wild turkey callers answered the call of world class competition at the NWTF Grand National Calling Championships.
In the end, and in some cases after a razor tight finish, the best of the best stood tall.
The day got started with the Junior Division competition where callers 15 years of age and younger must master the various turkey calls on a slate, a diaphragm, and a box call since the instrument of choice isn't announced until the day before competition.
On Saturday, Fort Smith, Ark., youth Jimmy Pollard won the Junior Division title, beating Smithville, Pa., caller Cory Hoone.
"It's great to finally win this," Pollard told the NWTF's Paul Rackley after his win. "I've come in second twice and this just feels awesome."
Later in the day at the Georgia World Congress Center, site of the NWTF's 32nd annual convention and sport show, Ewing, Mo., caller Billy Yargus ran a Woodhaven Billy Yargus Signature Series mouth diaphragm call (using a three-reed cutter and a v-cut model) all the way to the throne of competitive turkey calling.
"There's no other feeling like it," said Yargus, who has been calling competitively for about 10 years.
"I feel great, words can't hardly describe it," he added. "As far as any other calling championship, I've won a few others and they were great too, but nothing like this, it's really something."
After the Wild Turkey Bourbon/NWTF Grand National Senior Division's original field of 44 callers was reduced to 15 the day before field, it took more than an hour on Saturday afternoon to whittle the field to the "Final Five."
To reach that coveted spot where callers would share some $11,500 in prize money, the callers had to be at the top of their game, displaying mastery of the yelp of an excited hen; the cluck-and-purr; the kee-kee run; the plain yelp of a hen; and the fly-down cackle.
In one of the tightest finishes in Grand National history, the "Final Five" were called to the stage as a tightly packed auditorium looked on.
After Missouri's J.R. Lanham (457 points) and 2005 and 2006 Grand National champion Matt Van Cise of Pennsylvania (461 points) had been announced in fifth and fourth places respectively, the field was reduced to the final three of Missouri's Chris Parrish, Ohio's Shane Hendershot, and Yargus.
Of that trio, Parrish was a two-time champion, winning the Grand National in 2000 and 2001 while Hendershot was the 2007 defending champion.
That left Yargus trying to crash the party for his first ever Grand National win, a position that admittedly left a few butterflies flitting around in his stomach.
"Oh yeah, big time," Yargus laughed.
When Hendershot's reign ended with his third-place showing (462 points) that left good friends Parrish and Yargus nervously occupying the stage.
"One of the things that Chris told me, he said today he would take second to me," Yargus said of his conversation as the pair waited to find out who would win.
"That meant a lot to me because we've been friends for quite a while and he's helped me for a long ways for several years, so it was pretty nice."
But not as nice as the feeling that would come moments later as Yargus stood shocked as the announcement was made that Parrish had finished second by one point.
When the tabulations from the seven judge panel were completed, Yargus ended up with a score of 464 points while Parrish finished at 463 points in the competition held annually since 1977.
Afterwards, an emotional Yargus waited a second to compose himself before smiling big and moving center stage to take his championship trophy and a check for $5,000.
When asked what he credited his first win and championship ring to the humble Yargus wasted no time in answering.
"God above," he said. "I drew the number that no one wants, number two and I was like 'Oh, man!' But you saw what the results were and God blessed me today."
In one of the tightest finishes in Grand National history, Yargus credited his winning performance to the flawless execution of his strongest call, the plain yelp of a hen.
That call is a strong part of his weekly practice routine back in the Show Me State.
"When I practice, what I'll do is go through six or seven different calls each time," Yargus said. "I'll spend 15 to 20 minutes at a time, and I'll do that two to three times a day, probably about five days a week."
The effort paid off on Saturday when Yargus accomplished one of the goals he set when he entered competitive calling a decade ago.
When asked when he realized he might be able to one day achieve that goal, Yargus answered several years ago.
"Probably about four years ago, I tied for fifth," he said. "I lost a call-off so I ended up sixth.
"The next year I came back and ended up third and did that two years in a row.
"Last year I ended up fourth, so about the last three or four years I felt like maybe one day, it was a possibility and today is the day."
Saturday was the day, although the newly crowned champion admitted to a battle of nerves on stage.
"It is different when you're not on stage," Yargus said. "When you're doing it at home or doing it behind the scenes you could win a lot of contests. But when you get up here, the nerves get tight."
Even tighter than when a boss gobbler is closing ranks on a hunter's position?
"Turkeys are a whole lot more forgiving than those judges are," Yargus laughed.
Mike Pentecost, owner of Woodhaven Custom Calls, said after the contest that in his opinion, there's no one that deserved this year's Senior Division title more than his friend Yargus.
"He's worked hard and he's just (one of the) classiest of persons," Pentecost said. "Nobody on our team at Woodhaven as a whole wants to see anyone win it more than him."
Outgoing champion Shane Hendershot agreed with Pentecost's assessment of the 2008 champion.
"It could not happen to a better person," Hendershot said. "Billy is very, very deserving."
Hendershot, who is designing a line of mouth diaphragm turkey calls for Zink Calls, said he was hoping to repeat on Saturday, but he was also realistic.
"I wasn't coming here expecting to get a back-to-back, a three-peat or a four-peat," Hendershot said. "That would be nice, but with the level of competition now, in the past four or five years being in the top five is almost as good as winning it."
Asked how being the Grand National champion changes ones life, Hendershot said that winning certainly changes a caller's schedule for a while.
"It was hectic there for four or five months I was going on hunts and this and that all over the place," he said. "(And) it can definitely change what you're going to do as a career because right now I'm tossing up the idea of moving so I can be full time with Zink."
While Hendershot was all smiles over Yargus' win, he did admit that he hopes to be back on the Grand National throne next February in Nashville.
"I'm going to try," he said. "Just like today, I tried.
"I was happy with my calling, I called clean, I called good, had good scores, the judges were awesome, and the best guy won."
While the theatrics of the Senior Division certainly entertained the crowd, they weren't the only results on Saturday afternoon.
That's because the Rare Breed/NWTF Grand National Champion of Champions calling contest was also held.
When the smoke had cleared from the competition stage, Georgia caller Kerry Terrell emerged as the new C of C champ.
"It's an awesome feeling because it's the one that you have to be a champion to do it, to be a champion to even get in it," Terrell said. "You're (also) running five or six different kinds of calls and its one I've been really after.
"It's an awesome feeling."
As mentioned, to qualify for the event, Terrell fell back on the 2004 Grand National Team Challenge title he won with partner Mark Prudhomme of South Carolina.
He also had to show mastery of the assembly call; the cluck-and-purr; the gobble; the kee-kee run; and the yelp of an excited hen. What's more, contestants had to show mastery of several different call types including a mouth diaphragm; a peg and slate call; a box call; and a trumpet style wingbone call.
Despite being a seasoned caller in addition to his two-man title in '04, Terrell finished third in last year's Grand National Senior Division the Knight & Hale pro-staffer admitted that he too struggled with nerves on Saturday.
"Anything with your hands, your nerves are going to be in it and it's a lot harder to do it than when you're practicing," he said. "The friction type stuff is the hardest for me because of my nerves it's tense up there."
What will Terrell do now?
Pretty much the same thing as the rest of the Grand National contestants on Saturday he'll start getting ready for next year.
"Mainly, I'm going to start getting ready for next year because this is the one, this is the big boy."
No wonder that they call the Grand Nationals the Super Bowl of wild turkey calling.
"This last fall, I went on my very first deer hunt with my good friend Michael Waddell and T-Bone," Morgan said. "My son (Jesse) went out to Texas with me and I got my very first big, big buck."
Incidentally, Morgan will also be going on a spring turkey hunt this year in Tennessee with NWTF CEO Rob Keck and others.
On a night when the NWTF celebrated its historical success in restoring the wild turkey to the American landscape and looked boldly into the future to face coming challenges, it only seemed fitting that the star power in attendance let the crowd know of their own passion for the land, for the wildlife, and for the outdoors.
It's that passion that has given the NWTF a rich history for more than 30 years and it is that same passion that will keep the organization's torch burning bright for many more years to come.
Hunting and the wildlife all across America are depending on such passion being very much on the minds of conservationists everywhere.