When it comes to hunting, Steve Stortz is passionate and a traditionalist.
He hunts waterfowl over hand-carved wooden decoys, rejecting newfangled mechanical spinning-winged decoys. He prefers a bow and arrow for wild turkeys and whitetails.
Yet, when he's in the woods pursuing turkeys this spring, Stortz, 65, will lure love-sick toms with very non-traditional calls -- unique hand-carved and painted wooden turtle shell calls he crafts at his home near Montrose, Minn., just west of the Twin Cities.
"I just like the way they sound,'' he said the other day in his workshop strewn with woodchips. "You can call turkeys with any store-bought call. But these sound richer.''
And they are so unusual.
Stortz, a retired carpenter and contractor who majored in art in college, began making the calls about three years ago. He has long crafted traditional wooden box calls, and was intrigued by the idea of using the hollowed-out shape of a turtle for a call.
"I'd heard about people taking a turtle shell they found in the woods and making it into a call,'' he explained. "And other people have carved them from wood; it isn't my idea. I thought the sound chamber has to be awesome, so I started playing around with it.''
He liked what he heard.
Shoes on a pig
So do others.
Last year, he began selling them (www.turtleturkeycalls.com). Stories in several national magazines about Stortz and his unusual turtle calls fanned interest, and he's sold almost 100 calls to hunters in 47 states.
Despite a price of $400, he can't keep up with demand.
"I tell customers they'll have to wait nine months to a year,'' he said. And while $400 is a lot for a turkey call -- store-bought box and slate calls can be had for $15 to $30 -- Stortz said each involves 30 to 40 hours of work.
They're works of art.
"Each is one-of-a-kind,'' said wife Jean, also an artist. Some people buy them strictly to display.
"But they're made to be used,'' Stortz said. And many buyers do.
Stortz makes the 4x5-inch turtle shells from basswood, starting with a square block. It's a soft wood and easy to shape. After hollowing out the shell, he glues a thin piece of slate to the bottom. On a lathe, he turns pieces of hickory into strikers, then carves the head of a turtle on the end.
He makes box turtles, common painted turtles and the occasional snapping turtle. He finishes them with acrylic paint. When done, the turtle-head striker fits into the shell for display.
As one of his southern customers told him: "They're cuter than shoes on a little pig.''
An outdoor life
Stortz grew up in Concordia, Kansas, and still speaks with a Kansas drawl, even after 25 years in Minnesota.
Hunting and fishing are lifetime passions.
"I got my first gun when I was 9 years old, and I fished with my dad and granddad,'' he said.
"I didn't have any money for duck decoys, so I started carving them when I was 16'' using scrap pine from the local lumber yard.
"When it comes to wing shooting, I love waterfowl,'' he said. "We had wonderful waterfowl shooting in Kansas. It was a great place to grow up.''
He returns to Kansas several times a year to hunt with old friends. He heads to the Dakotas each fall for pheasants and waterfowl. There's trout fishing in southeast Minnesota streams. And perhaps an elk hunt in Colorado.
Stortz first hunted wild turkeys in Florida in the early 1970s when he was repairing yachts. "That's where I learned woodworking,'' he said.
He was soon hooked on turkeys.
"I look at turkey hunting like hunting whitetail deer -- they're not easy to get. They're both very skittish. They're just a lot of fun.''
Like many turkey hunters, he likes the interaction -- trying to call toms to come within shooting range. Bagging a bird has become secondary. A few years ago, he set aside his shotgun and began hunting them only with bow and arrow, trying for head shots.
"It's either a clean kill, or a clean miss,'' he said.
Savoring time outdoors
Turning 65 makes many evaluate their priorities in life. Stortz has an extra reason to do so, because he knows first-hand how short life can be. Four years ago, he was nearly killed in a head-on collision near his home. He spent 16 months in rehabilitation.
"It changed my perspective on life. When you come that close to dying ...''
Afterward, he and his wife traveled more.
"We're taking time to do things,'' he said. Customers in distant states who buy his calls often invite him to come and hunt. Turkeys. Wild hogs. Even alligators. He plans to accept some offers.
"The more I walk, the better I feel. I still pheasant hunt. And it hasn't affected my carving,'' he said, adding:
"I don't feel like I'm old. My right arm has been bothering me a bit, but what are you going to do? I'm not going to quit.''
Hunting. Fishing. Or carving.
Doug Smith • email@example.com