On The Ridge with Joe Judd: A call to the creator


Published: 03-27-2024 2:34 PM

As opening day of the 2024 turkey hunting season slowly approaches, I found myself wandering into my den looking over my collection of turkey calls while reaching for certain ones that have meant something to me over the years. Now, this yearly routine always reminds me that it would be impossible to use every one of those calls during a single turkey hunting season, but there are certain ones that I turn to every year, ones that I simply never leave home without. But there are others that are retired now, or close to retirement, that still bring back memories of great turkey hunts from the past, and others are simply cherished gifts I’ve received along the way. But on this evening, there was one call, a box call, that I always reach for and stands alone as one of my most prized possessions. I’ve successfully used it in eight different states during these many decades of chasing the “Big Bird!” But before I expound on this wonderful instrument, I should share a little background about its creator, and how our long-standing friendship eventually led us both into a moment that neither will ever forget.

When you speak about the true pioneers in the ever-evolving history of wild turkey hunting in New England, the name Niles Oesterle is certainly right there at the beginning. During that period, the only places we could hunt turkeys were in Vermont or New York, and Niles was someone that had a jumpstart on the rest of us. He lived in Bennington, Vt., and by the late 1970s he was already turkey hunting while assisting in the state’s restocking program through his affiliation with the National Wild Turkey Federation.

Soon, a Vermont NWTF chapter formed, and Niles became the state’s first chapter president, which led to his assisting dozens of new turkey hunters just itching to learn anything we could during those incredibly early years. And I can vividly recall going to listen to Niles speak in Benington, Rutland, and wherever else I could find him during this period, while trying to absorb every ounce of knowledge he gave us! Because in those days, Niles was one of the few mentors and teachers we had, and I admit it, he was one of the very few people I looked up to back then — and still do.

As time went on, and we found ourselves often walking in the same turkey hunting circles, a friendship began to form. And it was clear that during this period, Niles’ love for the sport was about to take him to another level. He began to think about the turkey calls that we were using back then, telling me more than once that he thought he could make a turkey call, a box call to be specific, that would be more perfect than anything else available to us. And it was his drive to do this that pushed him into a decision he has never once regretted.

A carpenter by trade, Niles knew he had the skills to develop a better box call. And his turkey hunting expertise gave him the confidence in his ability to find the sound he was looking for. Through trial and error, he eventually perfected a box call that was like nothing I’d ever heard before, and today has generated respect from some of the best turkey hunters and call makers in the country.

The first one Niles built for me was from his Signature 1 Series, and I never thought I would hear its equal. But some years later I played one of his first Signature 2 Series box calls, and the quality of sound that I heard coming out of this call was so unique that it was hard for me to believe what I was hearing. A one-piece box call, with no glue in the chamber, no separate parts added, and built with a labor of love by the master himself… I mean it was simply perfect. And that box call, as fortune would have it, was the exact same one I reached for when I wandered into my den that evening, and it was also the exact same box call that brought Niles and I together, at an unforgettable evening in Concord, N.H., in January 2022 where I was given the honor to escort Niles Oesterle into the New England Turkey Hunting Hall of Fame. Our friendship, which began 45 years ago, had now come full circle. A simple man who could see a vision in a block of Vermont butternut and cherry wood, unfinished and rough, while turning it into an instrument, was being given the ultimate and long overdue honor for the labor of love he gave to every masterpiece he created.

Joe Judd is a lifelong hunter and sportsman. He is an outdoor writer, seminar speaker, member of the New England Outdoor Writers Association, and a 2019 inductee into the N.E. Turkey Hunting Hall of Fame. Joe is also on the Quaker Boy Game Calls and Bass Pro Shops/Cabela’s Pro-Staff. He can be reached at jjontheridge@comcast.net