Arkansas lost one of its great turkey hunters Nov. 4 with the passing of Bill Rhodes.
Rhodes, 82, of Sheridan, was best known in turkey hunting circles as the owner and sole craftsman of Rhodes Talkin' Turkey calls. He and his calls are immortalized in the book "St. Tom's Cathedral, A Turkey Hunter's Quest for His Best."
I met Rhodes in 2011 after I reviewed his calls in this space. He gave me a special dual-chamber model made of black walnut with my name lacquered into the finish. Rhodes exhorted me to use the call and not waste it as a display piece. I have used it to lure several gobblers to their demise. Its success was a bit of a mixed blessing for Rhodes. He didn't like to make dual chamber calls, and he only made a few. Whenever we wrote about it, he received a deluge of orders, and it aggravated him no end.
"A sheriff in a county south of here called me up wanting one of those callers," Rhodes said in 2020. "When I told him I didn't make that caller anymore, he told me it would be a real shame if I got pulled over in his county without him having one of those callers. So I got busy real quick and made him two!"
We always suspected that a lot of Rhodes's anecdotes, like that one, were a bit fanciful, but that was part of his colorful character. He was a natural storyteller, and his lungs seemed to have unlimited capacity for air. He could talk for hours, it seemed, without taking a breath. He was a natural salesman and promoter. He talked about the latest retailer to stock his calls with the enthusiasm of a comic touting his upcoming schedule on a late-night talk show.
The thing he loved to talk about most, of course, was turkey hunting. He was successful at a time when it was rare to encounter a turkey in Arkansas, let alone kill one. Rhodes also hunted all over Mississippi and other places. His stories were master classes in turkey hunting, and I learned a great deal about turkey hunting from him.
Rhodes taught me a lot about the art of calling turkeys. He was a master of subtle calls, especially the purr. A light touch on a Rhodes call produces a purr with a light, dulcet tone and a consistent rasp.
Those lessons all occurred in Rhodes's little shop behind his home east of Sheridan. The shop contained a collection of drill presses and saws with which Rhodes crafted his calls. He loved to use unusual woods like mulberry, zebrawood, mahogany and ebony. We spent hours playing dozens of calls until I found one or two with a tone I really liked. I have examples of them all, including a prize possession made of chinquapin.
"If I had to choose just one, I would go into the woods with one of my little cedar boxes," Rhodes said. "You can call up a gobbler anywhere in the country with that."
My favorite will always be the dual chamber that Rhodes hated to make. In addition to walnut, I also have two made of cedar and mahogany. Rhodes said he hated to make that call because it's so hard to cut two slots into a small box without destroying the box.
Rhodes was also an avid crappie fisherman, as was Miss Kay, his wife of 65 years. They spent a couple of weeks each spring camping at De Queen Lake, catching enough crappie to stock their freezer for a year. Feasting on Miss Kay's fried crappie was one of life's great pleasures.
The last time I saw Rhodes, he gave me a special "St. Tom's Cathedral" commemorative turkey call. He made another one for my brother. They are the only two in existence, and I look forward to using mine during the 2024 spring turkey season. Rhodes would be disappointed if I retired it to a shelf.
Besides being a world-class turkey hunter and call maker, Rhodes was a classic southern gentleman. Most of all, he was a great friend, and I will miss him dearly.