Platteville’s Don Morshead is a survivor. He has defied the odds. And he has developed a unique talent that has made him one of the 50 best turkey callers in the entire country, despite battling a crippling disease that has taken a leg, both kidneys, the toes on his left foot and his ability to work.
When he was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes as a 9-year-old, Morshead was told he most likely wouldn’t live past the age of 40.
Over the past decade Morshead has had more than his fare share of bad breaks, but he has survived it all. His right leg was amputated three-and-a-half years ago. He has had a pair of surgeries in the past year to insert replacement kidneys, and he can no longer work due to he medical complications triggered by his disabling disease. He also briefly contracted lymphoma cancer from anti-rejection drugs he took after his kidney transplant, but the lymphoma is now in remission.
Through it all Morshead never flinched. Now, at the age of 53, he is still plugging along, joyous as ever, doing what he loves most - hunting and calling turkeys, and competing in calling contests - as often as he possibly can. And he is good at it too!
So good in fact, that Morshead has qualified to be one of the roughly 50 participants at next year’s National Wild Turkey Federation’s (NWTF) Grand National Calling Contest in Nashville, Tenn. Feb. 14-17.
“It’s pretty neat. It’s been a goal of mine to qualify for nationals for quite awhile,” explained Morshead. “I’ve met some really good guys, who are also really good callers doing this. It’s really neat because in a way I’ve idolized these guys, now I get to compete against them.”
One of those famous friends, is Scott Wilhelm of Chippewa Falls. Wilhelm, the 2011 NWTF national champion, who will be coming to Platteville in early May to hunt with Morshead.
Last last month on the foggy Saturday morning of March 24, Morshead made the 156-mile trek to Kenosha, with the help of his father Don Morshead Sr. to compete in the Wisconsin Turkey Calling State Championships. And he blew away the competition.
The younger Morshead won four trophies and most importantly a qualifying bid for the Grand Nationals, a goal of his since he began competing 15 years ago in 1997.
He finished first in the Hunter’s Division (for those who are not yet professional callers and have not qualified for nationals), third in the Open Division (for callers from all states) and first in the State’s Senior Division (a competition for Wisconsin residents only). For good measure he also placed third in the Owl Hoot competition.
At the state competition contestants were required to perform five different turkey calls (that were posted the day of the competition) from a list of 12 that was posted prior to the competition. Some of those listed calls included the cluck, the plain yelp of a hen, the gobble, the fly down cackle, the kee kee run, and Moshead’s favorite call the cluck and purr. All of these calls are used by hunters to actually call a turkey in the wild.
Each call at the competition was scored on a 20-point scale, with five judges scoring each call. The highest and lowest score of each call were thrown out and the middle three were then averaged together. The average scores from all five calls were then totaled together for each caller’s final score. A perfect score would have been 100.
Hunters and callers alike use a number of devices to create these turkey sounds both in competition and in the woods including box calls, friction pot calls, wingbone calls and Morshead’s favorite, a diaphragm mouth call.
A box call is just as it sounds, a small wooden box that creates turkey sounds with the friction created by sliding the lid across the surface of the box.
Friction pot calls feature a round (usually) surface, and the user creates sound by drawing a peg, or “striker”, across the surface. Friction call surfaces can be slate, aluminum, glass or a variety of other materials.
Diaphragm calls, which are made out of latex reeds, tape and an aluminum or plastic frame, are inserted entirely in the user’s mouth and create perhaps the most realistic turkey sounds, but require much practice to learn to use correctly.
Morshead strictly uses a diaphragm during competition and prefers it during live hunting as well.
He practices roughly an hour a day, while his wife Betty is at work, his daughter Megan, 18, is at school, and son Payton, 1, is at day care.
“I couldn’t practice much when I was working, but now I have a lot of free time,” joked the happy-go-lucky Morshead. (He previously worked as a custodian at UW-Platteville).
Morshead is also very greatful for his wife’s understanding and support of his time-consuming hobby. And since he can no longer drive, Betty is often called upon to take Don to these various regional competitions, throughout Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota and South Dakota.
“If it wasn’t for her I wouldn’t be able to do any of this,” said Morshead. “She has been great.”
Morshead’s father, as well as friend Frank Stecks, fill is as his chauffeur when Betty is unavailable.
Morshead’s interest in turkey calling was sparked when he first saw friend Doug Steinback Sr. practicing in his barn in the late 90s. He then began hunting and calling turkeys himself in 1996 and still vividly remembers his first successful venture into the woods with his father-in-law Jim Pitzen.
“I called in two jakes and he shot one. We both thought that was pretty cool,” explained Morshead. He has been hooked every since.
Morshead hasn’t hasn’t shot many turkeys himself as he prefers the challenge of calling them in for others. That’s the allure of calling competitions, the chance to test his calling abilities against the best callers in the country.
Next February, Morshead will have the opportunity to do just that at the Grand Nationals in Nashville, Tenn. and God knows he has earned it.