Steve Stortz is one of those consummate outdoor artisans. Sure, he hunts and fishes incessantly, but he's also a boat builder, furniture maker, welder, decoy carver, turkey call maker and snowshoe inventor. He dabbles in taxidermy when it suits his needs, as he does rod building, lure making, tent fixing and fancy rope work. So I wasn't surprised last year to see a box turtle gracing the table he often occupies at the Three Crows Coffee Shop in Delano, Minn., a small river town a half-hour west of Minneapolis. It just laid there between heavy white china coffee cups, framed by Steve leaning back in his chair, a dusty brown Stormy Kromer cap cocked back on his head and wood chips garnishing the sleeves of his red-and-black-checkered wool jacket. There sat that turtle, beautiful, delicate and ornate. Shy glances came from people ordering lattes, folks curious as to why a turtle was sitting there.
When I asked, he said, "Turkey call."
Of course, what else could it be? It had a turtle's head on a striker, a shell for a sound chamber and a slate inlaid on its belly. Beautiful. Art. Genius.
Contractor friends, lawyers, insurance salesmen, teachers, photographers and more were all amazed as Stortz picked up the basswood creation in his big rough hands and gently turned it over to reveal its smooth slate belly. He pulled its head out of the shell and soon he had the attached striker making hen turkey music over electronic strains of "Davina and the Vagabonds" playing on the coffee shop's iPod system.
Non-hunters got an impromptu lesson in turkey calling, while the group's hunters had to try the little turtle call. Hen noises soon resonated from the hollow shell, filling the diner. Grins flashed all around.
Stortz has been carving wood duck and goose decoys since he was 16 years old, when he didn't have money for store-bought decoys. He began selling them initially as working decoys for hunting and lately he has been carving them more for mantle pieces, since nobody can afford to throw expensive wood-block hand-made decoys over the sides of their duck boats. Stortz still prefers to chuck his creations over the side, however, dings, dents and all.
"Aw, they're easy to fix, ya know," he says in his native Kansas drawl.
He shares his carving skills with members of the Minnesota Decoy and Wildfowl Carvers Association, having been president and a member for six years. The Kansas native graduated from Fort Hayes State University with a degree in art. He worked as a sculptor, painter and boat builder in Florida. He was a yachtsman and captain of ships in ports all over the globe. He was once a Maine lobsterman. He was a cattle ranch foreman in Texas. He worked as a contractor in Colorado for a time before settling down to a life of organic farming with his wife, Jeannie, and his two sons, Tyler and Aaron, in Minnesota.
Stortz muses over the turtle call design. "It's actually a proven design. I find the turtle shapes interesting," he says. "Every one of these is an individual, shell-wise, paint-wise, style-wise. There's nothing worse than working on something you don't like, but I love making these things. Every one is an original work."
The call's sound is sweet, as the turtle shell is a melodious sound chamber. They're also realistic looking. Stortz makes the strikers to look like turtles' heads. The strikers' shafts are made from all kinds of wood. He's used basswood and even buckthorn, taking what he calls a piece of "environment junk" and turning it into something useful. African woods like kingwood, South American wood like jatoba and North American native species of ash and walnut or maple each give the calls a unique sound.
"You never know how they're going to sound until you get them made," Stortz says. "Then I sand on the slate to tune them up. Depending on where you strike on the slate, I've had as many as four different hens' sounds come from the same call. I make sure every call has a pencil-marked 'sweet spot' where the sound is best. Turkey hunters, of course, will fiddle with 'em to try to find their own place."
Then he looks at me seriously and adds, "I'm sure some people will pick 'em up to collect them, but I make 'em to use. Tom turkeys like those little turtles."
Stortz is one of those gifted jack-of-all-trades artisans who loves hunting and the outdoors so much his passion carries over to the gear he uses. We sometimes forget they're still out there, as popular culture sure seems to wish them away, but hunting and shooting are still ubiquitous with gunsmiths who do much more than tweak triggers and glass-bed stocks, taxidermists, decoy carvers, gifted shooting coaches and many more artisans. (Steve Stortz can be reached at 763-360-8123.)