Raggio Custom Calls

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Story and portraits by Lindsay Pace

He begins at his lathe, an expert tool covered in soot and sawdust. This is only after he drills two small holes into a block of wood imported from the Southern Hemisphere. The timber nestles into the lathe to be turned, like a potter smoothing wet kaolin, until his signature shape emerges: a Raggio custom duck call.

By most measures, Josh Raggio is nondescript: a white man in khakis and a denim shirt, gray hair slicked into a short mohawk. What brought him to prominence, at least in the world of modern huntsmen, is his resolve.

Some say the genesis of Raggio Custom Calls began when 10-year-old Raggio experienced his first hunt. With his father, he stood shin-deep in floodwater, breathless, until what felt like a thousand waterfowl descended. “Shoot!” his father cried. Raggio’s finger coiled.

While this is a nice memory, it’s not the whole story. It was seeing a friend’s duck call two decades later that sparked something in Raggio. He wanted to craft something that magnificent.

Over the next 18 months, then 30-something Raggio collected everything from a lathe to jigs. He learned to be dexterous and unyielding when turning wood, or when branding calls with tin-plated steel. Before long, his work sold. And it sold well enough that in 2013, Raggio left a 13-year career at Caterpillar Inc. to go full-time. His children were the push.

“I really want to tell my kids to do whatever they want to do when they grow up,” Raggio said. “It’d be tough for me to tell him that if I didn’t do it myself, so I had to do some serious self-examination. And it took a lot of courage.”

Now, Raggio has a timber-scented workshop in Raymond, Mississippi, where he works his way through an ever-stocked queue of customers: A far cry from his early days of blowing calls in his car at midnight, hoping desperately his infant would not wake.

Every two to three hours, Raggio shapes a new call. He places a reed into an insert, and an insert into a barrel, where the caller positions his mouth. His air, however forceful, wills the reed to vibrate, and sound emerges.

Raggio doesn’t measure much. Instead, he relies on sense and intuition.

“There’s such a mystery to every call I make,” he said. “The beauty of the wood is one of my favorite parts. The cutting and the drilling — all that gets a little mundane.”

Sound is enigmatic, too. Skilled callers know a lot of technical jargon, such as greeting or hailing calls. They know to hold their mouth as if they are drinking from a Coke bottle, and that steady back pressure — or wind resistance — is imperative for certain melodies. A good call comes from one’s senses, the way jazz is improvised. After all, Raggio says a duck call is simply a musical instrument.

“I love everything about it, from the loud to the soft,” Raggio said. “The fast, the slow. All the cadences you can do with them.”

The hunt itself is sort of musical. Each hunter contributes to an adagio, articulated by living slowly. The kill is negligible.

Beyond the hunt itself is the heirloom. Not everyone will have a Labrador Retriever or know how to roll and stretch scratch biscuit dough for camp breakfast. But from a lanyard, against the heart of every hunter, hangs a call.

That’s why Raggio takes no shortcuts with craftsmanship. He knows many of his calls will be opened on a child’s 18th birthday, with a letter he wrote to them before their first breath. Their children, and their children’s children, will receive this call, which will be worn in wetlands or kept in sacred spaces.

Raggio hopes his calls will mean to them what his heirloom products mean to him: A point of connection between the call maker, the call, and the hunt, a way for stories to exist in the present and traverse generations, like his father’s command to shoot, or turning calls he once dreamed of making.

“There’s so much more to hunting than just pulling the trigger,” Raggio said.

 

 

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