To put an incredible end cap to a historic turkey season here at Mossy Oak, we’ve profiled the legendary Bill Zearing of Cody Calls.
Written by Jessi Cole
Bill Zearing firmly cemented his place in the turkey history books with his creation of the wooden sounding board for turkey pot calls and his thoughtful innovations continue to carve the path for modern call makers today.
A self-taught turkey hunter, Zearing recalls that in ‘65, when he was 12 years old, it was “just me and my call and nothing else. When a turkey would teach me a lesson, I remembered it.”
He continued learning lessons in the woods and chasing longbeards, and when the first spring season in Pennsylvania began in ’67, it “changed everything” and placed even more importance on the calling strategy than before.
By 1980, when he was 27, Zearing was a skilled woodworker and welder, and he began his endeavor to build a turkey call better than anything available on the markets. He says, “Back then, everyone was putting slate in plastic pots. I remember the first glass call I ever saw—it was done by a man across the road. He put a piece of glass in a flower pot.”
Innovations were beginning to take place in the call community, but Zearing noticed a huge piece of the puzzle that was missing. He says, “What I always thought was, you never see a plastic violin. Wood creates better sound. What we needed was a wood pot.”
It wasn’t until ’81 that Bill Zearing came out with the World Class—his first wooden slate call. It took a lot of sleepless nights, a lot of research, trial and error, and gumption to make the World Class.
When he took it out hunting for the first time, he would think to himself, ‘Man, I’m the only one in these woods with this weapon.’ It sounded light years ahead of anything else available.
Bill Zearing, pictured, would mount his pot calls to his bow. Archery was his weapon of choice for a number of years.
He began to sell the World Class and he decided to formalize his side business with a name and a game plan. He named his newly burgeoned call company after his newborn son’s middle name: Cody. Zearing also added, “There was a pretty good coon dog around here named Cody, too, so I thought, how the heck can you go wrong with that name?”
And thus, Cody Calls was born in 1982. At that time, Zearing was still building commercial buildings and running a custom cabinetry business. But as Cody Calls grew bigger and word of mouth spread, he finally "broke the ice" and started to focus on his call company that was gaining traction.
The World Class is a laminated call, which means it’s built by wrapping wood around and around, like how a violin is made, and creating a spectacular and unmatched sound. These take a long time to make, though. According to Zearing, in the beginning, these calls would make two months to build from start to finish. He needed to develop a system for a one-piece pot that would be quicker to make so he could keep up with demand from customers.
Zearing designed and built a machine for the one-piece pots that he still uses today. Over 30 years on that machine and lots of sawdust, he says. Truly, he was innovating and building a company to last the years. He wasn’t cutting any corners. With that same machine, they have produced as many as one thousand one-piece pots in one day.
Bill Zearing, pictured, built and designed the same machines that he uses to this day. One machine is about 30 years old and has seen a heck of a lot of sawdust.
The Cody II was his first one-piece pot, and that call went on to join the homes of tens of thousands of turkey hunters across the country through various retailers, like Bass Pro Shops.
When Bass Pro Shops first called Zearing and asked him to make Cody IIs to sell in their stores, they insisted that $30 for a slate call would be too much money, that no one would be willing to buy them. Zearing held his own, though, and said, “If you want the calls, that’s what it will cost you.” Bass Pro Shops ended up agreeing to the terms, and to their surprise but not to Zearing’s, the calls were a huge success and flew out the door.
Zearing says, “They couldn’t keep it on the shelves! That then opened the door to Cabelas, L.L. Bean, Redhead, Walmart, Wild Turkey Bourbon, and Mack’s Prairie Wings.”
They were receiving orders en masse, thousands of orders, and Bill Zearing and his wife were handling everything almost entirely by themselves.
He says, “My wife was the key work force. She did all the paperwork, packing, and shipping. Her aunt would be helping and her mom would be helping. They did it all on the kitchen table.” He continues, “It’s pretty rewarding when your wife can be your girlfriend and your business partner and everything else wrapped up in one, and at night you can still talk to each other. I think our relationship is a huge reason for our success.”
Debbie Zearing, pictured, was the "key work force" according to Bill, and she had a lot of fun turkey hunting with him.
It wasn’t always easy, though. Zearing remembers many years when it was tough. “Sometimes we just about starved to death,” he says. “You’ve got to consider it’s a seasonal business. I had my kids and their education and property and all of that to think about. I mean, we had no one at the back door feeding us money or anything. We made it on our own. I’m real proud of that.”
And they trusted just about nobody but themselves to do the work right. He says, “If you’re going to present a quality product that is going to build your reputation, the worst thing in the world you can do is lose that quality. I’m so proud that on the packing, it says' Made in the USA' and 'by hand.' It’s rewarding to me and the family that we can take a product and make it from scratch.”
In the Spec 1, the third call in the Cody Calls lineup, Zearing developed the first wooden sounding board used in turkey pot calls. It was a call five years in the making, a process that changed the game as it was known. It was named the Spec 1 after all the detailed specs it took to finally get it right. He was proud of the Spec 1, and the first 2,000 were numbered. Those holding one of the numbered Spec 1s have a treasure, no doubt.
He used that same design process for the Envy, a call that Zearing claims, “is the most imitated and copied call in the industry.” The wooden sounding board, as many know, is a staple in pot calls today, but Zearing was first to make the discovery.
The same goes for his two-piece strikers. He was making corn cob strikers at the time, and he took one to a company with a C&C machine to have them duplicate it with the corn cob part made of wood. He says, “That’s now known as a two-piece striker. That came from us. It caught on so fast.”
“If you’re going to sell the best call in the world, you’ve got to put the best striker with it to enhance the sound,” says Zearing. Again, he was constantly innovating and improving his product line. Research and Development, he called it, and he has a big R&D sign in his shop to remind himself of it.
Old advertisement for Cody Calls.
He was having huge success making calls for retailers at this point, but as for direct customer sales, he attributes a lot of his word-of-mouth success to one Bob Dixon. Zearing says, “Bob knew I was building calls. Being the turkey hunter he was, he wasn’t going to let a decent call get out of his eyesight. He called me up one day and introduced himself and wanted to try a couple of calls. Back in those days, they were selling Mossy Oak camo out of the trunks of their cars.”
Bob Dixon then invited Zearing to come down to Texas and hunt Rios with the Mossy Oak crew. “I was very humbled to be invited to Texas,” he says. “I went and was there with Mr. Fox, Toxey, Bob Dixon, Cuz, and Carsey. We killed a ton of birds. It was a memorable time of my life and I was happy and proud to be there.”
“Bob was unbelievable at building relationships. He could be friends with someone off the street in a minute and make them laugh. One of my favorite memories—one time we were hunting together and Bob called one up. Well, that turkey got so close that he brushed his fan up against my shoulder. We never got a shot at it. We laughed so hard after that turkey left. We were rolling on the ground. I'd never seem him laugh so hard. That’s just one of many laughs we had together.”
Bob was particularly fond of the glass Envy, Zearing recalled. Bob would give one to anyone he turkey hunted with as a keepsake and tell them all about Cody Calls and Zearing. Zearing sent him boxes of the glass Envys to give out and through Bob’s high praises, more and more people began to contact Cody Calls for another call.
Bob and Zearing wanted to distinguish the glass Envy a bit more, so they painted the call green under the glass and Bob named it the Green Machine. The Green Machine, as many know, is a legendary call and is directly responsible for many a longbeard killed.
Bill Zearing, Fox Haas, Toxey Haas, Bob Dixon, Cuz Strickland, Carsey Young, and others at one of Mossy Oak's first Rio Roundups in Texas.
Bill Zearing went on to create many more incredible calls, like the Spec 1 Legend, a green slate version of the Spec 1 that he almost didn’t make for anyone else but his son and himself because it sounded so good. Finally, he was convinced to make and sell them; the Spec 1 Legend has never been advertised; it has sold exclusively through word of mouth and its reputation. That Spec 1 Legend is the call that Neill Haas used to call up Mr. Fox’s 2022 turkey, a fact Zearing is really proud of.
“The Spec 1 Legend is the last thing that turkey ever heard,” he says. “That call has earned its reputation since day one.”
And Zearing doesn't only sell pot calls. The Southern Belle is a box call that has garnered quite a reputation for itself, too. It was originally made from a piece of heavy wood that a man wanted made into calls for his grandkids. Zearing thought to himself, 'well, I could probably more easily make a boat anchor out of this wood.' But he made the box calls and was amazed at how great they sounded. He began producing and selling them shortly after.
He says, “Tom Kelly has got one of the Southern Belles. He wrote me a nice letter one time that I still have. It said 'the Southern Belle is by far the finest box call he has in his arsenal.'” To have Tom Kelly, possibly the most legendary turkey hunter of all time, compliment a call like that is the best endorsement a call maker could ever have.
Mr. Zearing was, of course, asked along with 8 other call makers to make 10 commemorative calls to honor Mr. Fox Haas in 2023. His 10 glass pot calls featured a feather from Mr. Fox's 2022 turkey under the glass. He was also asked by Toxey Haas a number of years ago to make calls from the wood of the original Mossy Oak tree that fell after a lightning storm. From that special wood, he was trusted to make a few pot calls, a few box calls, duck calls, knives, hat pins, and crow calls. Certainly, he's been an incredible friend to Mossy Oak and the relationship there goes much deeper than just business.
Now, 41 years after Cody Calls began, Mr. Bill Zearing is proud of the work and legacy he has created for himself. He has customers that call him up and report how many birds they’ve killed on one of his calls. Some of his calls from the early 90s have seen more than 300 gobblers killed, he says, and his donated calls have raised over $100,000 for NWTF, an impressive dollar amount for a small company.
Probably what’s most important to Mr. Bill Zearing, though, is the lasting legacy forged through his family. His son, Travis, helped him in the shop all those years ago when he was a kid, and now Travis’s 11-year-old son, Taden (whose middle name is also Cody,) comes over every day after school to help in the shop. He’s eat up with it, according to Travis and Zearing.
“Taden loves it. I think he’ll possibly take it over one day before I do, actually. He really likes doing it and running the machines with him,” Travis admits.
Zearing and his wife and his son and daughter and their respective families live on the same large plot of land in Pennsylvania. They’re known around town as the “turkey call family,” Travis jokes.
Zearing says, “It’s been a really rewarding life. I’ve got so many stories, all around these calls. The hard work has paid off. Here I am 70 years old now, and I just want to enjoy it and take the kids hunting and fishing,” He adds, “But I feel like I want to go on for another 20 years, for sure.”
Bill Zearing, his son Travis, and his grandsons Taden (11) and Archer (8). Travis and his two sons have never used another call besides a Cody Call and likely never will. To them, Cody Calls represent heritage and family legacy.
Mr. Bill Zearing comes from a class of men that changed turkey hunting. His innovations, talent, and hard work has affected just about every modern turkey hunter today for the better. Mossy Oak is proud to call him a friend, and you can bet many more turkeys will be killed using Mr. Zearing's calls for years and years to come.
Read More: 30 Years with Mossy Oak by Bill Zearing
Cody Calls in Order of Release:
World Class (laminated)
Cody 2 (one-piece)
Spec 1 (laminated)
Green Machine (one-piece glass)
Drop Dead Woodsman (five-piece)
Fat Wood Woodsman (five-piece)
Spec 1 Legend (laminated, green slate)
Southern Belle (box)