We’d been prowling through the woods for nearly two hours and had neither seen nor heard a squirrel. This was not a good sign because when you’re squirrel hunting with Harold Knight and don’t see a squirrel, it’s a safe bet there are no squirrels in the neighborhood.
Knight has a hunting pedigree to rival fellow Kentuckian Daniel Boone. He is also the Knight half of Knight & Hale Game Calls and Knight & Hale’s Ultimate Hunting television program. Knight knows squirrels. (He’s also well acquainted with turkeys, deer, geese, ducks, elk and a swarm of other critters, but that’s another story.) He can imitate a squirrel bark as easily as most people can speak their name and is better at locating the bushy-tailed critters than a mountain cur.
Hunting conditions were less than ideal. It was early in the season. The late summer heat was oppressive, the foliage thick, the mosquitoes hungry and the squirrels apparently absent. We came to the edge of the woods where a patch of timber had been cut. Knight, dressed in his usual outfit of jeans, camouflage shirt and matching cap, sat on a stump looking somewhat mischievous, like a kid let out early from school. He asked if either of us had ever squirrel hunted barefoot.
I said that I had not but had known people who did.
“Barefoot?” our hunting companion, a guy in his mid-40s who worked for a large mail-order outdoor company, asked incredulously. “No. I’ve never heard of that. Why would you hunt squirrels barefoot?”
“Lets you move quietly through the woods after the leaves fall,” explained Knight, who grew up in what is today the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area in a large family with scant resources. Wild game put food on the table, and squirrels were plentiful. “You can hunt without making a lot of noise and spooking the squirrels. I did it a lot when I was a kid.”
Our companion removed his cap and wiped the sweat from his brow, revealing a bald scalp and a rim of thinning blond hair. Knight, who has a gentle and delightfully country-flavored sense of humor, said matter-of-factly: “You lost yours early. Too bad I didn’t know you back then. I used to be a barber, and I could’ve told you how you could have kept your hair.”
The guy sighed and smiled, having undoubtedly heard hundreds of this-is-what-you-should-have-done-to-have-kept-your-hair-from-falling-out stories.
“Yeah? How?” he asked.
“When it started coming out, you could have swept it up and put it in a cup and put it on a shelf,” Knight said to a round of genuine laughter. “Because that’s the only way you can keep it.”
Knight’s barbering days are behind him, although he still trims a few heads, including that of his friend and longtime business partner David Hale, the Hale half of Knight & Hale Game Calls and Knight & Hale’s Ultimate Hunting. He also has an impressive hunting pedigree.
The two men, who each live within a rifle shot of where they started their game call business more than four decades ago, are two of the most recognized hunting personalities in North America. They are certainly Kentucky’s best-known woodsmen, second, arguably, only to Daniel Boone. And Boone would have been hard-pressed to match Knight or Hale’s woodsmanship.
Knight was barbering and Hale was operating a hog farm when they partnered in 1972 to form Knight & Hale Game Calls. For the next dozen years, Hale continued to farm and Knight kept cutting hair while every spare minute was spent designing and building calls. But the business grew into a sleep-depriving monster. They went full time in 1984.
“I was falling asleep behind the barber chair,” Harold said, only half jokingly.
It was a business venture that sprang from the most unlikely of unlikely circumstances.
Or maybe, as Hale insists, there was something else involved.
“There’s a lot of divine intervention in our deal,” said Hale, who, like Knight, is not hesitant to talk about his Christian faith. “A lot of divine intervention.”
Hale grew up in southern Christian County with two siblings, strict but loving schoolteacher parents and the dream of becoming a farmer. In the mid-1960s while attending Murray State University, he decided to try turkey hunting, an activity he claims to have known nothing about. There were only a handful of turkeys in the state at that time and nearly all were in what was by then the federally owned Land Between the Lakes, a strip of timbered land separating Kentucky Lake from the newly impounded Lake Barkley.
Hale killed a gobbler, one of only about a dozen hunters to do so that season. It was a feat that propelled him to local celebrity status.
“A lot of people seemed interested that I had killed a turkey,” he said. “People started asking me what kind of [turkey] call I’d used. I hadn’t used one because I hadn’t had one. It got a little embarrassing after a while. Then somebody told me to go over to Cadiz to the barbershop and there was a guy there who made turkey calls out of a pill bottle.”
He traveled to Cadiz and met Harold Knight, the call-making barber. Knight gave Hale a turkey call he’d fashioned from a medicine bottle and a piece of latex. A friendship developed, and the two young men began hunting together.
A couple of years later, they were turkey hunting in LBL. Hale had exited the woods and was waiting for his friend when a stranger drove up in a Jeep. They struck up a conversation, and the guy asked about the bottle hanging from a cord around Hale’s neck.
“I told him it was a turkey call,” Hale said. “He said he was interested in turkey calls and asked me to blow it for him.”
Hale did as requested. The stranger was impressed.
“That’s the best I ever heard,” he told the young Kentuckian.
The man introduced himself as Dave Harbour, contributing editor for Sports Afield magazine.
“That didn’t mean anything to me at the time, although it would mean a lot in years to come,” Hale said. “But he wanted to know where he could get one of those calls. I told him I was waiting for the guy who made it to come out of the woods, and if he’d stick around he’d probably make him one.”
They waited and had enough of a chat to kindle a friendship. When Knight was late coming out of the woods, Hale suggested that Harbour visit the Cadiz barbershop the following week.
“In those days, you hunted Friday and Saturday on three weekends,” Hale recalled. “[Harbour] said he was going to fish and mess around that week so he could hunt the next weekend. He went to Cadiz and met Harold, and Harold made him a call.”
Turkey calls weren’t new, of course. Box calls and others had been around for years. But Knight’s tube call was something new, or at least different. It was also effective.
Using the barber’s homemade call, Harbour, who was a skilled and experienced turkey hunter, bagged a bird on the last day of the season. A few months later, his story about how a tube call tricked a Kentucky gobbler appeared in Sports Afield, which at the time was one of the premier outdoor magazines.
“Dave [Harbour] told me to get ready because I’d get several letters,” said Knight. “I got 3,000 requests for calls just almost immediately after that story ran. Three thousand.”
Knight began working out of his basement and then in the back of the barbershop, struggling in the evenings to make enough calls to meet the growing demand while cutting hair during the day.
“Harold finally said, ‘Why don’t you help me make these calls, and we’ll see if we can make enough money to go to Missouri to turkey hunt,’ ” Hale said.
“That was our goal,” Knight added. “To make enough money to go to Missouri to turkey hunt.”
“I know that sounds like some deal for a game call company,” Hale said. “But that’s where it started.”
Both men still define themselves as “country boys.” That was and probably remains a fair description. But they quickly also became astute businessmen and skilled marketing strategists, recognizing early that each year demanded a new or newly designed product. They also worked with the outdoor press and, later, ventured into television to help successfully introduce and market their products.
Success followed in waves, but it was also a baptism by fire because almost everything they learned came by trial and error. Business was steady but not skyrocketing. Then, in 1987, they introduced the Double Clucker goose call, which would be used to win three world goose-calling championships.
After that came the EZ Grunter deer call, and things really took off. That call was introduced at a time when the country had approximately 16 million deer hunters and 500,000 turkey hunters, which turned out to be a perfect business equation. Numbers of both groups would soon soar as deer and turkey numbers expanded. Knight and Hale’s business would enjoy near-parallel growth.
Turkey hunters, the men knew, like to carry a variety of calls and want one of every type available. The concept of a deer call was relatively new, and whitetail hunters were only interested in something that worked.
“Deer had the number of hunters, and turkey hunters had the number of calls. So both of them together created a pretty good market,” said Hale. “Business-wise it was a great combination, and it just exploded on us.”
It was largely a case of being in the right place at the right time with the right product. But some clever sales strategy was needed, too. The EZ Grunter provided Hale and Knight a valuable lesson in marketing.
The men knew they needed help in getting the word out about their products but weren’t sure how to go about it.
“We were green and didn’t know what was going on,” Hale recalled. “But we knew a guy in St. Louis at an advertising agency, and we asked him to help us come up with a way to tell people about some game calls we had. And we had $8,000 to spend.”
The ad man was not impressed.
“He laughed at that,” Hale said. “He said he didn’t have anywhere he could go with $8,000.”
But he did go somewhere. The advertising executive agreed to put together a proposal, explaining that Knight and Hale could “take it or leave it.”
The idea became the “You Make the Call” promotion, where potential customers would call a toll-free number and hear about 40 seconds of the EZ Grunter in action followed by ordering information.
It worked so well that Knight and Hale employed the same phone-in-and-listen tactic with their goose and turkey calls.
“We had 48,000 incomplete calls the first month, but South Central Bell had 6,000 calls that got through that we paid for,” Hale said.
“We were selling more deer calls than anybody in the country,” Knight added.
On the strength of an $8,000 idea and calls that worked as advertised, the company enjoyed its best year, and Knight & Hale Game Calls went from being a moderately successful local company to a phenomenon.
“It boils down to this,” Hale said. “The good Lord was watching out for two dummies. We just had more good luck than we had bad luck.”
Today, Harold Knight and David Hale remain the best of friends, their business partnership intact and vibrant. In 1996, they sold Knight & Hale Game Calls to PRADCO Outdoor Brands, a decision made with no regrets.
“We sold to the right people at the right time,” said Knight.
They remain active within the company, mainly in product design and promotion. They also own Commonwealth Productions, which produces their long-running Knight & Hale’s Ultimate Hunting program on the Outdoor Channel.
The Knight & Hale “office” is precisely what you’d expect: a simple, no-nonsense, rustic-but-comfortable log cabin surrounded by scatter timber and overlooking a small lake. It’s simply furnished and adorned with deer and turkey mounts.
They are conservative, religious, family-oriented and practical-minded men, polite in manner and speech.
“We knew how to say, ‘Yes, sir,’ and ‘No, sir,’ ” Hale said. “That opened a lot of doors. It still does.”
Camouflage and jeans remain their basic business suit. They have achieved a level of celebrity and success neither man ever imagined but through it all have somehow managed to remain unassuming. They are good, patient listeners. If either man carries any self-satisfied arrogance, he keeps it well hidden. This, however, doesn’t seem likely.
What you see is what you get.
“It’s pretty satisfying when people recognize you,” Hale acknowledged. “But we’re really just old country boys. That’s all we are. We are humble people. I go back to my raising and Harold does, too. We were raised very humbly. Very poor. It was a meager existence, but it was a family existence. And it was a good one.”
An open Bible lay on the counter separating the kitchen from the couch.
Providence, it seems, played an early hand.
“When I was 11 years old, I killed my first goose,” Knight said, recalling an event that largely set the course for his life. “It had a band on its leg and the band had a Bible verse. It was Mark 11:22: ‘Have faith in God.’ ”
The bird had been banded in Kingsville, Ontario, by the Jack Miner Migratory Bird Foundation. Knight’s grandfather suggested they write to Mr. Miner about the goose.
“We got all this literature back telling about how they did their missionary work banding geese and ducks,” Knight said. “That got me to thinking. I [attended] a little church in the Land Between the Lakes, and about six months later, that’s where I accepted Christ.”
For more information about Knight & Hale Game Calls or Knight & Hale’s Ultimate Hunting, visit knightandhale.com.