Iowa hunter faces disability by creating call of the wild
NEWTON — Brandon Knopf climbed the career ladder to management by his 30s and built a home on prime land near Lake Red Rock. The bachelor spent his weekends golfing, hunting and fishing.
Six years later in 2017, he sat in a chair before a television in constant, searing pain from a rare disorder. He had to quit working, lost his house and moved into his parents’ basement.
“I was scared. Am I supposed to have a life, am I allowed to have a life, or am I supposed to be stuck in this chair?” said Knopf, 42, of Newton. “I lost my work and home and I lost my purpose. When you have lost a purpose, you don’t have a reason to get out of bed and do anything.”
At that low point, an idea came to him. He had always thought about making a duck call. They are the musical instruments of hunting that mimic calls, played by thousands of Iowa hunters as duck season begins at month’s end.
A couple of problems emerged: He wasn’t handy; he had one tool.
“I had a screwdriver and I wasn’t even good with that,” Knopf said.
But he had a new purpose.
“It probably saved my life,” he said.
In 10 short months, his custom duck and turkey calls joined the product line of an exclusive online retailer.
The Des Moines Register reports that Knopf would sit in the duck blind and watch the sunrise. That was always one of his favorite parts. That and being outside with the guys, the camaraderie similar to golfing with his high school state tournament team.
But he woke up with hip pain in 2011. It moved to his back and didn’t go away. He had a surgery on a disc. Two weeks later, the pain came back. Knopf had two more surgeries, each time revealing more scar tissue around his spine, he said. There was no explanation for it.
Two years later, Knopf was lying in bed when his legs started to spasm, “bouncing a foot off the bed,” he said. “I didn’t know what was going on.”
It took another year and several trips to Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, before he learned that he had a rare disorder called spinal adhesive arachnoiditis, an inflammation of a membrane that protects the nerves of the spinal cord. It leads to a buildup of scar tissue, shooting pain and neurological problems.
There is no cure, only treatment for the pain.
“My leg would drag, I was having speech issues, and my arm wouldn’t work,” he said of the disorder that he was told will progress. “I should have 30, 40 years left in me, and that’s not the life I have.”
The reality hit him hard. He scribbled down a bucket list and took off hunting to bag the four species of wild turkeys in North America. He did it, yet the pain and disability grew worse and he moved home.
“There are days when I can’t get out of bed. Mom has to get me up,” he said.
Debbie Knopf, his mother, grew more worried. She had lost an older son at age 29 and now Brandon grew depressed. He had the world by the tail, a beautiful house within walking distance of the lake, hunting buddies and rewarding work, she said. It was all gone.
“I used to watch him in that chair all day with very few connections with people he used to hunt with,” she said. “It was very hard.”
That all changed a year ago.
Part of duck hunting’s lure is the element of chance. Wild ducks don’t react the same from day to day. It depends on their mood, hunger or the weather. To call them in, you must be flexible. You must adapt.
Brandon’s initial foray into woodworking led to a finger sliced open after a spasm. His fine motor skills had deteriorated, not to mention he was decidedly not crafty.
“The kid didn’t know a thing, even about a saw,” his mother said.
Never underestimate the power of a Type A personality. Brandon endlessly read instructions and watched online videos on the art of making a call. He bought some simple tools at first and made a duck call out of wood.
He didn’t even know at first how to smooth out the bubbles of the polyurethane.
“He always told me the greatest gift I ever gave to him was sandpaper,” said Debbie Knopf.
Brandon made more calls as he became caught up in trying to perfect the process. It engaged his mind while fighting the fog of opioids that manage his pain. His parents saw him begin to converse again, talking through the challenges of making calls.
Then he got a chance to sell them. Central Iowa Outdoors Without Boundaries, a nonprofit organization that assists hunters and anglers with disabilities, was having its annual fundraising banquet and wondered if Knopf would like to set up a table and sell a few calls.
“I donated one and it sold for $200,” he said. “By the end of the night, I had sold $1,200 worth of calls.”
The former businessman was on fire with the possibilities. He takes disability benefits, limiting his ability to earn money, so his family launched Iowa Hunting Products to sell his calls online, which allowed him to buy materials and equipment for his hobby.
With each call sold, he could buy new equipment, like the router and drill press, the jigsaw and lathe. The acrylic or wood duck and turkey calls are cut in the garage and finished in the basement.
He scoured websites for the hardest of woods — African blackwood or tropical cocobolo — and perfected the art of polishing the acrylic calls. He meticulously found the right balance in the cuts of the soundboards and bells, the placement of the cork that holds the reed.
Each was custom made for hunters. Some want a loud aggressive call, or a raspier sound. Some don’t have the wind they used to.
“It takes some work to make it just right,” Knopf said. “It’s like a musical instrument in a sense. There is an art to calling ducks.”
It wasn’t all smooth sailing. He would work for an hour and lie down for two in pain. A spasm would send a tool hard into a call and ruin it. Some days you could see ruined calls in the front yard where he threw them in anger.
But he learned to adapt and designed new supports and clamps that made it easier for unsteady hands.
People noticed. A Pittsburgh online retailer of exclusive products called The Call Reserve asked him to send some products to test.
“You don’t want a call that is only capable of making one sound. Ducks and turkeys have a myriad of different calls, and that is what we found in his,” said Pat Reilly, managing partner of The Call Reserve.
A lot of their clients are also collectors and look for a story behind the call.
“That’s a delicate balance with Brandon,” Reilly said. “He doesn’t want sympathy votes. His calls are capable of standing on their own without that story. But people need to hear that story. Maybe that provides some inspiration to people who are limited.”
A turkey call made of the hedge from a 50-year-old fence post, plated with copper, had such an uncanny natural sound of a real turkey that hunters lined up for it, including Joe Carmichael, the president of Central Iowa Outdoors Without Boundaries, who saw no self-pity in its maker.
“He would qualify as one of our hunters,” Carmichael said, “yet he took someone else hunting, one of our disabled veterans.”
After years in hospitals, Knopf said there were always people worse off than him.
He’ll ride an electric cart to hunt on private property later this month, where friends have built a blind that he can access easier with his unsteady gait.
“But I’ll be honest with you. I enjoy the camaraderie, I enjoy calling the ducks, I enjoy the sunrises. I don’t have to necessarily kill anything,” he said. “Your priorities change. I’m not so certain I wouldn’t rather get up and make a duck call.”
Without the calls that send a wild melody into the Iowa air every fall, he figures he would be in the recliner, lost to the world.
“That word ‘disability’ makes a lot of people think you can’t have a life,” he said. “I don’t think that is the case. I can still have a life.”
Information from: The Des Moines Register, http://www.desmoinesregister.com