Photo by Terry Madewell
Talking turkey is something I’m quite passionate about. After 20-plus years of hunting, scouting and calling to the boss of the spring woods, I am still easily transposed into “turkey only” mode at even the mention of turkey talking.
I especially love to talk to newcomers who are caught up in the apparent complexities of turkey hunting. When talking to these guys and gals, invariably one question will ring from their mouths near the beginning of the conversation.
“What’s the best turkey call to use?”
To which I reply with my premeditated response, after leading them into the turkey-talking trap, “The one that sounds like what he most wants to hear.”
After I allow them to mull that over a moment, I then attempt to clarify that confusing comeback with an offbeat anecdote.
When I was young, my parents had me take piano lessons. I learned to play this musical instrument, and to this day, it’s my favored type of music. But other people equally prefer the sound of the guitar. Others perhaps prefer the drums . . . you get the idea. You can play many of the same songs on any of them, but different folks prefer the version played on different instruments.
Turkey calls can be considered musical instruments in the same sense. Having learned timing and rhythm as a child on a musical instrument does help me when calling now to a turkey. I pay attention to pitch, tone, cadence, rhythm and other characteristics of the call I’m using. Different calls have different sound capabilities and qualities with different tones, pitch and volume. Some calls simply perform better under some conditions than others.
I certainly did not figure this out by myself; several of the best turkey hunters I’ve ever hunted with have noted the connection between turkey calls and music. Plus, every turkey hunter that I’ve hunted with that I consider a truly outstanding caller/ hunter has something in common. They all have one call that’s their bread-and-butter call, but they also have at least two, sometimes three or four more they have quickly accessible and will use effectively and without hesitation. On nearly every full-day hunt with these top hunters, I have watched them use every call in their bag of tricks multiple times. And they use them with confidence.
You can get by with one call, and I know some productive turkey hunters who have a single call and are successful. But they’ll sometimes hit the proverbial brick wall on a stubborn gobbler or tough weather condition. If you want to expand your abilities and have the capability to deal with whatever Mother Nature, or a hard-hunted, late-season, wary gobbler can dish out, versatility in your call selection is a key to success.
In my humble opinion, there is no single call that’s generically best. If there were, there would be 200 versions of that same call on the market and precious little else to choose from. With any call, or more appropriately any type of call, there are pros and cons. Add to that the almost infinite variety of challenges that a hunter will face during a season (or even during a single morning sometimes), and the need for variety and versatility becomes more obvious.
There are many varieties of calls. The first one many hunters think of is the mouth diaphragm call. But actually it’s only one type of an entire series of “air” calls. In addition to the mouth diaphragm calls, there’s the tube call, of which there are many versions where you force air by blowing over a fixed reed on a tubular device. Then there’s the wing-bone style where you suck the air through the actual wing bones of a turkey or a manufactured product that is similar in design.
There’s also the peg-and-pot style of friction call. More commonly referred to as a slate call, this is manufactured in many versions with different materials that produce a wide range of sounds. In addition to actual slate, there are the glass pot calls, the aluminum pot calls and other types of materials used as sounding boards in the pots. But the common component is that there’s a peg-type striker in one hand, and the pot held in the other, and you pull the peg over the surface of the pot to produce extremely realistic turkey sounds.
There are also the wooden box types of friction calls. There are an almost endless number of varieties of calls in this category. The box and paddle is the most common of all, based on my experience. They come in sizes from mini to magnum. But there’s also the small “shirt pocket” box with a separate hand-held striker that’s been chalked.
Finally, there’s the simplistic-looking but highly effective push-pull pin-type box call. Some varieties of these push-pull calls are further refined so they’re capable of attaching to the stock of your gun for close-range use with minimal movement. This enables a hunter to tempt that gobbler to take those final steps into shotgun range.
Before we get into the details of the specific types of calls, there are a couple more thoughts I need to lay before you. There are no beginner calls, only beginners playing the instrument. Second, you don’t need to carry every type of call with you, but you need to select a variety that reflect the best use of your abilities so you’ll have options in different hunting scenarios. Being proficient with multiple calls will enhance your confidence. And confidence is a key to talking serious stuff to a gobbler.
Everyone seems to think that they’re not real turkey talkers unless they can use a mouth diaphragm. I won’t go quite that far, but I will say a mouth call is a key component of calling. For many top hunters, it may not be their number one call, but it is a key part of their system.
It is an excellent call in wet weather, or even windy weather. You can get loud, high-pitched calls from this instrument. Wet weather does not affect it as it does many of the pot-and-peg or box-type calls.
But for me, the greatest advantage to diaphragm calls is that they are excellent finishing calls. The clucks, purrs or love calls used to convince that gobbler all is well and to come in those last few yards can be played for him at low, sweet subtle levels with no visible movement because it’s shielded by my face mask.
The value of this ability to call with no visible movement cannot be overstated.
I can focus totally on looking for the gobbler, or watching him react to the call if he’s in sight. Plus, I can concentrate on the shot I need to make with no hands on a call. The more you hunt, the more you’ll appreciate this ability once you learn it. Even if you learn to be confident in making only soft clucks, yelps or purrs, the mouth diaphragm will be a valuable ally.
Learn to use it to its full extent and you’ll understand why so many hunters rely on it as their favored call. With the different models and types of reeds in these calls, you can make an endless variety of sounds. I’ll carry at least three different types of mouth calls with me and on many occasions I’ve been through all three working the same gobbler. Sometimes the first two might make him gobble, but the third one would sound just right and he’d come straight in.
I never go to the turkey woods without a tube call. I’ll have one on a lanyard around my neck and a backup (or two) in my vest. They are loud, but they can also be subtle. They have a pitch that can be heard a long, long way and make extremely effective locator calls. They are unaffected by wind, rain, cold or heat.
For hard-hunted gobblers, tube calls have another advantage: They are not nearly as popular among hunters as many other types of calls, so birds will not have heard them as much. These calls have a distinctive sound that is often unique to a hard-worked gobbler. I’ve used it on many occasions to take a bird that was call-shy.
The tube, however, does require movement on your part. It requires the use of a hand to hold it to your mouth. Hidden under your facemask, it’s still great for finishing a gobbler if you’re the caller and a buddy is the gunner. Otherwise, you’ll need to set up where you will have some cover to make the slight movement of releasing the call and putting the gun into shooting position when the gobbler gets within range. (This will apply to most calls.) But on many occasions, I’ve been able to put the call down as the gobbler approaches but is still out of sight, and he will come on in without having to use the mouth diaphragm I’ve placed in my mouth.
The same is true of the wingbone style of calls. It’s perhaps used even less than the tube and makes a totally distinctive sound as well. This call will require more practice for most hunters to master, especially the more subtle sounds. But if you go to the effort, you will have a call at your disposal that few other hunters are likely to employ.
Air-operated calls have the advantage of a wide range of calling volumes and pitch and are often the best choice in adverse weather, particularly rain. There are few downsides to air calls, although for some hunters they are more difficult to learn than other types of calls. If you want to be an outstanding turkey caller, practice until you get it right.
FRICTION CALLS — POTS AND STRIKER PEGS
As noted above, there are many, many types of materials used in the sounding boards of these types of calls. Some are made to be waterproof and when used with a ceramic or metal striker or peg, the call can be effective even in wet weather.
I feel these calls excel in two primary areas.
First, they seem to be the easiest to learn in terms of making realistic sounds that will call a turkey to you. They are a great call to learn first. With a short lesson from a hunter and an hour of practice, you could call a turkey on your own.
Second, in the hands of a skilled hunter, these calls can play some of the sweetest and most realistic music we have at our disposal. From beginner to maestro, these calls will perform at the highest level.
There are so many varieties, so I will not attempt to cover them all here, but I suggest you try as many as possible and see which ones you prefer. I have settled on two distinctive types for my personal use, although I could make a good argument for any of the other types.
I use an aluminum call for long-range, high-pitch calling when prospecting for a gobbler. I also have a high-quality slate call for the moderate and close-in calling. Let me clarify, however, that in many cases I’ve struck a gobbler at the far end of my hearing range with a aluminum call and hickory striker and called that bird in to the gun with the same call, finishing with soft clucks and purrs. But having the second type of pot and striker call gives me more options, which is the real key. It can be the difference between a gobbler hung up just out of shooting range and a gobbler hanging off your shoulder.
Another often-overlooked key to using these calls is the striker. There are so many different ones that again, you need to play with them and see what you like best. Different woods, or materials, will produce vastly different sounds even on the same call.
I will usually carry four different strikers with me. One is primarily for long-range, high-pitch calling. One for moderate-volume calling. One for wet weather. And one is a homemade corncob-topped peg that makes the softest, most subtle purrs and clucks I’ve ever heard.
I carry so many different kinds of strikers because much of the key to the music from these calls is in the striker. The type of material, striker length and the shape of the heavy end of the striker all come into play.
You’re looking for the right vibration from the striker on the call and what you prefer may be different than what another hunter will prefer. Each hunter will play the call slightly differently, so experiment with call types and striker lengths. Don’t be hesitant to trim length off wooden strikers until you get the sound you need.
Also, when you are hunting, carry sandpaper or some material to rough up the striker and the call from time to time. A long day of hunting without touching up these calls can cause the dreaded “squeak or squeal” at precisely the worst moment. I’ve been there, done that, and advise you to avoid it.
The only downside is the obvious one of movement. Often you can give a gobbler such a good dose of sweet talk that by the time they get into view, they’re committed to come all the way. But again, it reinforces the occasional need for a hands-free call at times. If you’re calling for a buddy, you can hide the call behind your knees and call the longbeard all the way in.
Perhaps the classic photograph that most hunters have ingrained in their minds of a turkey hunter and a call is a hunter dressed in full camo with a paddle-style box call in hand. This call is certainly one for the ages; it’s been around for a long time and will be here for the duration.
In the hands of a skilled hunter, there’s essentially nothing a box call can’t do in terms of producing turkey calls. It will make loud or soft clucks, fantastic yelps (for which is most commonly used), but it also creates excellent cutts, cackles and even gobbles. A big box and paddle will crank out a loud, long-distance locator call, but in the right hands the same call will purr and cluck so low that only a gobbler can hear it at 40 yards.
Box calls come in myriad of sizes and wood types. You can spend as much as you want or go the economy route. While the high-dollar calls certainly have incredible sounding potential, you can’t buy perfection in any call. With a paddle box, like any other call, you’ll have to earn the quality of sound you make. Economy calls in the hands of a skilled player will call turkeys like crazy. But if you’re into getting all you can out of a box call, consider the craftsman-style calls. There is a difference, but it’s only apparent if you’re willing to commit time and practice.
To me, the push-pull call is the one Rodney Dangerfield would have used. They seem to get the least respect of all. This is the one that seems to be considered a “beginner” call to many. Not true. I have hunted with two different high-profile, nationally known turkey hunters who use that call as their first choice with incredible results.
On several occasions, earlier in my hunting career, I used this call as a last-resort call on hung-up gobblers twice one season and twice nearly got trampled they ran in so fast. It played the right music for the gobblers on that day. Now, I use it much more readily and have tons of confidence in it. It is a simple and almost foolproof tool for making yelps and does a decent job on other sounds as well. But often the gobblers just love that push-pull yelp. If you think it’s too simplistic for many top hunters, think again. If you’re new to the sport, it will surprise you how many hunters tote one around.
The other style I want to mention is the small front shirt pocket-sized wooden box call with a separate striker. You can get a lot of sound from this smallish call, and again, create different music with this style of call. Chalk up the striker and you can either run it over the lip of the box or vice versa; I’ve seen it worked effectively both ways.
The downside to most all box calls is that since the key components of wood and chalk are used for the sound-producing friction process, wet weather can hamper your efforts. I’ve known hunters to carry large plastic bags and put the calls in them when calling. Although the sound is muffled in the bag in wet weather, it can still work. Again, it’s not the most effective approach. Why not learn to use an air-operated call for these occasions?
Which brings me back to the focal point of turkey call considerations. To be consistently effective under varying terrain and weather situations, early and late season, you need to be versatile in your call selection and calling ability.
You do not need to learn them all. But you do need to have at hand different types that excel in different situations. I strongly suggest you learn to use a mouth call. Even if you don’t prefer it for long-distance calling or calling from a stationary place such as a food plot, it can be the only call that will enable you to finish off a gobbler at times. In my opinion, an air-type call, any of them, is needed for wet-weather long-range calling. If you can learn to use the mouth calls, then carry two or three of these small calls in your case.
I believe in diversity in calling sounds and I think at least two friction calls should be in your bag in addition to whatever air calls you carry. A pot and striker and a paddle box make a good team. Or your selections may be an aluminum pot and a slate with a half-dozen different type strikers. A push-pull and a glass pot with a waterproof striker as well as wooden strikers is a good combination.
The final key is to master these calls you’ve selected. Practice each until it’s second nature to produce quality sounds. All experienced hunters have “go-to” calls that are their favored ones when it’s crunch time. But they have others on the first team, too. It is far better to be efficient with three or four different calls than fair to middling with a dozen. Play it just right and your hunts will often end with a bang.