How Many Turkey Calls Are Enough?

Gobbler hunters have gobs of calls to choose from. Here's an overview of what call to use this spring -- and when. (April 2008)

Turkey call maker Bruce Wurth fooled this fine gobbler with one of his American Friction box calls.
Photo by John Higley.

If ever a spring day in the turkey woods held promise, this one did! My buddy Tom Stone and I were hunting a familiar piece of ground where we knew for certain there were plenty of gobblers. In fact, three of them had just opened from a nearby stand of pines, and we figured we were in the perfect position to waylay them after they flew down. All we had to do was call to the toms once their feet were on the ground, and we felt sure they would come right to us.

Everything went according to plan -- up to a point. After the toms were down, they gobbled repeatedly and started coming our way. They were approaching so rapidly that Stone raised his shotgun and rested it on his knee. He just knew that the feathered Romeos would stroll into range at any minute.

The trouble was, nobody told the turkeys what they were expected to do. They had other plans.

We were overlooking a two-track dirt road that seemed like a natural route for the birds to follow. But they veered off on a parallel path that we couldn't see. Finally, they hung up nearby, but out of sight, and simply refused to come any closer.

Oh, they gobbled a lot, which is always exciting. But it's much more fun when a turkey commits and comes sauntering in to meet what he thinks is the hen of his dreams.

Mulling over the situation, I came to the conclusion that we had to try something different or risk losing the opportunity altogether.

Because calling is what spring turkey hunting is all about, Tom and I shared the calling duties as the toms approached. I had a triple-reed diaphragm call in my mouth, while Stone stroked the lid of his well-used box call. The gobblers seemed to like both types of calls -- at first. But once they stopped coming, there was no urging them on with either one.

I fumbled in the pockets of my hunting vest, feeling for another type of call to use. Luckily, I had several, and one of them might be exactly what I needed to bring the turkeys into sure shotgun range.

It was worth a try.

What happened then?

We'll get to that in a minute. Meanwhile, let's briefly explore the world of turkey-calling devices.

You are excused if you're among the confused when it comes to choosing a turkey call either to add to your selection or to start your turkey-hunting career with.

There are dozens of designs to choose from. According to the sales hype, any one of them is a necessity for successful spring turkey hunting.

Despite the array, every call can be simply classified as either friction or air-operated. The former are worked with your hands, and the latter require exhaled or inhaled air. There are differences in tone, depending on the material used to make the particular call, and the way you use it.

Of course, all these calls are designed to make realistic turkey sounds -- which most do very well.

The truth is that any call will work at times. But occasionally, one type of device will perform better than another. That's the main reason why experienced turkey hunters rarely go afield with only one call.

In my own hunting vest, I keep at least three friction calls and half a dozen mouth calls. On some tough days, I use all of them in an attempt to make something happen.

Of course, not all calls are created equal. There are advantages and disadvantages to every one of them, which may or may not be critical in certain individual hunting situations.

For example, air-operated mouth calls -- also called diaphragms -- can be used with no hand movement. But tube yelpers, also air-operated, are hand-held.

Friction calls, such as box calls and pot-and-peg calls, require the use of both hands, while push-button calls can be operated with just one hand.

The point is, some calls require less movement to work than others. That can be a plus when a sharp-eyed old gobbler is strolling into view. The critical part of using a hand-held call is to knowing when to put it down and get ready for the visit.

As for ease of use, it's generally agreed that friction calls -- especially the box type -- are among the most effortless to master. Mouth calls take some getting used to, and some hunters never overcome the gag reflex caused by having a foreign object pressed against the roof of their mouth. Once you get over the uncomfortable feeling, however, the gag reflex never seems to surface again.

The obvious appeal of mouth calls is their hands-free use. Also, with diaphragms, you can make any turkey sound you can think of.

But the tone is definitely different than friction calls, and that can be either an advantage or disadvantage, depending on the preference of the gobbler being worked.

It's said that turkeys make between 28 and 30 different sounds, or combinations of sounds. Happily, hunters only need to know a couple of the basic sounds to be occasionally successful. However, most experienced hunters eventually learn to duplicate four or five of them, any one of which might help to fool a tom under certain circumstances.

The sound most commonly used in spring turkey hunting is the simple hen yelp. Depending on volume and the length of the series, it can be classified as the tree call, lost call or the plain yelp. The yelp is followed by the cluck, purr, fly-down cackle and cutting.

If you've never listened to turkeys before and don't happen to have access to a flock, you can purchase instructional CDs, DVDs or videos at well-stocked sporting goods stores or from outdoor catalogs featuring turkey-hunting gear. You can also pick up tips by joining the National Wild Turkey Federation (at and getting to know local chapter members or other turkey hunters.

In addition, if a sports show or sporting-goods store is sponsoring a turkey-hunting seminar in your area, by all means try to attend.

Realize, however, that no one can tell

you exactly when to employ a certain type of calling device to solve a particular situation as it unfolds. Even when all conditions seem to be the same, there are always unknown variables that can help or hinder your efforts.

Of course, if there were no variables and if there were black-and-white answers to every hunting scenario, turkey hunting would be far less challenging -- if not downright boring. As it is, trying to figure out the subtle nuances is what keeps the pastime fresh and interesting.

Being adaptable is very important in your calling endeavors. Even if you favor a certain calling device over the others, the time will come to put that call away and try something else. This is not rocket science, just common sense. If you know a tom turkey is in the vicinity, and if he's paying scant attention to your calling efforts, by all means get out of your rut and do something different.

True, nothing may work at that particular time -- but you'll never know if you don't try.

Earlier, I told you about a trio of gobblers that came only so far on a hunt Tom Stone and I were on. Stone is a good caller with plenty of experience, and I'm at least fair. But on that particular morning, the toms couldn't have cared less. They were stuck in their tracks, telling the imaginary hens they heard (that is, Stone and me) to come to them -- which, of course, we couldn't do.

We'd been trading off calling duties, using both friction and mouth calls. The toms seemed vocally interested in every string of yelps we made. But for the time being, they wouldn't commit to us and come even a step closer.

Attempting to remedy the situation, I reached into my vest and retrieved a traditional pot-and-peg slate call. Holding the peg, or striker, somewhat like a pencil with the top angled forward, I made small circles on the calling surface, which produced a series of loud yelps.

The toms gobbled back with gusto, but they still refused to budge.

After pausing for a couple of minutes, I called with less volume. A short while later, I yelped even more softly, like a hen slowly moving away. Those sweet slate-call yelps were the key. The turkeys couldn't stand the thought of being jilted!

After a flurry of gobbles, they worked their way uphill, right past Stone and me. That's when Stone pulled the trigger and collected a striking adult Rio Grande gobbler.

Stone was delighted with the turn of events. I wasn't surprised when the change of pace worked -- it wasn't the first time a simple adjustment made the difference between a nice day in the woods and an even better successful day.

If I notched my favorite old box call every time I fooled a gobbler with it, there wouldn't be any wood left. I'm not bragging, simply stating a fact. I've called turkeys regularly with that box since 1972 and finally retired it last spring, after 35 years!

I replaced it with a new box of a similar design -- which has already accounted for at least one big tom.

A typical box-call scenario unfolded several years ago on a Merriam's turkey hunt with Ed Sweet.

Sweet and I already had our turkeys on ice when we volunteered to help a lady hunter get her first gobbler. She had hunted turkeys before with her husband, an acquaintance of Sweet's. But he always got excited when a gobbler showed up, and that made her so tense that she never got off a successful shot.

This time, Sweet -- a very calm guy -- would sit with the lady while her husband and I attempted to call a wily tom into shotgun range.

As it happened, we were all together on a long, sparsely wooded ridge, when without prompting from us, a pair of toms opened up on the hillside a couple of hundred yards below. That was a good sign.

Plainly, the turkeys were looking for company, and we figured we should give it to them. We discussed the situation briefly, then went into action. Our plan -- simple, to be sure -- was for Sweet and the lady to slip downhill a hundred yards or so and set up, while her husband stayed put with me to participate in the calling process.

After 10 minutes, my companion started calling with a mouth call. The toms answered, but only once.

Several more attempts at calling got no audible reaction at all.

We let the situation rest for a few minutes, and then it was my turn. I let loose with a long string of yelps with the box call and immediately heard multiple gobbles in reply from both toms. I called again and got another strong reaction.

By then, it was obvious the birds were moving uphill. Every time I yelped, the toms answered. The best part was, they were getting closer to the hunters with every step.

When the lady's shotgun roared a few minutes later, it was high fives all around. She had her bird at last!

So far, I've said a lot about the use of friction calls in certain situations. However, air-operated calls definitely have their place, and plenty of hunters rely on them almost exclusively.

I can think of times when mouth diaphragms helped me turn the tables on gobblers that seemed to prefer them over friction. So it really helps to have both kinds of calls along during a hunt.

My favorites are two- or three-reed diaphragms which -- depending on how the reeds are stretched and cut -- are either raspy or smooth in tone. Generally, I pick a call somewhere in the middle of the scale. It should also be easy to blow softly or to create a racket with.

As a matter of fact, it was just such a call that accounted for a backdoor gobbler a couple of years back.

I say "backdoor" because I wasn't actually calling to the tom. Instead, I was trying to provoke the hen he was traveling with, because she had answered my initial yelps in a very aggressive manner, yelping and cutting loudly at what she thought was a competitor.

To show the hen who was boss, I duplicated every sound she made and didn't back off an inch. I couldn't have matched her harsh calls fluidly with a box, but with the mouth call, it wasn't a problem.

My goal was to bring the hen in, spoiling for a fight with the interloper. It worked nicely. When the hen showed up, the tom was trailing her, only a few steps behind.

Needless to say, that hefty longbeard went home with me.

As you can see, there are lots of factors at work here. Although I rely on friction calls a lot, there are times when mouth calls do a better job -- and even more times when it makes sense to use both types of calls on the same bird.

When using two calls at the same time, I can sound like two different hens at once, which might help convince a stubborn gobbler to come closer for a look.

More often, however, I'll have a mouth-call ready when I'm calling with a friction call, so I can put the latter device down at the appropriate time. That way, when the tom is close, I can still make a few turkey sounds as necessary, without any hand movements at all.

For example, when a tom is intent on walking or strutting past, I can yelp or cluck at him, and he'll stop and raise his head. That will give you a much better shot.

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