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Choosing Your First Turkey Call

Ramblings by John Higley

kay kids, the spring turkey season is just around the corner and I’m sure there are some folks out there who are going to try turkey hunting for the first time. Over the years, I’ve heard the following question asked many times during spring turkey hunting seminars, usually by some ernest person who’s eager to hunt but just getting started.

“What’s the best kind of turkey call for me to use?”

The question is logical because the vast array of different calls on the market can cause head-scratching confusion, which can lead to outright befuddlement. In reality, however, things are not as difficult as they seem at first.

John Higley, Tom Turkey, Spring Turkey Hunt
Just to prove it still works, I called this nice tom last spring in Shasta County with a box call I bought decades ago.

Despite the daunting array of designs, there are really only two categories of turkey calls. They are either friction or air operated.

The former calls require the use of your hands, the latter work with lung power. Some calls, like diaphragms, fit entirely inside your mouth; others, such as tube yelpers, are operated with suction much like a straw.

The differences in the sounds made by individual calls are determined by the materials from which the devices are made. In the friction category, for example, box calls come in a variety of woods, lengths and widths while popular pot and peg calls employ a number of diverse sounding boards made from slate, glass, aluminum, crystal, combinations of the above, and more. The actual pots and pegs, also made from different materials, are constructed so as to alter the pitch and volume. Pushbutton or push pin calls, meanwhile, also come in different styles, and no two designs sound exactly alike.

As for air operated calls, the sweetness or raspiness of mouth calls (diaphragms) depends on the number of layers of latex and how they’re stretched and cut. Judging from the array of new mouth calls that come on the market each year, there seems to be no end to the possibilities.

Meanwhile, traditional tube yelpers are made from turkey wing bones, followed by plastic, wood and so on. All of the calls make adequate turkey sounds, and they all will work at times. However, what we’re looking for here is not only effectiveness but simplicity of use. Turkeys have a broad vocabulary but novice turkey hunters need to know only a few basic hen turkey sounds, such as yelps and clucks, to have a good chance for success. That being the case, a friction call of some sort is usually in order. Friction calls are normally easier to master than mouth calls and they are very effective.Traditional box calls have probably caused the demise of more gobblers than any other type of call.

The question here, of course, is which calls should you have in your pack or vest as you embark on your initial turkey hunts this spring? To find out, two acknowledged experts were asked that question and here’s what they had to say.

Matt Morett, Turkey Caller
Matt Morrett practices what he preaches. Here's he's using a Power Hen slate call on a hunt in Missouri in 2013.

First up is Matt Morrett, head of Zink Calls turkey division and host of Avian X television. Matt’s won more friction call contests than anyone else I know, and I hunted with him last year in Missouri and know he’s the real deal.

“What I usually recommend is some sort of pot and peg call,” Morrett said. “Nothing fancy, just basic slate like our Power Hen call. The biggest reason is you can control the volume on that call so easily, and I think that’s one of the keys to calling in turkeys. Sometimes you want to be able to broadcast your calls a long way and other times you want to work a bird in close with a softer presentation.

“To make great sounding yelps with this call just cradle the base in one hand with your fingers so it doesn’t rest on the palm. With your other hand grasp the peg as you would a pencil and place the tip on the calling surface about an inch from the outside edge, with the top angled slightly away from your body. To produce yelps just move the tip of the peg in small circles without lifting it from the surface. Vary the pressure to control the volume.”

Misouri's Ray Eye, Turkey Caller
Missouri's Ray Eye has been calling and teaching turkey hunting for decades. This photo of him using a single side box call was taken in the 1990s.

Missouri’s Ray Eye, one of the most recognizable names in turkey hunting, has been at this business for nearly 50 years. He has strong opinions about calling and he taught me a lot when we hunted together in the early 1990’s. Here’s his approach to the subject of first calls for the novice.

“There are a lot of calls that are easy to learn to use but without question my number one choice for new hunters is a one sided box call,” he said. “The lid is connected to the bottom so you can’t misplace it. Also, it is very, very easy to use, and a good one sided box sounds more like a real turkey than many other calls. With this box all you’ve got to do to make a terrific yelp is drag the lid across the calling lip until it stops without even lifting the paddle up. To make a series of yelps just repeat the process five or six times in a row. It doesn’t get much simpler than that.”

Remember, the idea here is to get you started. If you stick with turkey hunting very long you’ll eventually acquire, and learn how to use, many different calls, several of which will normally be with you on every hunt. After all, every call represents an element of hope. If a gobbler doesn’t respond readily to a friction call maybe a mouth call will do the trick, and so on.

Realistically, however, you cannot expect to know the subtle nuances of turkey calling and hunting right out of the box so to speak. It takes time but you will learn if you’re persistent. To help the process along, there are several avenues of audio and visual instruction you canpursue. They include instructional CDs, DVDs, videos, TV shows and seminars.

As for calls, you can mail order one from a catalog or walk into nearly any department store or sporting goods store, such as Sportsman’s Warehouse, and find an adequate selection from which to choose.

Author and writer John Higley is a resident of Palo Cedro, CA. His articles have appeared in Outdoor California and other fishing and hunting journals. He is the author of two books: “Hunting Wild Turkeys In the West” and “Hunting Blacktail Deer.”

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