Music to a Tom's Ears
A guide to better turkey calling
(Originally published in Great Canadian Outdoorsman)

© By Othmar Vohringer

With each yelp, purr and cluck from my raspy slate call the tom answered back with a thunderous sequence of gobbles. Every time he gobbled he came a few yards closer. I was quite confident that it would just be a matter of time before the tom would walk around the corner of the small wood lot and appear right in front of my shotgun. The reason for my confidence was because I gave the gobbler exactly what he wanted to hear.

The difference between a successful turkey hunter and failing turkey hunter in many cases within the same scenario is the difference of sounding like a turkey or just almost like one. If a hunter sounds almost like a turkey the tom will most of the time call the bluff and either hang up or simply walk away to live another day.  Understanding the turkey “language” and talking the “language” is a bit of a mystery to some hunters. In an attempt to solve that mystery lets look at how you can improve you your turkey calling technique. It all starts by choosing the calls that are easy to use and understanding the sounds a turkey makes and learning to reproduce these sounds on your turkey call.

Turkey calls can be divided into two groups: friction calls and air-activated calls. Although each group has their advantages and disadvantages, I personally prefer friction calls to air-activated calls. Their main advantage is that they are easy to learn and with a little practice a hunter will be able to create a variety of different turkey sounds on a box, glass or slate call within a few hours. The slight disadvantage of friction calls is that a turkey can detect the movement when the calls are operated but with a little foresight this can easily be overcome.

The most commonly used air-activated calls are diaphragms. A diaphragm call consists of one or more layers of latex held together by an aluminum or plastic frame. The advantage of these calls is that a hunter can produce many different sounds and there is no movement involved whatsoever because the call is placed inside the mouth.  The main disadvantage of the diaphragm calls is that they are very difficult to learn. I know many hunters that use these calls for years and still have difficulty to produce a realistic turkey sound with it.

When you learn to ‘play’ a call look at it as a music instrument. You use different notes to create the sounds that if done right will be music to a tom’s ears. In the following I will explain the meaning of the most common sounds a turkey makes and how it is correctly reproduced on a box and slate type call.

Turkeys yelp all day long; it’s their common form of conversation. However, depending on the situation, yelping can vary slightly in tone and have different meanings. The most common yelp is what I call the plain yelp.

The plain yelp is a multi-purpose, rhythmic, 3 to 15 note series used to locate other turkeys during the day. The yelp does follow a certain cadence but if you listen to wild turkeys they often have skips and half-beats in their series of calls and the number of yelps varies tremendously. Yelping also varies in volume and intensity. Some series of yelps stay about the same volume throughout while others start low, rise in volume and then tail off towards the end. The plain yelp is a call every hunter should master. Regardless of the cadence, sound and volume the plain yelp is always a sign of a content turkey.

The tree yelp is the same as the plain yelp but much softer. Both toms and hens make the tree yelp in the morning when they wake up and get ready to fly down from the roosting tree. I call this the sleepy yelp because that is what it reminds me of. The birds are not quite awake yet but announce to each other that it is time to get up.

The lost yelp is a long series of 10 to 20 continuous ‘notes’ used by turkeys when they are lost and trying to call other turkeys to them. Under the right conditions this can be an excellent call to bring in a turkey hen in the company of a tom. (Calling in the hen with a tom in tow.) The lost yelp does not sound content. The hen is lost and searches for the others in her group. She is a little nervous and her call is a reflection of that emotion.

How to make the yelp on a box call:
Cradle the call in your palm as show in the picture. Lightly scrape the paddle across the sounding board with one inch strokes. Do not lift, pop or put to much pressure on the paddle. Repeat this one note sound 3 to 7 times. Later, when you get the hang of it you can start varying the sound, pitch and cadence of the yelp.

How to make the yelp on a pot call

Hold the pot call loosely and comfortably between your thumb, index and middle fingers. Make sure you’re not covering the bottom (sound chamber) with your palm. Hold the striker like you would a pencil and make sure the hand does not rest on the actual play surface (see image). Scribe a football-shaped circle about the size of a quarter dollar on the play surface using the tip of the peg. Do not apply too much pressure to begin with. As you get more experienced you can add variations and change the pressure slightly to produce different types of yelps.

The plain cluck is a soft to loud staccato call used to locate and communicate with other turkeys. It basically is saying, "I am here, where are you?” This call is used by both hens and gobblers and is often used in conjunction with the plain yelp or a purr.

The alarm cluck (also referred to as putt) is a loud, sharp alarm call used when turkeys sense danger or when they see something that seems out of place. Essentially it is a very loud cluck but with a different meaning. This is the one you don't want to hear. If you do hear it that means the turkey has seen you and is about to swap ends fast and run away alerting every other turkey within earshot.
How to make the cluck on a box call:
This sound consists of short ¼ inch upward strokes of the paddle. Start like you would with the yelp and then “pop” the paddle off the soundboard as indicated on the picture.

How to make the cluck on a pot call

Apply more pressure on the peg with your index finger while pushing the peg toward you. If done correctly the peg should jump slightly but not leave the play surface thus producing a “clucking” sound.

Cutting is a fast, irregular series of clucks used by lost or lonely hens who are searching for other turkeys. However, in the spring cutting has a different meaning: it is a desperate, impatient call to gobblers that they are ready to be mated. Cutting is a loud and aggressive sound and lasts anywhere from 5 to 15 seconds in duration. This is a highly effective call as a last ditch effort to lure a reluctant tom into your set up that works particularly well in conjunction with decoys.

How to make the cut on a box call:
Cutting is produced by rapidly making a series from 10 to 15 sharp strokes. The movement is the same as with the yelp but shorter quarter inch strokes, much faster and with a little more pressure on the paddle. Go slow until you figure out the perfect sound and then go as fast as you can.

How to make the cut on a pot call

Use the same stroke as you did with the cluck, but continue the stroke line a little bit longer and repeat rapidly six to eight times. Go slow at the beginning and as you gain experience try to make the strokes in very fast succession.

A purr is a soft, fluttering or warbling call that is used by both hens and gobblers. It has several meanings and is most commonly interpreted as the hens “Love song”. Like the plain yelp the purr is a sign of utter contentment and relaxation when the flock is together. The purr is also used when birds are feeding and in this case it is more of a friendly reminder to others to leave some elbowroom. (Like "I'm feeding here, give me some room.") This is a very good call to coax the gobbler in for the last few yards. The purr is often preceded and/or followed by a soft cluck that sometimes is followed up with a few soft yelps.
How to make the purr on a box call:
Slowly and lightly drag the paddle across the lip of the soundboard for 1½ inch.

How to make the purr on a pot call

Hold your striker a little further back and apply moderate pressure to the striker and pull it toward you. The striker should skip lightly across the surface for about 1 ½ to 2 inches.

There are more calls turkeys make but for the beginning and advanced hunters the above are all that is needed to lure even the weariest of gobblers within shooting range. Good turkey calling is not about how many calls you know, it’s about how many calls you do well.
When I started turkey hunting all I could manage was the yelp, cluck and purr but I mastered theses sounds to perfection and it made all the difference. Almost 15 years later these four calls are still my favorite and most productive ones. To make it sound natural I mix the calls up, jut like a real turkey would. I also move the calls from side to side and in front or to the back of me. I may even rustle on the ground with my feet. This mimics a moving turkey and ads realism to my attempt to make a big tom think that I am a lovesick hen waiting for Mr. Right.

The best way to learn about turkey vocalization is to get a good recoding of turkey sounds that are available in many sporting goods stores in the form of video or DVD. Play each sound and then try to reproduce them on your call of choice. Try not to learn many different calls at the same time but instead one at a time. Of course nothing beats actually going out in the field and observing real turkeys and listening to their “conversations” from a distance so you will not alert them to your presence. When I learned to call turkeys I used to take my calls with me in the pre-season and after the hunting season testing the turkeys reaction to my calling. That way I quickly found out what music toms like to hear.

Turkey calls tuning.

Box call:
 Rub fat free chalk, such as carpenter’s chalk, along the bottom of the paddle, covering the underside completely. Never touch the lips of the box and the underside of the paddle with your bare fingers as the oil from the skin can ruin the sound of the call.

The paddle of the box call is attached to the body with a hinge screw. This screw can be tightened or loosened to make further minor adjustments to the sound. Do not loosen the screw to much over tighten it.
Every call has a sweet spot that produced the perfect sound. This sweet spot is usually located near the center of the paddle. Each call differs slightly in the location of the sweet spot.

Pot Call

 Every new pot call, regardless of surface type, needs to be dressed. For this use a fine grit sand or dry wall paper and lightly scratch the play surface by rubbing the sand- or dry wall paper over the surface. Make sure you only rub in a straight line across the surface and not in a circle. Like the box call pot calls have a sweet spot too. The sweet spot varies from call to call but usually can be found somewhere toward the edge of the play surface. Never touch the end of the striking peg or the call surface with your bare fingers as skin oil can ruin the sound. Depending how often you use a call the surface needs to be periodically re-conditioned with sand or dry wall paper. Usually you do that before the hunt. If the end of the peg becomes worn re-conditioned it with sad or drywall paper being careful to keep the original shape of the peg end. 

Push and Pull Call.
A push and pull call is a very good tool for calling when the tom is close but needs to take a few more steps to get within shooting range. This call can be mounted onto the gun barrel and lets you make all the basic sounds like the yelp, cluck, cut and purr with the gun mounted by pulling a string that is attached to the sticking surface handle.

Caution: Never mount the call on a loaded gun. Unload the gun first or mount the call onto the gun before you walk to your set up.

Turkey hunting safety.
In addition to the normal hunting safety procedures there are a few other safety tips a turkey hunter has to consider.
  • If you hunt on land where you know, or expect, other hunters are present make sure you cover the bird up with a blaze orange vest when you haul it out of the woods.
  • Wear a blaze orange vest and hat on your way from the truck to your set up and back to the truck at the end of a hut.
  • Do not wear any clothing in the colors associated with turkeys, red, blue and white.
  • It is not safe to use decoys where other hunters are present or expected to be present. If you use decoys on such locations mark your decoy set up with blaze orange surveyor flags. Contrary to what you may have heard these flags do not spook the birds.
  • Always set decoys up in such a way that you’re not in the line of fire of an approaching hunter, such as directly in front of you. Instead set the decoys up to either side of you.
  • It is not safe to “bushwhack” turkeys where other hunters are present or expected to be present.
  • Never try to sneak up on a calling turkey, it might be another hunter calling and you could get yourself shot.
  • It is a good practice to mark the tree you’re sitting against with blaze orange survivor flags or tape to let approaching hunters know that there is a hunter setup. Again this does not spook turkeys or give your location away to them.
  • If possible chose a tree as background to lean against that covers the width of your upper body completely form approaching hunters behind you.
  • When you see another hunter approach your setup do not wave at him to get his attention, you may get shot at. Yes there are still a few hunters that shoot at movement rather than at identified legal targets. Instead make your presence known verbally or carry a dog training whistle for that purpose.
  • Stuff your turkey decoys head first into the game pouch of your turkey vest when you carry them to and from your set up. Decoys look like real turkeys and when their head is visible another hunter may shoot at you.
  • Always use common sense, be alert and respectful of other hunters in the area it will go a long way to make your turkey hunting trip a safe and enjoyable experience.
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