The Pros and Cons of Diaphragm Calls
(Originally published in Great Canadian Sportsman)

© By Othmar Vohringer

The diaphragm turkey call has been around for many years but became really popular about ten years ago. The first type of these calls were made by hunters looking for a different call that didn’t involve movement to coax a tom closer for the last few steps needed to get a good killing shot.

The first crude diaphragms date back to the late 40’s and early 50’s and were fashioned from condoms (true) and plumber lead. Boy, have times changed since then! While modern diaphragms are still made predominantly of latex material, the variety of calls available is overwhelming.

Today many turkey hunters will carry up to a dozen calls in their pockets. Diaphragm calls are available in single, double, triple, quadruple and stacked layers producing raspy, loud, soft, low and high pitched sounds and everything in between. But are diaphragms as good as the advertising and articles written about them claim they are?

Let’s look at the pros and cons of diaphragms and at the end of this article you will be able to decide for yourself if the diaphragm is suitable for you or not.

The biggest advantage is that diaphragms are very affordable. For the price of a quality box call a hunter can purchase a dozen or more diaphragm calls. These calls are practically weightless. This lets the avid turkey hunter carry a great variety of calls with ease and without the bulk of box and slate calls. Diaphragms let you make every turkey sound in a variety of pitches and volumes imaginable. Best of all, there is no movement involved whatsoever when calling. This can make all the difference when that big tom is within sight but still needs to take a few more steps, or when you need to “say” something to him to make him raise his head for a clear shot.

Another advantage of a diaphragm call is that you can use it in conjunction with a hand-operated call such as a slate or box, simultaneously. This opens up a new opportunity to add variety and realism to your calling tactics. Sounding like several birds all at once might be just the ticket you need to bring that call-shy mature tom in. Now that I have told you about the advantages of diaphragms it is only fair that I tell you about the disadvantages too.

The diaphragm call is not easy to learn and most hunters never get really good at using them proficiently. I know of hunters that have been using these calls for many years and still don’t manage to get a few realistic sounds from them.

It takes thousands of hours and real dedication to become proficient at calling with diaphragms. The professional championship callers have spent untold hours of practice over years to reach the level of perfection they have achieved. But many every-day hunters just don’t have the time, drive and dedication that is needed to become really good at calling turkeys with a diaphragm. Yet, due to the popularity of these calls, every turkey hunter owns and uses them and turkeys have heard them all, especially the heavily hunted birds.  

The diaphragm call, or shall I say the lack of proficiency of the callers, is largely to blame for turkeys having become call-shy and thus hard to hunt. Oh sure, many gobblers have been called in and shot by average callers but these are the young and dumb jakes. That reminds me of a time when I called in a jake simply by pulling a rusty wire on a cattle fence through the equally rusty wire clamp that attached it to the fencepost. It made a screechy noise that faintly resembled a yelp and it worked. Another time I was running a pocket knife blade along the rim of an opened old tin can and that worked too. But if you’re after a mature tom, one who has survived a few hunting seasons, then it is not that easy to fool the bird with an “almost like a turkey” sound.

With everything being equal, a successful turkey hunter is one who knows a turkey’s vocabulary and is able to reproduce each sound perfectly. I have often said it is not nearly as important how many calls you can make, as it is how well you can call. There is a huge difference between sounding exactly like a turkey or just almost like one. This simple fact comes nowhere more to bear then on places where turkeys are under pressure or if you’re after a boss gobbler.  Never underestimate a turkey’s intelligence or be mislead into thinking that an older and wiser turkey does not know exactly what he sounds like. He knows.

It is by no means necessary to become a Grand National Champion to be a good turkey caller with a diaphragm, but the closer you can get to that perfect sound the higher your chances are to become a successful hunter. The bottom line is that it needs time and dedication plus lots of practice. Do that and you will be head and shoulders above the rest. With lots of practice and time you will be able to get the entire turkey vocalization repertoire with a diaphragm. Not only that but you will also learn to control the airflow and tongue pressure to change the pitch and volume. This will enable you to sound like a whole flock of turkey hens without having to change calls.

Despite the content of this article and the fact that I believe that the diaphragm is the best all-around call for those that truly master it, in my opinion, the diaphragm call is the last on my list of favorites. My preferred calls of choice are the box and slate calls. I simply like the physical part of holding something in my hands and the reality of the sound from a well-tuned quality box or slate call simply cannot be beat. Besides that, box and slate calls are easy to learn and that makes these calls, in my opinion, the perfect tom getter for every hunter. Even veteran turkey hunters would never make the mistake of leaving home without a collection of trusted box and slate type friction calls to supplement his calling arsenal and neither should you.
Tips for using and maintaining diaphragm calls
  • Diaphragm calls need to be fitted to your mouth to be comfortable. To size the diaphragm correctly, trim the skirt with a pair of small scissors to fit comfortably against the roof of your mouth. Start by trimming a little and then more if needed. Remember, you can always cut off more but you can’t add it back once it’s cut.
  • If you suffer from gagging reflexes purchase diaphragm calls with a “palate plate” or “bridge” that prevents the call from sitting flat or sticking against the roof of your mouth. This style has somewhat proven to help people who suffer from gagging reflexes.
  • Some people have minor allergic reactions to the latex and others do not like the sour taste of the diaphragm call in the mouth for long periods of time. By pouring a few drops of diluted mouthwash in the call’s storage container the sour taste and the allergic reaction may be reduced.
  • Carry the calls in a small case or pouch with compartments that lets you store each diaphragm individually. When the calls are not in use for a period of time slip a flat toothpick between the reeds to prevent them from sticking together.
  • A good way of identifying one diaphragm out a collection without looking at them is by cutting notches in the frame.  A single notch for a single reed call, two notches for a double reed and so on. This allows you to select the call you want in the dark without having to use the flashlight and alert the birds to your presence.
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