Turkey calls 101: An introduction to hunting hens and toms
Written By: M.D. Johnson
Photo Credit: Featured Image by Conner Tomlinson
Similar to other types of wild game calling, the basic premise of turkey calls — and turkey calling — is to attract a bird’s attention, then entice them into a range suitable for your firearm of choice. But as veteran wild turkey hunters know all too well, this elemental definition is much more easily described than accomplished.
While the scope of turkey talk is infinite in its diversity, there are a handful of sounds which all hunters should be able to recognize and duplicate. Among the most familiar of these are the yelp, cluck, cutt, cackle and purr.
A description of turkey sounds
A short, slightly rising call, the yelp is the “and” of the turkey’s vocabulary, and is used in some form by all ages and both sexes. As with the other calls, the yelp is repeated with a definite rhythm, and it is this rhythm (as well as the proper tonal qualities) that the hunter tries to reproduce.
Commonly associated with contentment, the cluck and purr are often used as confidence calls during a calling sequence. Similar to that of barnyard chickens, the wild turkey’s cluck is a single, sharp-edged call of varying volumes, while the purr can be easily compared to the soft purring of a friendly cat.
Two of the more aggressive sounds in the turkey’s repertoire are the cutt and the cackle. Cutts might be described as a series of sharp clucks. Cutting is commonly used as an attention-getter — the hen’s way of relaying her willingness to a gobbler. Similarly, the cackle sounds like an even more rapid series of clucks and cutts and says, “I’m ready. Come and get me!”
Hens can sometimes be heard cackling as they fly down from the roost at first light — hence the term “fly-down cackle.” This can be a very effective call at sunrise, particularly with a stubborn tom.
Categorizing turkey calls
There are two basic categories of man-made turkey calls — the air calls and the friction calls. Of these two primary types, friction calls are probably the most easily learned.
In their most simplistic sense, friction calls operate on the principle of rubbing one piece of wood against another or, in some cases, one piece of wood against a piece of slate in order to make a sound resembling that of a wild turkey hen.
Two of the most popular types of friction calls are the box call and the slate call. The box call is somewhat self-explanatory. It’s a narrow, rectangular, three-sided box with a lid hinged at one end. To operate the box, the caller rubs the lid against the edge of one of the thin, upright sides.
Box calls are fashioned from a variety of different woods. But traditionally, they are constructed out of cedar, both for the wood’s beauty and tone quality.
A second type of friction call is the slate call. With the slate call, a short pencil-shaped piece of wood is rubbed against a circular piece of polished slate or plexiglass, thus making the needed sounds. The rods, known as strikers, come in a variety of lengths and styles and are made from several different types of materials including plastic, plexiglass and wood. Strikers crafted from different materials, even different types of woods, will produce unique sounds — a fact callers searching for tonal diversity should remember.
While somewhat more difficult for novices to learn, air-operated turkey calls have earned themselves a place in any serious turkey hunter’s field vest. Although there are exceptions, air calls typically employ some type of rubber or latex reed or reeds which, when manipulated by varying pressures, produce some of the most realistic turkey calls heard in the spring woods.
Of all the air-operated, turkey mouth calls, diaphragm calls are the most popular. Consisting of little more than a horseshoe-shaped metal or plastic frame covered with tape — through which is stretched any number of rubber reeds — diaphragm calls are placed in the roof of the caller’s mouth and operate using a combination of air and tongue pressure.
Air passing over the reeds results in vibrations much like those produced by air being forced over human vocal cords. These vibrations and accompanying pressure result in both the volume and tone or pitch of the individual calls. Thin, single reeds produce a clear call much like that of a young bird, while multiple reeds result in a slightly lower tone, similar to a more mature bird. Often reeds will be split or notched — features that add another tonal dimension to the caller’s arsenal.
In nine out of 10 cases, novice turkey hunters will make the process of learning to use these various types of calls much more difficult than it needs to be. The truth is, nothing is more effective than a combination of practice and, fortunately for today’s turkey hunter, the use of instructional aids.
Many of the manufacturers who produce high-quality turkey calls provide materials designed to make the learning process easier. Today, most calls come with elemental instructions on that particular call’s use and, should that prove unsatisfactory, many manufacturers are more than willing to speak with hunters about the proper use of their calls.
Turkey calls 101: Final tips for hunters
As veteran callers will agree, the decision of which turkey call to employ is based not only on ease of use and personal preference, but also weather conditions, terrain and more.
Distances in the field play a major role in both the type of call used, as well as the calling techniques employed. Along with its unsurpassed eyesight, the wild turkey possesses a phenomenal sense of hearing. It is not unusual for a gobbler to hear, pinpoint and come directly to a caller from a distance of several hundred yards. As a result, hunters must be able to produce not only a variety of different calls, but make them at varying volumes as well.
In the case of volume, sound and sound absorption must be a consideration. Terrain, hills and ridges, for instance, have a tendency to “soak up” calls, as do heavy, late-season leaf and ground cover.
In such situations, the louder box or diaphragm calls may be in order. Then, once a gobbler has narrowed the distance between himself and the hunter, or during early spring while the forest floor is still relatively clear, the versatile slate or plexiglass call with its many degrees of volume may be the answer.
Regardless of the type of call used, however, volume control is a matter of experience and is best learned through experimentation and practice.
To call, or not to call: that is the question. And unfortunately where turkeys are concerned, there is no easy answer. Call too much and the bird either realizes something is amiss or waits for this hot-to-trot hen to come to him; call too little and he thinks she is not interested and goes to find a more receptive mate.
Most veterans say the only time you’ll know if a hunter has called “just right” is the moment they put their tag on a bird. It’s a simple response to one of the field’s most unanswerable questions.
Turkey calling is a game — an always changing challenge where a bird with a brain the size of a fifty-cent piece says, “Here I am! What are you going to do about it?” It leaves the most experienced hunter feeling frustrated, abhorring everything avian, yet eager to match wits again with this most wonderful of game birds.
There is no turkey hunting 102, but if there were, hunters would most certainly look for it under the heading of “Experience.”
Meet M.D. Johnson
Originally from Ohio, M.D. Johnson, and his wife/business partner, Julia, spent 18 years in Iowa before relocating to her native Washington state in 2015. A full-time freelance outdoor writer since 1992, Johnson, with the photographic assistance of his wife, has authored and illustrated six full-length books, including three on waterfowl hunting. Today, The Johnsons reside in Wahkiakum County, where they both enjoy a 107-day duck season, salmon fishing, and everything the wonderful Pacific Northwest has to offer. Oh, and if you ask, M.D. will tell you he prefers 16 gauge doubles to anything else.