10 essential turkey calls
To bag your spring tom, learn the lingo of the turkey woods
The first time I set up to call in a tom, I could only make yelps and clucks. Luckily, my simple attempts happened to grab a long beard by the ears and bring him to the gun. Few hunts since have been as easy, but at least I’ve expanded my repertoire of calls.
Hunters face a variety of challenges when trying to lure in a wary tom, so the more calls you know, the better the odds of having the right combination for the situation at hand. And along with being able to make the various calls, it’s just as important to know why, when and how you should use them. Here’s the lowdown on the top 10 calls you should master.
1. The plain yelp
Hens, toms and jakes all yelp, but hens yelp the most. It’s a loud, clear sound that turkeys use to find each other, making it a good call to mimic for spring tom hunting. Toms will gobble to yelping and hens will yelp on their way to a gobbling tom. So, once you have a gobble in answer to your yelps, cut back on the calls. Otherwise, you’ll be telling the tom you are a hen en route to him, and that will make him hang up and wait.
The plain yelp is three to seven notes evenly spaced with a snappy rhythm. Each note has a two-tone pitch, going from high to low. In our voice, it sounds like “keyoke, keyoke, keyoke.”
Mouth call: Press the call to the roof of your mouth with your tongue, applying medium pressure. Huff the word “keyoke” repeatedly in a fast sequence.
Pot call: Start the peg one-third of the way down from the top of the call, leaning slightly away from you. Draw a three-quarter-inch circle on the pot toward the centre and repeat without lifting the peg off the surface. Experiment with pressure, and the angle of the peg until it sounds right.
Box call: Pass the paddle lightly over the side panel from outside toward the middle to find the place where the tone changes from high to low. Once you’ve found the sweet spot, stroke the paddle back and forth quickly over it to make the yelps. Don’t lift the paddle off the sideboard on the back stroke.
2. The tree yelp
When hens awaken at first light, their first call from the roost limb is a soft three- to six-note sequence of yelps, used to reconnect with nearby flock mates. The tree yelp is a nasally sounding call because the birds seem to barely open their beaks.
If you are set up near a roosted tom at first light, use this call once or twice to let him know where you are. If he gobbles, stop yelping or he will stay up on his limb waiting for a hen to show up below him before he flies down. If you stay quiet, you’ll make him fly down and come looking for you.
Mouth call: Barely opening your mouth, softly yelp three to six times, a little more slowly than a plain yelp.
Pot and box calls: Yelp with less pressure on the peg or paddle, a little more slowly than the plain yelp.
3. The lost yelp
When a hen wants company or to rejoin her group, she cuts loose with a long string of 10 to 30 loud yelps. Her voice may even break into a raspy tone from calling so loud and long. The lost yelp has a desperate, pleading sound to it; you can use it as a searching call when quieter calls haven’t gotten you a gobble in reply and you can’t locate a tom.
It’s a good searching call because it can be heard from a long way off, letting a tom lock onto your location. To make the call really reach out, yelp from a ridge or hilltop. The lost yelp can drown out a gobble, so mix in a few plain yelps and listen carefully for a gobble after the shorter sequence.
All calls: Make the call the same as you would make the plain yelp, but with a little more volume, extending it to up to 30 notes.
4. The cluck
A close-range call used to get the attention of another turkey, the cluck is a short, sharp note that seems to pop out of the bird’s throat. It can be a single note, or a random number of clucks with uneven spacing.
Turkeys cluck when they see each other, or if they’re expecting to see each other—by clucking they’re saying “I see you” or “show yourself so I can see you.” This is a good call to use to keep a tom coming to your location; he’ll believe a hen can see him and that if he goes just a little farther, he’ll see it.
Mouth call: Mouth the word “pit” or “pert.” Let it pop out of your mouth.
Pot call: Pull the peg toward you with a short, fast motion. Try different pressures and locations on the pot until you find the sweet spot where the cluck pops off the call.
Box call: To make a single cluck, press the paddle with moderate pressure on the sideboard, then slide and lift the paddle in one quick motion.
Cutting is the loud, fast clucking of agitated or excited turkeys. They cutt when they are sorting out their place in the pecking order with a newcomer or another bird in their flock. A single hen might mix in cutting with a string of yelps to show she’s agitated about being alone.
This is a good spring searching call because it reaches out far into the woods and says “Hey something’s going on over here.” It may get a silent tom fired up enough to gobble, or curious enough to come see what’s going on. Cutting might also get a boss hen worked up enough to come in, bringing a tom in tow.
Mouth call: Quickly and loudly say “pit” two to 10 times, adding some random pauses between the notes. A typical sequence might sound like “pit…pit…pit, pit…pit, pit…pit, pit, pit…pit.” Try to convey worked-up emotion.
Pot call: Pull the peg toward you in a short, rapid motion, repeating with random pauses. Use heavy pressure, but experiment to find just the right amount—and the call’s sweet spot—for the best cutts.
Box call: Hold the box vertically in your left hand, and stick your thumb above the edge of the sideboard to act as a stop for the paddle. Tap the paddle handle with your other hand so the handle hits your thumb and springs backs. Again, add random pauses in your series of cutts.
6. The fly-down cackle
Hens cackle when they fly down to the ground at first light, prompting toms in the area to also fly down to join them. So, be that first hen by making a fly-down cackle. This call is essentially rapid-fire cutting, with the tone changing from high to low. While making the cackle, add to the realism of a hen flying down by whipping your hat against your thigh to mimic the sound of wingbeats.
Mouth call: Begin with two yelps, then mouth the words “pit, pit, pat, pat, chalk, chalk chalk, chalk, chalk” as fast as you can, but slowing down a little on the last three notes. This takes some practice—and a super-fast tongue.
Pot call: Begin with a couple of yelps, then make rapid-fire cutts. Start cutting at the top of the pot and move down so you end up in the middle, where the tone is lower, for the last four notes.
Box call: The box excels at the fly-down cackle. Begin with a couple of yelps, then stick your thumb over the edge of the sideboard as a blocker. Now tap the paddle, machine-gun fast, into your thumb. Slow down a little on the last three taps. To create the illusion of a hen flying down, hold the call as high as you can to start, then lower it to the ground as you cackle.
The purr is a soft close-range call that turkeys use to express mild agitation. In a flock, they purr to keep other birds from encroaching on their space. Purring adds realism to your calling when mixed with clucks and yelps—the resulting combination is the sound of calm turkeys doing everyday turkey stuff. Use this rather than loud yelping to keep a wary or pressured tom coming in.
Mouth call: With light tongue pressure on the reeds, and with your lips closed but loose, huff out air so the reeds activate and your lips vibrate or trill. Vary the pressure and volume of air until you get just the right sound. And by varying the air pressure over the reeds, you can make the tone go up or down for added realism.
Pot call: Slowly pull the peg toward you in a half-circle motion, using light pressure so that the peg skips and makes the trilling sound. Experiment with pressure, the angle of the peg and different places on the pot surface to get the sweetest purr.
Box call: Using medium pressure, roll the rounded surface of the paddle on the sideboard as you slowly scrape it. Experiment to find just the right contact point and amount of pressure to make the paddle skip and generate the purring sound.
8. The fighting purr
When toms get worked up to fight over breeding rights and their place in the flock’s social order, their purr escalates to a loud gargle or rattle in their throats. This fighting purr is accompanied by loud cutting, scuffling in the leaves and wingbeats as the birds shove back and forth and attack each other with their wings and spurs. Hens will fight as well, and create the same ruckus.
Make the fighting purr on a mouth call simultaneously with a box or pot call to sound like a pair of fighting hens. Make it real with some cutting, wingbeats and scuffling in the leaves. Use this combination when softer calling hasn’t worked, or if a tom hangs up or won’t leave hens. All turkeys are curious about a fight, as it could affect breeding opportunities or their rank in the social order.
Mouth call: Gargle forcefully in your throat and put more tongue pressure on the reeds than with the plain purr. Vary the pitch by changing the volume of air you push over the reeds.
Pot call: Slowly pull the peg toward you in a long arc, applying heavy pressure. Experiment with the angle of the peg and pressure to find the place on the pot where the peg skips, making a loud purr.
Box call: Slowly grind the paddle over the sideboard, using heavy pressure. Experiment to find just the right place on the sideboard, as well as the right speed and pressure to make a loud purr.
9. The kee kee run
In the summer, lost young birds call out with a three- or four-note whistling call that sounds like “kee, kee, kee, kee.” By late fall and into the spring, they will add a few yelps to the sequence to make the kee kee run call.
This is a good searching call for spring toms because it carries well—and it suggests a lonely young hen. Since most hunters use the yelp, the kee kee run is a good switch-up call for pressured, hunter-wary toms.
Mouth call: Experiment with the placement of the call, as well as tongue pressure to get the highest pitch possible. If the reeds have notches or splits, put your tongue on them to get the highest sound. Mouth “pee, pee, pee, pee,” then follow up with three or four plain yelps.
Pot call: Along with a carbon peg, high-pitched glass and metal pots make the best kee kee run calls. Holding the peg tightly, about an inch from the bottom, use light pressure to make a one-inch arc along the outer edge of the pot where the sound is the highest. Experiment to find the sweet spot and the right amount of pressure to make a high, clear whistle. If the peg skips and purrs, use less pressure. After three or four whistling notes, loosen your grip on the peg and yelp as you normally would on your call.
Box call: Hold the paddle shorter and with a tighter grip so it produces higher notes. Start scraping the paddle over the side panel where it makes the highest note, then stop the swing before the note turns over to the lower sound. Back up the paddle and make the high note three more times; the rhythm should be a little slower than that of the yelp. Now end the call with a short string of plain yelps.
10. The tom yelp
Toms and jakes yelp to find each other, just as hens do. It’s a good spring call because toms are curious about other new birds in their area, and protective of their place in the pecking order. Or, they might simply want the company of another tom. The tom yelp is not intimidating to subordinate toms, so it won’t scare them off as a gobble call will. Also, it’s safer than a gobble call; other hunters are less likely to stalk in to investigate a yelp.
To entice a hung-up gobbler, or a tom that’s with hens, mix the tom yelp with some hen yelps. The tom yelp is usually three to five notes, and lower in pitch and slower in rhythm than a hen yelp.
Mouth call: Use a mouth call with two or three reeds. Huff the air up from your diaphragm to make a deep, husky yelp. The tom yelp sounds like “yawp, yawp, yawp,” with a slower cadence than the hen yelp.
Pot call: Yelp slowly, scraping the peg near the middle of the call to lower the tone.
Box call: Use less pressure on the paddle to make the sound lower; remember to keep the rhythm slower than the hen yelp.