You finally hear a nearby tom gobbling his lovestruck heart out, and you’re at the ready to respond. Success depends on the first note he hears from your call—are you going to send him enticing yelps and seductive purrs, or something that sounds like a squeaky farm gate? That all hinges on how well you’ve cared for your calls.
No turkey call will sound right forever without proper maintenance. But don’t find this out on opening morning when the woods are ringing with turkey talk, and your call screeches and squeals—or makes no sound at all. Instead, with some care and attention, your calls can be at the ready to fire up that opening-day gobbler, not shut him down.
A good box call may be most expensive turkey call you’ll ever buy, but it will last a lifetime if you take good care of it. This call’s worst enemies are moisture and extreme heat, and dirt on the paddle or sideboards.
In wet weather, keep your call in a plastic bag that’s large enough for you to still work the call. While the bag may slightly muffle the sound, the call won’t work at all if it gets wet. And should the call get wet, slowly dry it out once you’re back home, avoiding extreme heat.
You also need to avoid damaging the call by sitting or falling on it, so mind where you carry it when afield. Good turkey vests have a dedicated pouch that allows for easy access and prevents the call from getting crushed or broken. During the off-season, store your call in a dry place.
When a box call gets screechy or loses its sound, it means there’s not enough friction between the paddle and the sideboard. This can happen through normal use, with the bottom of the paddle and the top of the sideboards becoming burnished. Oil and dirt from your hands can also reduce friction.
The remedy is a light scouring with a medium-duty plastic scrubbing pad, not sandpaper. Scrub across the grain and don’t bear down with the pad to avoid hollowing out softer areas in the grain. The goal is to remove all the dirt and sheen without removing any wood, which can change the shape of the paddle or sideboards and ruin the sound of the call.
Similarly, never scrub the coating on a waterproof box call with anything abrasive, or you will remove it. The only cleaning a waterproof call needs is a wipe with a clean, damp cloth.
Lightly chalk the bottom of the paddle, but not the sideboards. It’s worth the few extra bucks to buy chalk sold specifically for box calls, as it is pure chalk. Blackboard and sidewalk chalk contain wax or binding agents that will cake up and polish the surfaces of the call. These chalks work initially, but soon need to be removed to restore the call’s proper sound. Violin resin can also be used, but because grime sticks to it, you need to be extra vigilant about keeping the box clean.
The call’s paddle screw and spring are tuned by the manufacturer, and set for the best possible sound. These components typically don’t work loose or require adjustment. But if you think the call doesn’t sound right even though it’s been properly cleaned and chalked, try a minor adjustment of the screw. Before you turn it, however, mark the original position so you can return it to the same place if the adjustment doesn’t work.
Pot & Peg
With this call, it’s the friction between the rough surface of the pot and the tip of the striker peg that creates the realistic-sounding turkey vocals. It’s the simplest call to maintain, but it needs touching up more frequently.
Avoid grime and moisture, especially since the rough calling surface acts as a dirt magnet. Avoid touching both it and the peg tip. Keep everything in a clean pouch—not the one with the peanut butter sandwich. If the pot gets contaminated with grime or oil from your hands, wipe it clean with rubbing alcohol on a clean cloth or cotton swab. The alcohol will dry quickly and leave no residue.
To clean the peg, place a plastic scrub pad in the palm of your hand and rotate the tip of the striker on it using light pressure. Keep the peg straight up, perpendicular to the pad. You don’t want to change the shape of the tip, just remove any accumulated grime.
In order to create friction with the peg, the surface of the pot needs to be roughened up, or conditioned, whether it’s old-fashioned slate or ultra-modern ceramic, crystal, glass or metal. To get the job done, the manufacturer will provide or recommend an appropriate abrasive pad or tool that won’t grind away too much of the surface and shorten the lifespan of the call.
A pot can become unconditioned by sliding around and rubbing on things in your pocket as you walk. To avoid this, keep the pot in its own snug pocket. Even still, the surface may need a quick touch-up to ensure it’s in top calling form.
When conditioning the surface, sand back and forth horizontally across the call, holding it in the same position as when you call. This way, you’ll know exactly what sound it will make every time you put the peg to the pot because the grooves will always run the same way. And since you typically pull the peg towards yourself, you’ll be running the striker across the horizontal grooves, which makes the best sound with the least pressure and effort.
Pots can also be conditioned by sanding with a circular motion, but the consistency drops a little and you’ll have to have to know the sweet spot on your call and hit it right every time. Deciding between circular or horizontal sanding matters less on fine-grained slate calls than on glass, crystal or metal calls, which need a rougher surface.
After sanding, it’s important to remove the loose dust or it will fill in the pores of the striker tip and the grooves on the pot surface, reducing friction. Turn the call upside down and tap the rim on something hard if you’re not hunting. If you’re in the field and can’t make noise, gently blow off the dust, being careful not to leave saliva behind.
It’s a good thing this call is inexpensive because it’s unlikely to last more than one hunting season. Each mouth call is unique and takes some time to get used to, even within the same brand and model. Take care of it so you don’t have to start over with a new one in the middle of a hunt. Howard Communications
The enemies of the mouth call are sunlight, heat, bacteria and forgetting where you put the blasted thing after you took it out of your mouth. The likes of a security badge clip, attached to your vest, makes a good place to dry out and keep track of your call when it’s not in your mouth.
Sunlight and heat degrade the latex reeds, making them tear or loosen on the frame until they don’t sound right. Don’t keep your mouth call in a closed vehicle once the weather warms up, for example, or the latex will begin to deteriorate within a few hours. You’ll know the call needs to be tossed once the reed turns wrinkly. You can stretch the metal frame to take up the slack, but it’s only a temporary fix because the latex has lost its resiliency and will soon go slack again.
Along with also degrading the latex, bacteria discolour the reed and tape, making it a disgusting prospect to keep the thing your mouth. Bacteria grow in a moist environment, so when you’re hunting always allow the call to air dry before putting it back in its case. Make sure the case has air holes to allow moisture to escape. And after the hunt each day, rinse the call with clean water and again allow it to thoroughly dry.
After rinsing a multi-reed call, separate the reeds using flat toothpicks so they don’t stick together as they dry. Otherwise, it will be impossible to make a soft tree yelp or quiet purr. In fact, you won’t know what sound it will make until it’s too late and you quite possibly blow your chance on a big tom.
If you need to kill bacteria on the call, douse it briefly in alcohol-free mouthwash (if the mouthwash contains alcohol, dilute it by half with water). After the mouthwash bath, thoroughly rinse the call with clean water then air dry it. If you won’t be hunting again for a few days, store the dry, clean call in your fridge. It’s the perfect environment, since there’s no sunlight or heat, and bacteria cannot flourish in the cold. Just be sure warn others in your household about the odd addition to your fridge’s contents.
Unlike the box call, the paddle on the push-pin call is attached to a dowel that sticks out the end of the box. Push the dowel and the paddle scrapes over a pyramid-shaped striker to create yelps and other turkey talk.
Along with returning the paddle into position for another stroke, the spring on a push-pin also controls the amount of pressure on the paddle and striker, and therefore the sound. There’s a sweet spot on the inside end wall where the end of the spring rests to make the best sound. The call will come out of the package with the spring in this spot, but it can inadvertently get bumped around and moved. In case that happens, use a felt-tip pen to mark the sweet spot so you can reposition the spring if it gets moved.
The angle of the striker block and the tension on the wood screw holding it to the bottom of the box also affect the sound. The screw sometimes works loose, so make sure it’s tight at the start of each season. Take note of the block’s original position and keep it there; trace its outline on the bottom board so you can see if it moves. If it does move and the call stops working, loosen the screw and slowly rotate the block. Once you find the sweet spot, tighten the screw back up.
When removing a yelper from your pocket, be careful that the end of the spring doesn’t work loose and snag on something and get bent out of shape. That would also change the pressure, therefore tone of the call. Return springs can also break, but the manufacturer should be able to replace them.
As with the box call, the push-pin needs a safe place to ride so it doesn’t get crushed or wet. It also needs a clean friction surface and a light dusting of chalk. With a scrub pad, lightly clean the bottom of the sliding paddle and dust it with box call chalk. Now all you need is a big ol’ tom to talk back.
Need to tune up your calling skills as well? For step-by-step instructions on how to make 10 essential yelps, clucks and purrs—complete with audio examples—click Alan Davy’s companion article “Talking turkey.”