Turkey Calling: When Diaphragm Calls Don't Cut It

turkey hunting
A successful turkey hunter in Nebraska.Tony Hansen

I’ve come to find out that diaphragm calls, long thought of as the iconic sign of a turkey-hunting expert, aren’t really all that iconic after all. In fact, I recall one spring in which Ray Eye, long considered one of the country’s finest mouth callers, spent an entire week with me using a single call—a simple peg and slate. Why? Well, I don’t find the whys nearly important as the whats, whens and hows of the results.

So this season, quit being a diaphragm-call snob and concentrate more on sounding like a turkey. Here’s a rundown of the best calls you must carry in your vest this season and how to really use them.

1. Box Calls
Capable of clucks, yelps, cutts and even gobbles, the box call is the most versatile call in any hunter's vest. Yet, ironically, I carry at least four different versions. How do you know if you have a good one?

“Well, it just sounds like a turkey,” Eye says. “Try this test. Everyone nowadays has a reliable turkey somewhere nearby in the springtime, a bird that roosts in the same spot most nights. Well, take your box calls out there one morning or evening, lay them out on the hood of your truck and then run them. You’ll find that he’ll gobble at some, not gobble at others—and gobble differently at all of them if you’re really listening to what he’s telling you. If a gobbler consistently cutts one of those boxes every time you run through the line-up, you’ll know which call sounds most like a turkey.”

My hunt for a great box starts with my eardrums. If the call resonates in my ears or makes me flinch slightly, I’m all over it. If it makes me gnash my teeth, better yet. That’s my locator.

These days, my vest includes a super-long-range locator (for wet and windy days); a high-pitched, mid-range locator; a raspy locator; and what I call my finisher call, which is capable of loud and soft calling. Sound like overkill? You’d be surprised how birds will respond to one call one day and disregard that same call the next.

turkey spurs
A long-spurred Michigan gobbler.Tony Hansen

2. Tube Calls
From the "do as I say, not as I do" world of turkey hunting comes the tube call. Try as I might, my efforts at using the simple tube call have been completely
fruitless. I had problems conquering the diaphragm, but nothing like this.

I became a believer in tube calls a dozen years ago, when, on a miserably windy day, a hunting buddy was able to get a bird to sound off after I’d tried to strike him with a box, diaphragm and aluminum slate. When a bird responds to a call to the exclusion of all others, it’s time to learn how to use it.

In the hands of an accomplished caller, a tube call can make virtually every sound in the wild turkey’s vocabulary, including yelps, clucks, purrs and some of the most realistic gobbles this side of a gobble tube.

Tube or snuff can calls are available commercially by virtually every call manufacturer, but you can also make your own with nothing more than a 35mm film canister, a latex glove and a pair of scissors.

Cut a half-circle in the film canister’s lid. Then cut a 3-inch by 2-inch strip of latex. Stretch it over the canister, leaving a 1⁄8- to 1⁄4-inch gap between the flat of the lid and the latex, and you’re done. You can stretch or loosen the latex over the cap to achieve the desired sound.

turkey hunting
A pair of gobblers from Nebraska.Tony Hansen

3. Push-Button Calls
The lowly push-button box can almost always be counted on to produce great clucks, yelps and purrs, and yet many turkey hunters refuse to slip this much maligned "beginner's call" into their vest. Ironically, this easy-to-use call is also the one that often turns birds on when nothing else will.

“I probably don’t use the push button as often as I should,” says Eye. “One of the things a lot of guys don’t realize at all is that it’s a great public-land turkey call. When those birds have heard awful boxes, bad diaphragms and slates, you can make them gobble with a push button.”

Veterans like Will Primos wouldn’t be caught without one, either. “It gives me another sound in my routine and it works really well,” says the owner of Primos Hunting Calls. The Primos’ version—The Spring Hen—is gun-mountable.