March/April 2017Delightful Instruments of Deceit: The Lure and Lore of Turkey Callsby Jim Casada; photos by Phillip Jones
Call makers create instruments that lure quarry other than gobblers as hunters are often attracted by the beautiful workmanship of intricately decorated turkey calls.
The earliest turkey calls were nothing special to behold. There's no enduring appeal to a single smilax leaf - no way to turn the natural voice into a totem as lovely to the eye as it is alluring to the ear of a gobbler. At some point though, that all changed. Perhaps it came when a famished Native American, ravenously feasting on turkey, savored every last morsel down to the rich marrow of the bird's bones. Gnawing first one end and then the other off a wingbone, he sucked mightily on it in order to enjoy its internal goodness, only to hear a sound instantly recognizable as that associated with his quarry. Or perhaps a frontier farmer, laboring in a slateladen field, scraped a hoe across a rock's surface and heard a distant bird respond to the sound.
Whatever the precise origin of the various types of turkey calls, over time they have evolved to combine exquisite visual appeal with deadly functionality. Most types of calls, especially those that are custom made, now feature aesthetic distinctiveness which transforms them from mere instruments of deceit to enduring things of delight. Today, collectors avidly await the latest productions from talented callmakers who combine craftsmanship, artistry and an ear for music in their calls. Exact renditions of the wild turkey's vocabulary incorporates at least thirty sounds.
English Romantic poet John Keats used the description "thing of beauty" in his ode describing a Grecian urn, but the words are just as apt for many examples of modern calls. They are genuine things of beauty and as Keats said, "a joy forever." Loveliness notwithstanding, for veterans of the grand quest for America's big-game bird, the seductive notes produced by calls are what matter most. If they feature arresting attractiveness in the bargain, that's simply the cherry atop a gobbler getter's sundae.
Turkey calls come in a wide variety of sizes, shapes and designs, and the types of material which can be employed in crafting them is limited primarily by callmakers' imaginations. That being duly recognized, there are only a handful of basic call categories, and all of them operate in one of two fashions - they are either air activated or rely on friction to produce sound. Perhaps the easiest approach to a general appreciation of the world of wonder associated with these vital tools of the turkey hunter's trade is to take a closer look at the key types of calls.
Early suction yelpers all utilized bone, cane or a combination of the two in their construction. More often than not, the bones used to make the calls came from the wings of wild turkeys, although sometimes those of snow geese or other large birds were substituted. The smaller bone in the middle joint of a turkey's wing (the ulna) has the ideal internal diameter for producing sounds of a wild turkey. In the hands (or, more literally, the hands and mouth) of an expert, a wingbone yelper allows the hunter to offer clucks, yelps, cackles, kee-kees, cutts and even gobbles. Wingbone yelpers come in various configurations, with the most common types featuring a hen ulna as the mouthpiece and a gobbler radius as the trumpet end or else a three-piece design joining ulna, radius and humerus.
The versatility of wingbone calls extends beyond their ability to replicate various elements in the wild turkey's vocabulary. They are impervious to weather, something which does not hold true for many other calls. Wingbones enable the caller to vary his turkey sounds from a barely audible level to a degree of intensity turkeys can detect for the better part of a mile away in ideal conditions. Most importantly to me - as a dyed-in-the-wool wingbone man who considers spirituality and a sense of oneness with nature and the quarry integral parts of the overall experience - with a wingbone yelper, sounds from turkeys past are being used to lure living ones within gun range.
The two-piece yelper I use was crafted the better part of four decades ago by my turkey hunting mentor, the late Parker Whedon, and it features an ulna from the first hen I killed (back in the days when South Carolina had a short either-sex turkey season in the fall) and a radial bone from my first longbeard. It is my "go to" call, part totem, part good luck charm and part cherished memories. The amount of time I have been hunting with it speaks to one other important attribute of suction yelpers - they are durable. Sometimes they are even gussied up a bit with some scrimshaw work on the trumpet end.
The most common complaint about yelpers is that they are difficult to master. That is certainly true, but oddly enough it could be considered as much a recommendation as a mark against this type of call. Late in the season, when turkeys have been endlessly serenaded by diaphragms and box calls, it's nice to know you will be floating seductive sounds through spring's balmy breezes with just the right degree of difference or novelty.
Along with those constructed of wingbones or caneand- bone combinations (generally called the Jordan yelper after pioneering turkey great C. L. Jordan), today's hunter can use beautifully turned and precisely tuned yelpers made of lovely and sometimes exotic woods. They often feature mouthpiece materials such as buffalo horn, walrus tusk, or if made during the period when it was legal, elephant ivory. Some utilize decorative brass material such as rifle shell casings at the joints and even in some cases have interchangeable mouthpieces for producing different sounds. These exquisitely crafted works of wonder rival the simple appeal of wingbone calls.
Box calls take pride of place when it comes to eye appeal, simplicity of use and giving full range to the craftsman's flair. From small scratch boxes to the elongated ones aptly styled "boat paddles," these friction-operated devices have long been turkey hunting standards. There are more U.S. patents for them than any other type of call. Thanks to infinite variations in checkering, diverse inlays, lovely woods ranging from spalted maple and wormy chestnut to those of tropical trees, not to mention ancient cypress dating back for millennia, box calls provide collector and hunter alike with endless choices.
Properly maintained, with judicious use of chalk and protection from the elements, a box call will outlast its owner's life span. In fact, the man often described as the "poet laureate of the wild turkey," Tom Kelly, has written a story about a box call used to call gobblers to the gun in three different centuries. Box calls are ideal for the novice, and there's little doubt that over the entire span of recreational hunting for turkeys they have accounted for more success than any type of call.
Slates and other pot calls
Along with boxes, "pot" calls (so styled because the wood encases a thin piece of slate, metal or other materials) and close cousins such as trough calls are friction activated. The friction comes from drawing a wooden stick - the striker - across the slate surface. The sound chamber of pot calls beneath the slate surface has sweet spots where different types of turkey talk such as clucks and yelps can be produced. Veteran turkey hunters feel slate calls are particularly good for replicating the soft, dulcet sounds birds produce as they go about their daily business. Just a bit of carefully placed pressure with the striker emits muted clucks and purrs, and it can be accomplished with minimal hand motion. Many old-time hunters of the "get his attention and then lay a heavy dose of silence on him" school of thinking feel that a cluck or two on a slate at fifteenminute intervals is all it takes to perform yeoman duty when it comes to consistently slinging sharp-spurred, bearded gobblers over your shoulder and toting them home from the spring woods.
Tube calls and diaphragms
As is the case with suction yelpers, tube calls are air activated, but there is a significant difference. With yelpers the caller draws air in; tube calls produce sound by the passage of air being blown outwards over latex. The same basic process - air over latex - holds true for diaphragms as well, although they are situated inside the caller's mouth. Obviously there is nothing aesthetically appealing about a diaphragm. They offer about same level of charm as dentures. On the other hand, tube calls, in company with yelpers and boxes, lend themselves to graceful artisanship employing fine woods. A tube call skillfully turned on a callmaker's lathe and embellished with anything from engraving or scrimshaw to metal bands or inlays of semi-precious stones exudes loveliness. Though smaller, they demonstrate the essence of artistry in the same manner as a wingbone graced by the soft patina which is an outgrowth of years of loving use or a box call in which the craftsman gave free rein to inventive genius.
Calls from Ancient Past
Custom callmakers have long been fond of using unusual or imported woods in pursuit of their craft, but Hemingway, South Carolina's John Tanner has carried this penchant for turning things from nature into turkey "tools" to what may be the ultimate level. He uses what is known as "ancient cypress," perfectly preserved wood retrieved from expansive sand pits in the lower Florence County region. The age of the wood exceeds the limits of Carbon-14 dating systems, but a leading dendrologist reckons that the cypress dates back at least 55,000 years to the most recent Ice Age and quite possibly to earlier Ice Ages. Whatever the case, there's no denying the appropriateness of the description "ancient."
Through painstaking experimentation, Tanner has perfected his work with venerable cypress wood. He garnered tips from established call makers and switched from glued box calls to use of solid blocks of wood. Tanner also observed little tricks of the trade that produced better sounds, and learned to stabilize cypress in a vacuum chamber and thereby enhance the predictability of call tones. The success of his experimentation and determination is obvious. Not too long before the death of the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, Tanner was commissioned by Arkansas State University to make a special commemorative call for the avid sportsman. The result was an alluring combination of ancient cypress and lovely engraving. He has also produced limited edition calls from cypress for Sporting Classics magazine, an upscale publication that includes many avid collectors of sporting memorabilia, crafts and artwork among its readers. These calls, along with duck calls Tanner makes from the same wood, come with certificates from a University of Georgia expert attesting to the age of the cypress. They are but a sampling of Tanner's overall call-making work, but through this innovative use of ancient cypress he has produced calls "for the ages" from the ages. More information on his work can be found at www.johntannercalls.com.