You’re nestled up against your favorite tree, patiently waiting for Mr. Tommy Longbeard to reveal his stubborn, snoody face. He’s been hammering you all morning, and you’re sure he’s closing the distance. But you know how those ground-shaking gobbles can be. Sometimes it’s as if they’re coming from every direction, so you can’t be sure he’s coming from the left, right … There he is! The sneaky strutter came in silent. He hangs up at 45 yards, his spit-drum pounding so hard it challenges the intensity of your adrenaline-filled heartbeat. You’re confident the newfangled turkey loads in your fully choked turkey tamer can close the distance with a clear shot, but he’s partially hidden in some thick stuff. Not surprisingly, he has still managed to zero directly in on you with his periscope. You carefully reach for your favorite friction call—the one you’re oh-so-comfortable with—to make an attempt to pull him out from behind the brush. BUSTED. Mr. Tommy Longbeard has left the building.
You thought you did everything right. Weeks before the hunt you practiced calling on your trusty slate and box calls, patterned your gun and made sure all your gear was fully camouflaged. The evening before the hunt you roosted birds, and when the anticipated morning finally came you crept into position extra early. What’s missing here? Rewind back to the calling part of the game and replay the moment your bird escaped. Your hunt was designed for failure from the beginning, all because you were too afraid to take on the motionless power of the mouth call.
Look, Mom, No Hands
It’s often perceived that the mouth/diaphragm call requires too much learning, patience, practice and precision. That’s simply not true. Anyone can learn how to use a mouth call, and if you’ve ever heard live turkeys in the woods, you know that there is no “perfect” turkey sound. If you’re not practicing to compete in a calling competition, mastering the mouth call for use in the woods doesn’t take much effort.
Selecting A Mouth Call
The first thing you’ll want to do is select a call. Like anything else, there are more options on the market than you might care to research. For a beginner mouth call, pick up a basic single- or double-reed because they’re easier to blow. What’s really key is that you find a call you’re comfortable having in your mouth—sometimes for hours. Most mouth calls on the market are the “tape” kind. The material that covers the latex reed or reeds and the inner hard frame is referred to as tape. I learned with tape mouth calls, but then the Quaker Boy Foam Fit calls came to the market. They’re made with a soft, cushiony material. They’re comfortable, durable and easy to use; I haven’t turned back since. But it’s all a matter of preference. The nice thing is that mouth calls are inexpensive—typically less than $10—so if you have to buy a few to try it’s not a big deal. If you’re not too hard on them, they’ll last a long time.
You’ve found a mouth call you’re confident with, so it’s almost time to start making noise. But first comes positioning. Mouth calls are shaped like a horseshoe, and you’ll want the flat end facing toward your front teeth. Most mouth calls have a designated top (sits against roof of mouth) and bottom (sits against tongue). The package your call came in will typically clarify, and often there is a small bead just behind the reed(s) on one side of the solid frame to indicate the bottom of the call. Place the call in your mouth and move it around with your tongue a bit to get used to it. Practice storing it between your teeth and cheek for when it’s not in use in the field. Now, position it in the center of your tongue and roof of your mouth, pressing upward with the center of your tongue. Focus your pressure on the rear and sides of the mouth call’s frame, but not on the reeds. The tip of your tongue—approximately the front third—will sit just in front of the call, just behind the back of your front teeth. The tip of your tongue will likely never hit the roof of your mouth when you’re using your mouth call, as a tiny gap must be left open for the air to flow through the reeds and create sound.
Ernie Calandrelli, veteran turkey hunter and director of public relations for Quaker Boy Game Calls, offers a few basic, yet important tips. “You don’t want any air going over the top of the call,” Calandrelli said. “It’s all gotta come between your tongue and the reed … nothing around the sides, nothing over the top.” He also points out the importance of not blowing too hard, which is a common beginner mistake. “Put it in there and very gently just let that air hiss between your tongue and that reed. The hardest part is to get some noise,” he said. “Once you get a little bit of noise, if you just keep playing with it from there, you’ll be on down the road and turn yourself into one probably pretty good turkey caller.”
You’re ready to have at it. The first thing you’ll want to learn is how to push air through the call to create sound. The mouth call is also called the diaphragm call for a reason: You’ll be forcing air through the call from your diaphragm. Teachers of turkey talk often tell their students to think of the way you blow when you fog up a window vs. blow out a candle. Here’s a way I recommend for learning how to use your diaphragm: Try to mimic the sound of static on a television, but be sure to focus on keeping your tongue pressed up against the roof of your mouth. Pay attention to your stomach. You’ll feel pressure, as if you’re trying to flex your abdominal muscles; that’s your diaphragm going to work. Do this with a mouth call in and you’ll surely create sound.
Before you start trying to mimic actual turkey sounds with your mouth call, be sure you know what they sound like. For a great variety of wild turkey calling audio clips, visit the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) website. Now you’re ready to start sweet talking longbeards.
If you’re to learn only one call, it should be the yelp. The yelp will bring turkeys in, keep them interested and usually keep them comfortable. It’s also the gateway to learning most other calls. There are different types of yelps, but they’re all simply variations of tone, volume and intensity. The excited hen help is a good place to start.
Everyone finds their own “word” that they like to say when yelping. I prefer to say “chop,” “chip” or “chup” when I yelp. Another popular word is “chalk.” You’ll want to focus on two syllables, regardless of which word you choose. Using “chop” as the word, think of it as “chhhh-opppp.” Try saying each syllable alone at first, and then combine the two. The first syllable will be higher pitched, rolling over into the second, lower pitched syllable. Be sure to focus on cutting the call off at the end of each yelp by closing your lips. It’s that simple to create a yelp with a mouth call.
To take it to the next level you’ll want to incorporate the cluck into your vocabulary. The cluck is a short “popping” call that turkeys make in a variety of situations. It’s especially important for communication between turkeys, and works great as a confidence fall when luring a tom into range. Often, the cluck is used in combination with the yelp or the purr. Like humans, turkeys don’t communicate with only one word.
If you want to think of the cluck in terms of a word, think “puck.” The real key, though, is to build up as much pressure as you can from your diaphragm with your lips closed. Then, abruptly release the pressure through the mouth call while opening your lips, but seal your lips back up to cut the call off after only a brief moment. This is the subtle call that will comfort Mr. Tommy Longbeard enough to pull him out of that nagging hang-up.
It should be noted that a great debate rages in the turkey hunting and calling community, centered around the similarity of the cluck to the putt. Some consider the putt to be a separate, yet dangerously similar call to the cluck. It’s known as a call made by the wild turkey when it’s alarmed. After much thought and reflection on my own turkey hunting experiences, along with discussion and research, I’ve recently devised my own theory.
Putts are indeed made when turkeys hear or see something they don’t like, almost as a way of saying, Prove you’re not a threat or I’m out of here. Putts are also a way to draw attention from other birds in the area if a perceived danger is present. If you’re lucky enough to have never heard putts in the field, listen to the example on the NWTF’s website. Listen closely to the end of the audio clip and you’ll notice the content purrr sound in the background at the end. Why would a content purr be mixed in with alarm putts? I believe clucks and putts are almost impossible to differentiate. It’s easy to point out that a turkey “putts” when it runs away from you in the woods, and automatically associate it as a unique sound created by an alarmed turkey. But if you heard that same sound as a turkey was happily milling around in front of you or curiously searching for your call, perhaps you’d refer to it as a cluck. Get my drift? To each his own.
The third and final call you should learn as a beginner with your mouth call is the cutt. Cutting is a vocalization typically made by an excited or aggressive turkey. This is the call to pull out when you mean serious business in the turkey woods, often after the yelp or cluck haven’t done the trick.
The cutt comes as somewhat of a beginner turkey callers “freebie” after having learned the yelp and cluck. The cutt is simply a louder, more intense version of the cluck. Pretend you’re an angry or excited turkey and you’ll probably get it without further explanation. Simply cluck fast and hard, forcing more air out in longer bursts; however, you might want to think of the word “peck” instead of “puck.” Use a series of ones, twos, threes and fours, and establish your own rhythm. Peck-PeckPeck-PeckPeckPeck-PeckPeckPeckPeck-PeckPeck. Rather than focusing on the quick “pop” of the cluck, you can loosen up a bit and show some more emotion with your mouth call.
Those three calls will get you started with your mouth call. There are several other turkey vocalizations to learn as you progress, but the purpose of this instruction is to get those who fear the mouth call to pick one up. Once you’ve got your basic turkey talk dialed in, it’s up to you to learn proper cadence by continuing to listen to real turkeys. The more you absorb, the easier it will become to participate in dead-serious conversation with wild turkeys in the field. You’ll be hands-free, and next time your shotgun will have the last word.