Best Turkey Calls and How They Work

Best Turkey Calls and How They Work

Calling in a big, bearded tom turkey close enough for an ethical shot is one of the most exciting and fulfilling things in all hunting. There’s nothing like calling in a flock of turkeys and sitting unnoticed among them on a cool morning in your favorite woods. Turkey calls are among the oldest hunting tools man has used, with over 6,000 years of history.

Man Using Turkey Call

Today, using one or more of the various types of turkey calls takes a bit of skill, but in many cases it’s very easy to mimic a hen turkey’s yelp well enough to bring in the big toms. In this article we’re going to go over the main types of turkey calls, how they work, and some tips on how to use them effectively.

What are the main types of turkey calls, and how do they work?

For the purposes of categorization, there are two main types of turkey calls: Friction calls and breath- or mouth-activated calls. Breaking it down further, friction calls generate sound by the vibration of one material rubbing against another and include several designs such as:

  • Box calls (including scratch boxes)
  • Pot or slate calls (usually made of slate, glass, or ceramic with a separate striker, though some are made of aluminum or titanium)
  • Push-pull or button calls

Let’s briefly go over the basic designs and functions of the three types of friction calls.

Box calls

This type of turkey call is so named because it resembles an elongated (typically) wooden box with a hinged, paddle-like lid. Sounds are made by scraping or striking the lid against the top edges of the box. Box calls can be quite loud and are often used as turkey locator calls, though experts can also generate quieter, more complicated sounds with them. Scratch boxes are a subset of the box call, typically with a separate flat wooden piece that is treated with chalk or other friction compound and rubbed against any number of types of boxes or wooden tubes, depending on the design. Essentially the function of these is the same to the standard, hinged box call, however. Scratch boxes are far less common than box calls.

Pot calls (often known as slate calls)

Pot calls are by far the most common type of turkey call, and many hunters would choose this type of call if they could only have one. Today, most pot calls comprise a round, disc-shaped, perforated wooden or polymer base about the size of your palm, with a disc of slate, glass/crystal, ceramic, or metal inset in the top. A pot call also requires the use of a striker, which is a separate stick-like piece usually made of wood, plastic, or resin-impregnated material. The striker is held similar to a pencil, and the tip is moved against the pot, which is called a flat surface to generate squeals, yips, yelps, and other turkey sounds, depending on where it is struck, how hard, and how long. The concept is similar to when you’re writing on a blackboard with a piece of chalk and you get a skreeeee sound. That vibration is made from the tip of the chalk vibrating against the slate.

Push-pull or button calls

This type of call is by far the easiest to use, as it comprises an outer housing, an internal friction surface, and a striker surface attached to an external rod, handle, or button. As you push or pull the handle or button, the striker moves across the flat surface and generates the sounds. Often you only need to use one finger to push the button, and some manufacturers offer button calls that can be mounted to your shotgun or bow so you don’t even need to set down your hunting gear. For beginners and youth, the push-pull is probably the best place to start, even though it is not as versatile as the other types of calls.

After friction calls, the second general category of turkey calls is the breath- or mouth-activated calls that require the user to either blow or suck air across either their lips or one or more reeds (usually made of plastic, rubber, or latex) to make the vibrations that generate sound. This type includes:

  • Diaphragm calls (commonly simply termed mouth calls)
  • Wingbone or trumpet calls
  • Tube calls

Here are the basics behind these three types of breath-activated calls.

Diaphragm or mouth calls

This type of turkey call is commonly known as the mouth call because it’s the only call that’s actually placed inside your mouth, up against your hard palate (the roof of your mouth). A half-moon housing secures one or more reeds made of polymer or latex, and blowing over this device is what makes the vibration and sounds. A mouth call may have a single reed, a double reed, or multiple reeds, and one or more of the reeds may have cuts in it to help create the crackle or raspy tone that helps your calls sound more realistic.

Wingbone or trumpet calls

Conveniently, the 5 American subspecies of the Meleagris gallopavo Linnaeus, or wild turkey, provide resourceful turkey hunters with wing bones that can be used to make turkey calls. A harvested turkey’s wing radius bone, ulna, and humerus are reserved, the marrow is cleaned out, and typically the bones are boiled and dried. A double wingbone call is made by inserting the smaller radius into the edge of the larger ulna, and securing it with adhesive, twine, leather, or natural sinew wrap. If you then insert those into the larger humerus bone and secure it similarly, you have created a triple wingbone call. This general category of call is known as wingbone calls, suction calls, yelpers, or trumpet calls (the latter term being used primarily for a similar style of call but made of plastic or wood rather than an actual turkey wing bones). In this type of call, the user places it in their lips and sucks air in. The vibration of the lips creates the sounds.

Wild Turkeys in a Field

Tube calls for turkey hunting

Tube calls can be made from pretty much any hollow, tube-like item, including film canisters (remember those?), pill bottles, bamboo, wood, bone, and even snuff cans! A latex film is stretched roughly halfway over the opening of the hollow tube and secured with rubber bands or similar materials. The other half is blocked off and is solid. This leaves a narrow opening, and you simply put your mouth against the latex and blow air through the slot, and the latex vibrates to make the sound. You can put more pressure on the latex to make higher-pitched tones and chirps, while less pressure makes lower and deeper tones like yelps and cuts. We don’t have any personal experience with tube calls, and they are not super well-known compared to the more popular pot calls or mouth calls. However, it’s said that tube calls can generate the most realistic and varied turkey sounds of all of the types of calls. Many champion turkey callers have used tube calls. Plus, you can make a tube call from pretty much anything! Here’s a fun article with instructions on making a tube call.

How to use box calls and pot calls for turkey, plus pros and cons

ESH turkey box call

This type of call doesn’t really require a lot of specialized instruction, as it’s fairly straightforward how to make the basic yelp and cut/cackle sounds. However, for a box call, the primary things you want to remember are to keep the surfaces chalked, and not to lift the handle or lid off the box between strokes. You can also use your thumb as a stopper to make short chirps or cuts. We found this video from Scheels helpful, and it demonstrates how to hold the box call handle, as well as creating yelps, cuts, and cackles using a basic box call. It’s easier to watch and see how these sounds are made rather than trying to describe it in text.

Video: How To Use a Box Call Turkey Hunting

This video demonstrates How To Use a Box Call Turkey Hunting.

Pot call

For pot calls, the essential points are to hold the pot in one hand by the sides of the pot (don’t block the sound holes in the bottom). Next, grip the striker about halfway up (you can try different grips and see what you prefer, but this is a general guideline) and rest your striker-hand palm lightly on the edge of the pot as a point of reference. This creates stability and reduces fatigue, and also allows for a more consistent sound. For the basic yelp, place the tip of the striker on the slate surface and make small circles or ovals. If you strike near the edge of the slate you’ll get higher-pitched tones, and toward the center will produce lower tones. Clucks are made by making very short movements while applying moderate to heavy pressure. For the purr sounds, use lighter pressure and slowly draw the striker downward across the slate. We really like this quick tutorial video.

Video: Turkey Slate Call 101

This video demonstrates how to use a Turkey Slate Call.

Advantages of box calls

Box calls for turkey hunting have several advantages, and some caveats. Let’s go over them briefly.

  • Easy to use: Box calls are extremely straightforward and are probably the easiest overall call to make basic yelps with.
  • Relatively inexpensive: You can get a functional box call for about $12-15 on places like eBay, though we’d generally recommend springing for something a bit more spendy (around $50 is a good place to start).
  • LOUD! You can use box calls as locator calls when needed, as the sound tends to carry over the hills better than some other calls.

Disadvantages of box calls

  • They rely on friction and don’t work when wet. Even a small amount of moisture on the friction surfaces will render a box call useless until it dries out.
  • Requires the use of both hands, and can be bulky. They can also be noisy if you need to drop them to switch to your shotgun or bow.
  • Not as versatile as some other types of calls for making lots of different sounds. (Though expert box callers can do some pretty impressive things).

Advantages of pot calls

  • Like the box call, the pot call is fairly easy to learn to use. You can pick up a quality pot call and be making basic hen turkey yelps immediately (see our tips above).
  • Pot calls are fairly versatile, and can make a pretty wide variety of sounds, from yelps to cuts/clucks to purrs.
  • They are fairly inexpensive, starting at around $20 for very basic ones and going up from there.

Disadvantages of pot calls

  • Like the box call, the slate or pot call requires the use of both hands, so you’ll need to put it away once the turkeys get close.
  • Similar to other friction calls, pot calls won’t work if they get wet or damp.
  • The call requires two separate pieces, so if you lose the striker, you’ll be out of luck until you find or replace it.
  • May not be as loud as some other types of calls.

Best box and pot calls for turkey hunting

As with most items, there really is no best here, but rather a selection of well reputed call makers. We tend to prefer American-made products (like Liberty’s gun safes) and quality construction for the money. Here are some brands to check out:

How to use a mouth call for turkey hunting (for beginners)

When you’re first starting out with mouth calling for turkey, it can feel very confusing. If you don’t have a good idea of where to place the call within your mouth and how to move air between your tongue and the call, you’ll be frustrated.

Where to place a turkey call inside your mouth

The first step is getting the call placed correctly within your mouth. Generally you place your call against the roof or hard palate of your mouth, reed facing outward, with any cut in the reed facing upward toward the top of your mouth. Some reeds don’t have cuts, but may have a rectangular tab in the moon-shaped frame that holds the housing of the call and the reed/s together. In this case, the tab faces downward, toward your tongue.

Here’s a good video demonstration of how to properly orient and place a mouth call inside your mouth. The presenter shows using a dental fixture where to locate the call against your hard palate, or possibly just where the soft palate and hard palate meet, depending on your individual anatomy and your choice of call.

Video: Beginners Guide to using a Turkey Mouth Call

This video is a Beginners Guide to using a Turkey Mouth Call.

How to start creating yelps using a turkey mouth call

Mouth calling for turkeys may seem like voodoo if you’re just starting out, but it’s actually not that difficult to get started. In our view it’s best to start out with a single-reed call and develop a good clean hen yelp. Once you get that down, you can step up to a double or multi-reed call with cuts and start working on adding chirps, cuts, cackles, and rasps to your yelp.

It may feel weird to have a call in your mouth at first, and some people simply can’t stand it or have intense gag reflexes that prevent the use of mouth calls. However, even very basic, single-reed calls can be effective at calling in turkeys.

Here’s a great video explaining how to get started with a turkey mouth call, including how to move the air using your diaphragm and firm abdominal support.

Video: Learn How to Yelp in 3 Steps

Pros and cons of mouth calls for turkey

Each type of call has its unique upsides and caveats. Let’s go over the pros and cons of mouth calls.

Advantages of turkey mouth calls

  • Mouth calls are typically very affordable, ranging from about $5 up to maybe $17 each.
  • They are very lightweight and barely take up any space.
  • A skilled caller can make a wide variety of realistic yelps, clucks, kee-kees, yips, and purrs with a good mouth call. Experts can even gobble with a mouth call.
  • Unlike most other calls, you can keep both hands free when using a mouth call. You can hold your shotgun or bow on target and call the toms in close, all while retaining the call in your mouth. This minimizes visible movement and is convenient.
  • While friction calls require dry conditions to function, a mouth call can be used wherever, whenever you’re after turkeys.

Disadvantages of mouth calls

  • You have to place a foreign object into your mouth, and up against your hard palate. Some people are very sensitive to sensations in this area and can even exhibit a gag reflex when trying a mouth call.
  • Using a mouth call effectively usually takes a lot of practice. Like, years of practice to get to the point where you’re making realistic and varied sounds.
  • The reeds may be made of latex, so if you have an allergy, be sure to read the components carefully.
  • Since they are placed in a warm and wet environment, mouth calls can collect and breed bacteria and/or they can break down and become useless over time. Reeds can stick together as well. Rinsing well with clean water, and keeping them out of heat and sunlight can help them last longer, as can storing them with a plastic toothpick between the reeds to hold them apart to dry. Here’s a video with some helpful tips.
  • Some people can get quite loud with some types of mouth calls, but they are more suited for close or mid-range calling in most cases.

Best turkey mouth calls

Woodhaven mouth call

There are dozens of companies offering mouth calls, and honestly they’re all fairly similar in general construction. Where you find differences is in overall quality of materials and construction. Our favorite overall company that makes and sells mouth calls for turkey hunting is Kluk Custom Calls, a veteran-owned business that sells a variety of mouth calls, all made in the USA. Kluk also sells box calls, pot calls, and other gear.

We also like Woodhaven Custom Calls, who offer an extensive array of mouth calls for every preference. As far as which exact model is best, it’s really a question of user preference and even anatomy. It’s a good idea to order two or three different styles of mouth calls with different cuts or configurations of reeds, and see which one you prefer.

How to use a turkey wingbone, suction, or trumpet call

Wingbone turkey call

This type of call is different from other mouth calls in several ways. First, as mentioned above, a wingbone or trumpet call is a suction-activated call, where instead of expelling air from your lungs through a mouth call, you’re sucking in through this type of wingbone or trumpet call.

Secondly, this type of call doesn’t have natural latex or polymer reeds that make the vibrations used to create the sounds of a turkey. Instead, the opening at the rear of the call is essentially a small tube through which the caller sucks air, and the caller’s lips are what make the vibrations, which travel back down the horn-shaped length of the call and can be further tuned by the caller’s hands cupped over the end. The simple nature of the wingbone call is one reason why historians estimate it has been in use since around 6,500 BC.

The basics of using a turkey wingbone or trumpet call

In basic terms, when using a wingbone or trumpet call, you place the very tip of the thin end of the call between your lips. Usually the best results are achieved by using the front of the lips, though some callers prefer using the side of their mouth. You want enough of your lips closed behind the call so air passing into your mouth between your pressed-together lips can cause them to vibrate and generate the yelping and clucking sounds. Like all skills, it takes a good amount of practice, and video or in-person tutorials can be very helpful.

This video is good for showing how much of the call to place into your mouth, and demonstrates how a wingbone call can be great for generating the soft clucks and tree yelps when hens are bedding down in the branches during early morning or evening hunting.

Video: Wingbone Turkey Call - How To Squeal, Cluck and Softly Yelp

Here’s another very useful video on how to use a trumpet or suction call, including generating clucks, cackles, and yelps.

Video: Trumpet Turkey Call Instructional

Pros and cons of wingbone or trumpet calls for turkey

Wingbone calls or trumpet calls have several positive attributes, as well as some potential downsides.

Advantages of a trumpet-type or wingbone turkey call

  • Like mouth calls, they can be used to create a wide variety of realistic turkey sounds.
  • Unlike the mouth call, you don’t have to deal with having a foreign object inside your mouth (other than in the front of your lips). People who are bothered with mouth calls can often get very skilled at using a wingbone or trumpet-style call.
  • You can make your own wingbone call.
  • Wingbone calls are said to have some of the longest range of any turkey call.
  • Even older hunters or people who are short of breath can effectively use this type of call, as generating the small amount of vacuum required is similar to a quick kiss.
  • Some people are drawn to the bush-craft or historical nature of this type of call, particularly primitive-style hunters.
  • Like mouth calls, wingbone or trumpet calls can be used in wet conditions that would silence friction calls.

Disadvantages of a wingbone or trumpet call

  • The vibration of your lips is what makes the sound of this call, and some people find it unpleasant or too ticklish to have their lips buzz in this fashion.
  • Natural wingbone calls take a bit of skill to make, and they can be very expensive.
  • It usually takes 2 hands to use this type of call effectively.
  • You must have your mouth exposed or a hole in your camo mask to access and use the call.
  • They are bulkier than mouth calls.
Turkeys in a Field

Best turkey wingbone calls

Since turkey wingbone calls are hand-made by real craftsmen, they can be pretty expensive and hard to find. If you want a nice one, there are several makers we’d recommend: Tony Ezolt, Mark Shape, Gerry Bramblett, Peter Wentworth, Kevin Rouse, and AJ Hiner should get you started. These are not typically the types of people who run websites and inventory management software, but rather real hunters and craftsmen who make calls either as a hobby or a side business. So get your google on, check the turkey hunting forums, or see if you can catch up with one of these fine makers at a local outdoor show or rendezvous.

Turkey locator calls: get that shock gobble!

If your hunting style is more mobile, or you are having a hard time getting big toms to come to you using a turkey hen call, then a different species locator call can be helpful. Turkeys don’t like other birds encroaching on their territory, and sometimes you can make the sound of another bird species to get a big tom to shock gobble in response. Scientists theorize that in some cases the turkey has an automatic, physical response to certain types of bird calls, whether he knows what kind of bird it is or not.

Generally there are two types of turkey locator calls (in addition to the above-mentioned box calls): owl calls and crow calls. These are what they sound like… calls that imitate the sound of owls and crows.

While owl calls are available for sale, you can actually stimulate a shock gobble from an aggressive tom turkey by just imitating an owl with your voice (in certain parts of the country). Here’s a fun video showing how an owl call can cause a shock gobble.

Video: Different Owl Calls to Make a Turkey Gobble

Lots of people make crow calls for locating turkey, but one of our favorites is the basic one made by Woodhaven. It’s loud, it makes a high-pitched CAW-CAW! sound, is easy to use (you just blow firmly and repeatedly in short puffs), and is pretty reasonably priced.

Best one-stop shop for all types of turkey calls

You can get hand-made turkey calls from any number of makers, but we really like Grand Slam Turkey Calls. Owner Fred Cox started around 30 years ago by making his own custom wingbone calls, and the business has expanded from there. Grand Slam offers pretty much any kind of call you can imagine, and they’re all made in the USA by a great American family business.

Midwest Turkey Call Supply and Primos Hunting are other great resources to check out.

Store your valuable calls and turkey hunting guns in a Liberty Safe

Whether you have just one hunting gun or many, it’s important to keep all your firearms safe and secure from fire, theft, and unauthorized access. The best way is in a US-made gun safe from Liberty. You can check out our complete line of safes in our interactive online catalog or see them in person at a Liberty Safe showroom near you.


*Made in the U.S.A. from U.S. and Global Parts.


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