Turkey Calls: Ray Eye’s Top Picks

And how to use them!

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Ray Eye
Leading our Turkey Gear Panel is the dean of America’s professional turkey hunters, MidWest Outdoors Field Editor Ray Eye. Grew up in the heart of Missouri’s Ozark Mountains, often following turkeys for days at a time, sleeping on the ground near the roost and starting again at first light.

More than 50 years of constant turkey hunting under his belt, in the lower 48 states, Hawaii, and Mexico. Recognized as the most realistic caller ever, his trademark slogan: Calling is Everything. A fairly obvious choice to cover what turkey calls you might want to buy.

The Real Lowdown on Turkey Calls
Of all the equipment available for turkey hunters today, calls are the most important when it comes down to killing spring gobblers.

Since my career in the hunting industry began more than 40 years ago, I’ve witnessed unbelievable growth and change in turkey hunting gear. Today, there is a wide variety of equipment, clothing, boots, and more easily accessible for every conceivable facet of turkey hunting. There are many good products that will help you on the road to success, but there are also marginal products, so you have to be selective.

Too many of today’s turkey hunters have become way too dependent on the latest ‘magic potion’ for turkey hunting, more than traditional old-fashioned hunting and calling skills. We live in a “have to have it now” world, where everything is right now: fast food, fast service. Many hunters not only expect, but demand immediate results.

When I’m presenting turkey hunting seminars across the country, I always advise hunters that ‘the best call’ will vary from person to person. Use what works best for you, what you have confidence in, and use a big helping of common sense.

Let’s take a look at turkey calls. Many call designs seem functional inside a sports show, sporting goods store, or seminar. But the real test is in the woods, in the heat of battle on a turkey hunt.

Mouth calls
Also called diaphragm calls, they are the most popular turkey calls today. There is a wide variety of choices, number of reeds, type of sound, colors, as well as some bizarre names. The diaphragm call has come a long ways in quality and manufacturing materials, so let’s discuss some of my history with ‘mouth yelpers.’

My first handmade mouth call held the single, thin rubber reed in place without any adhesive tape; I used soft plumber’s lead for the frame. I used a condom; Trojan was the best for a single thin reed. My wife Janet claims using bare-lead-frame calls during those early years explains what’s wrong with me today.

I hand built my first double reed in spring of 1977, but still was forced to use condoms, because it was impossible to locate the new rage in mouth calls from out East, surgical latex rubber for the diaphragm reeds. During the spring of 1977, calling with my new double reed call, I won first place in every contest I entered but one, but more importantly, called in a ton of gobblers.

During Missouri turkey season in spring of 1979, Mike Held and I were on a ridge top on Johnson Mountain. From overuse, the reeds in my older call were really stuck together. A gobbler just down the ridge top was blowing it out, and I am in a hurry to get my call going. So I pull really hard on the top reed, and it rips. A big chunk was torn out of the corner, so I threw the call down on the ground in disgust and grabbed the only other call I had with me.

I pull on the reeds of that one and the top reed tears in pretty much the same way.

I finally just give up and throw it in my mouth and blow the call. Not sure who was more surprised at the sound: me, Mike, or the turkey, which is now running at me like a race horse, gobbling every step of the way. I killed the turkey, but neither of us made a move to go pick it up. We were too busy. Mike was tearing the crap out of his calls, and I was madly looking for the other call that I had thrown away.

That was the day when, quite by accident, I found the sound I was searching for in a mouth call. That fall, several fine gobblers paid the price.

This is the very same call that I used to win the 1984 Levi Garret calling Championship in Crossville, Tennessee, along with the 1984 and 1985 National Championship in Arkansas. The two-reed ‘cutter’ call was ahead of its time back in 1984.

Today, I continue killing turkeys with that very same call design.

In 1985, my small call company (Ozark Mountain Calls) and its line of products, became part of Hunter’s Specialties’ new HS Strut line, and I went to work full-time for HS Strut. But HS requested that I build their call with a much smaller cut in the top reed. They still named the call the Cutt’en 2.5, and it became the first mass-marketed cutter call and the rest is history.

So my thoughts for helping you are simple: find a mouth call like the 2.5 that works best for you, one you have confidence in, and use it in the woods. Do not rely on what your friends or other hunters tell you. Go with what the turkeys tell you. If your calling consistently has hens respond, yelping and cutting to your calling, you are in the game, no matter what anyone else thinks of your calling.

Box calls
Those who hunt with me know how much I depend on a well-tuned, ‘real-hen-sounding’ box call. If you want to sound like a real hen, find a good box call like my Legends of the Outdoors Hall of fame box call, and keep it with you on every hunt.

(The ‘Legends’ box call is available, from Cedar Hill Game Calls. Click here for details.)

I love the sound of old time box calls. Those handmade works of art produced real turkey sounds with a pretty, ‘double note high-low’ yelp. You will have to go through a lot of box calls in stores and at shows to find a really good one.

The old time ‘scratch call’ (a small, box-type call) was another friction call very popular in the Ozarks back in the old days. Many hunters, including my grandpa, sanded and chalked their gun stock to call with ease with their gun up in place.

Modern version alert: you can still find a scratch box turkey call at Cedar Hill Game calls, The Little Scratch Box. It’s handmade from pure cedar, and it sounds like a turkey.

Using a box call
Box calls are very easy to use. Simply pull the lid, (without picking it up) across the calling edge and learn to call with turkey rhythm. One of the things I do, which is different from the way some hunters use a box call, is to use the bottom of the call to strike against the lid of the call, rather than using the lid of the call to strike the sides of the box. I do this by holding the lid in my left hand straight up and then holding the box in my right hand and hitting the box against the lid to cut and give loud, excited yelps.

One of the things to remember about a box call is that the different ways you hold a call determine the kinds of sounds you can produce. Many times, just changing your hand position in the way you hold the call will change the sounds that a box call produces. My box call is loud when needed in open country or windy weather, but soft when needed for close-in realism on a calm day.

For new hunters asking what call they should choose, I always recommend a good sounding box call, for ease of use, and because a good box sounds more like a real turkey in the hands of a novice than any other turkey call.

Watch this video, about 3 minutes long, on how to use a box call…

Tuning a box call
The box call is a very effective turkey call, but after hard use, temperature changes and handling, many boxes need to be re-tuned and rejuvenated. I have tuned thousands of box calls in the manufacturing processes, at sports shows, seminars and for hunters in camp.

Several factors cause the loss of quality sound. With regular use, for example, lid screws back out slightly, deadening what used to be sweet yelps. More often, calling edges wear down, or oil, dirt, and grime collect on the edges, causing a loss in quality tones.

The best way to begin tuning your box call is to clean the edges and paddle surface with a very fine steel wool or very fine sandpaper. Use just enough pressure to clean. Do not sand the wood, and make all cleaning motions with the grain of the wood.

Cleaning a box call
Always ‘clean up’ a box call by gently working in one direction, always with the grain of the wood.

After cleaning and re-chalking (if necessary), I listen to the sounds the call is making and adjust it what I want the call to sound like. If your call sounds a little off or just doesn’t sound how it used to, a screw adjustment might be necessary.

Start by marking the screw position with a black marker as a reference point. Because it is most likely that the screw loosened from repeated use, tighten it by turning clockwise just a touch. Now try the call. If there is a worn spot in the lid or side rail, or the screw turned from use, you should now be good. Try the call again. Repeat the process until you hear the right sound.

Marking a box call with a Sharpie, to place a reference point for tuning.

Typically, the calling rails on the bottom portion of the box are curved. There are two reverse radiuses where the lid or paddle meets the bottom edge of the call. Move the paddle, to the middle of the bottom edge’s radius, placing the exact center of the lid’s radius to the center most part of the call-bottom radius. If properly tuned, the paddle should sit center of both radiuses.

These steps always bring life back to my favorite box calls. They should work well for you, too.

Slate and glass calls
From my very first corn-cob-and-cedar-striker slate call, to later years’ corn-cob-with-acrylic-striker call, to pot-type calls, I have always liked these type of friction calls and have called and killed turkeys for years with them. Today, I really enjoy using a glass or slate call like Hook’s Exterminator Crystal Call.

I fell in love with the Hook’s Exterminator Crystal when it first came out. I have a ton of confidence in it, because turkeys respond so well to it. For late morning or midday locating, this call rocks the woods with unbelievable loud, sharp cutting and yelping. One of my all-time favorites that I always carry.

Locating Calls
The variety of locating calls used in turkey hunting that you’ll find in sporting goods stores and catalogs seems endless. While I use a turkey call in many situations when trying to locate and roost turkeys, my favorite locating call is the owl call. You should carry a quality owl hooter in your vest. My favorite one is the Harrison Hoot’n Stick designed by James Harrison (for Hook’s Custom Calls). It’s made of walnut and accurately duplicates the sounds of a barred owl.

So, choose a call that fits your needs, practice religiously with that call to gain confidence, then move on to other types of calls and learn to use them all as well. Working at calling with realism and emotion will allow you to consistently call turkeys in for a shot.