Whoever first figured out that scraping a stick across a piece of slate sounded a lot like a turkey did the rest of us a big favor. The pot-and-peg type slate call has been an effective tool in the hands of turkey hunters for more than a century, and it’s been responsible for the death of more turkeys than you could fit into Yankee Stadium. This venerable call may be even more effective today than it was when it was new.
Thanks to space-age materials, the curiosity and inventiveness of thousands of turkey hunters and fierce competition between manufacturers, these calls have come a long way from that first chunk of rock and a fire-hardened hickory twig.
There are literally hundreds of pot styles, sizes and shapes, made of everything from molded graphite to coconut hulls to terrapin shells. I once saw one made from the headlight housing of an old 1920s touring car — a Packard or Hupmobile or something. It was as big as half a honeydew melon and ugly as a mud turtle, but it sounded like a turkey when I ran the peg across its surface.
Although turkey hunters almost always refer to this style of call as the “slate” call, the sounding surfaces are now being made not only of natural slate, but also copper, plexiglass, aluminum, acrylic, crystal, teflon, graphite and a dozen other exotic and esoteric materials. And the strikers used with them are more varied yet.
The result of all this variety in materials, sizes and shapes is an almost infinite range of tones available to the turkey hunter who uses slate calls. There’s even more sound range available with slates than with box calls, because of the wider variety of materials used for the striking surfaces in slates.
In addition, a hunter who’s proficient with a slate can get a wide variety of pitches and notes out of a single instrument by doing nothing more elaborate than varying the angle and pressure of the striker against the sounding surface. This takes practice, of course, and that brings us to one of the disadvantages of using a slate call: It’s fairly difficult to truly master.
Becoming a sure-enough slate-call expert is a task that never really ends, and few hunters ever achieve expert status with slates. It’s a worthy goal, though, because a slate call in the hands of a master can effectively produce every turkey sound except the gobble and the spit-and-drum, and I know one hunter who can even drag a passable gobble out of a slate.
The other side of the coin is you don’t have to be a slate-call expert to get good results with it. The better you are, the better your results will be, of course, but it only takes a few minutes to learn how to make passable yelps and clucks.
With some practice, the purr, cutt and cackle are well within the skill level of most of us who have a moderate degree of hand-eye (hand-ear?) coordination. Also, slates are one of the best tools on the market for producing the aggravated or fighting purrs that have become popular in recent years. This call, also, is not difficult to learn.
Slate calls are unsurpassed for soft, close-in work, as long as you can make the necessary hand motions without being detected by your gobbler. There’s no better type of call for making those soft, contented, almost inaudible clucks, purrs and whines turkey hens make when all is right in their world.
Getting away with the necessary hand motions can be tricky at times, but by laying the call on the ground or cradling it in your lap or the crook of an arm, you can use a slate even when your gun is mounted and the gobbler is in sight. I know this because I’ve done it, and more than once.
Another time the slate is an excellent choice is when you’re in very tight on a roosted gobbler and you don’t want to call loudly. Several times I’ve moved in on a gobbler in the dark, and when daylight came found myself too close to do much besides sit still and hope I didn’t get made.
Twice, I’ve been able to salvage the situation and harvest the gobbler by making the softest purrs and clucks I could possibly make on a slate, then waiting for the gobbler to fly down and come looking for me. Both times, I was within 30 yards of the tree the gobbler was roosted in, and could have shot both of them off their roost limbs if I’d been so inclined. Both times, the gobblers looked around for a while for the close but unseen hen, then dropped almost straight down and landed practically at my feet.
Slate calls can also be pretty loud, especially those with metal, crystal or acrylic sounding surfaces. They won’t match the volume of a good, ringing box call, but they’ve got considerable reach, and the good thing is, they retain their good tone and realistic turkey sounds at these louder volumes. Above a certain level, the notes produced by a box call, tube call or diaphragm call are prone to break or squeal and lose some of their realism, but most slates sound as turkey-like at their loudest as they do at their softest.
First, keep the sounding surface roughed up at all times. True slates need no more than extra-fine sandpaper or even a little square cut from a kitchen scrubby pad, while other surfaces call for rougher stuff. But they all need to be kept rough, so they’ll create the necessary friction against the striker to make the sounds.
Don’t ever, repeat ever, touch the sounding surface or the end of your striker with your fingers or bare hands. Your skin will leave a residue of oil, and this can deaden the sound. Some of the previously mentioned call materials aren’t bothered by this, but it’s a good habit to form.
Every slate call has a “sweet spot”, and it’s up to you to find it. Once you find it, mark it in some way so you can find it again, preferably without looking at the call. I prefer to cut or file a small notch on the rim of the call where the knuckle of my right pinky finger rests against the edge of the pot when I’m holding the striker and getting ready to use the call. When I grab the call, all I have to do is spin it with my left hand until the notch hits my knuckle, and I know the striker is over the sweet spot. With the notch, I can position my slates properly with my eyes closed.
You may well develop a different method, and that’s fine; just be sure you know where the sweet spot is, and be sure you can find it quickly every time, without having to stroke the call to do it. When you’re in tight on a gobbling turkey is no time for experimentation.
There are two “best” ways to hold the pot of a slate call. One is to fingertip it, holding it in all five fingers with the pot suspended over your palm. The other is to use your thumb and index or middle finger to encircle the call, leaving the bottom of the pot open and unblocked. Both methods allow the sound to escape unhindered and unaltered. Use whichever feels more comfortable and results in the best sounds for you. Some slates seem to run better with one grip or the other.
With either grip, hold the call fairly loosely. Gripping it too tightly causes several problems, among them hand fatigue, inconsistency of grip and possible deadening or inconsistency of the sound.
Speaking of consistency: It’s important when you use a slate. Figure out what calling position of body, arms, hands and fingers is most comfortable and produces the best sounds for you, and then stick with it. This helps you develop muscle memory, and it will make you a better, more consistent caller. This is why I like to rest my pinky knuckle against the edge of the pot. It makes my hands steadier, and it’s easier for me to maintain the proper relationship of striker to sounding surface.
One final advantage of using a slate call is that turkeys don’t hear them as often as diaphragms. It’s been my experience that you’ll hear slate calls in the turkey woods even less often than box calls.
I consider that as in-the-field proof of faulty thinking on the part of most turkey hunters. Don’t be part of it.
Editor’s Note: Jim Spencer’s award-winning 336-page book, Turkey Hunting Digest, is now available at a significant discount. Formerly $24.99, the price is now $15, plus $4 postage & handling. For two or more copies mailed to the same address, the price is $12.50 each plus $6 total p&h. Send a check or money order to Treble Hook Unlimited, Box 758, Calico Rock, AR 72519.