I can make a half-decent yelp on most mouth calls, and I have the song “Disco Duck” to thank for that.
Younger readers might not recall this nauseatingly overplayed ditty, which graced the pop airwaves in the late 1970s and early ’80s, but I’m sure a few Turkey & Turkey Hunting fans suffered such familiarity. Though I’m embarrassed to credit a piece of pop trash for teaching me the basics of latex-produced hen talk, confessing this truth might constitute a public service, so please bear with me.
Like many beginners, I made some gosh-awful sounds in my first attempts on a diaphragm call. Each yelp was a hideous screech, my clucks sounded like an exhaling walrus, and any attempt at purring produced more saliva than sound. I tried calls made by various companies, models with thin latex and others with thick prophylactic, and calls with one, two and three reeds — and several combinations thereof. Nothing worked, and I was getting disgusted enough to quit.
Then a buddy offered some advice that changed me.
“You are trying too hard to sound like a turkey, or at least Ben Rogers Lee,” he said. “That’s like trying to play a piano concerto without knowing how to make a chord. Forget about turkey talk for a while. You can already make sounds on the thing, so do this: Listen to some songs on the radio with a call in your mouth, and just try to imitate notes when you hear them. After you can do that consistently, go back to the turkey tapes you’ve got, and you’ll be able to imitate the yelps, clucks and purrs you hear.”
Well, his advice gave me a good chuckle, which is the common reaction of fools when they listen to something that makes sense. So the next day, as I was driving in my beater Dodge Omni, I tuned in a Top 40 station and popped in a mouth call. And after a few huffing grunts, I actually produced the odd musical tone. Ten minutes later, I aped a near-Skynyrd note during a guitar lick in “Sweet Home Alabama.” Energized, I pressed on. I suffered a humiliating setback while squealing a Clapton riff during “Layla,” but recovered nicely when I matched a few notes with ABBA as they crooned “Dancing Queen.”
The process became so addictive that I began toting my mouth call whenever I knew I’d be near a radio. And a week later — in my bathroom, no less — I nailed the chorus of “Disco Duck” to note-for-note perfection. When I went back to my turkey calling tapes, I was a changed man. OK, scratch that. I was the same rube I’d always been — but at least my calling had improved.
Mouth Call Mayhem
People who can run diaphragms well don’t understand stories like that. I know some of those guys, and mouth calls fit in their palate like a reed nests in an oboe. For the rest of us, playing a mouth call can seem an unnatural act; the production of turkey talk as unthinkable as memorizing the Gettysburg Address. If you’re of the latter camp, keep reading for some new developments in mouth calls. If you already yelp like a pro, find a radio — preferably one stuck on a classical music station — and match notes with everything you hear for a while.
First, here’s some highly basic info about how a mouth call works. The frame (the u-shaped deal that holds the reeds in place) is covered in tape or a similar material, and is meant to seal nicely against the roof of your mouth. When you exhale air sharply, the resulting wind passes along the reeds, making them vibrate and produce sound. To vary the length, tone and volume of the notes, you make subtle but important variations in air pressure and direction, teamed with little tweaks in the shape and position of your jowl, tongue and cheeks.
Note: Some pros — Preston Pittman comes to mind — also believe that altering the position of your hands, knees, buttocks, elbows and eyebrows also make a difference, but no one can prove this.
Sounds simple, right? Well if you’ve read this far, your answer is a predictable “whatever!” And your skepticism would be correct. Producing turkey sounds in this manner is not much different than making notes on a wind instrument, except this one fits in your mouth. You must possess certain gifts and attributes, including an ear that can listen critically to the sounds you are producing and almost instantly recognize whether those notes are true or really bad.
The good news is that most of us — with practice — can master the mouth call. And thanks to some recent improvements in this genre, running a diaphragm gets easier. I did some research on this topic, and here’s what I found.
Most turkey callers who have difficulty making sounds on a mouth call suffer from a common problem: The frame of the call they’re running doesn’t fit well against the roof of their mouth. If this applies to you, don’t feel bad. Few of us have a perfectly formed palate, and it’s still possible to find a call that fits. In fact, it’s a critical step in obtaining mouth calling perfection. The biggest epiphany I ever experienced regarding mouth call fit came when I hunted with a former champion contest caller. As we paused on a hardwood ridge, my buddy fished into a little leather pouch and produced a mouth call that was nothing more than two reeds stretched across a metal frame.
“Wait a minute,” I said. “Where is the tape on that call?”
My friend grinned.
“I never put tape on any of the calls I build for myself,” he said. “They fit my mouth better without it. Lots of contest callers run tapeless calls.”
Let me tell you, even my dim Norwegian brain danced with the possibilities. No tape on a mouth call? I could barely wait to get home, find a scissors and start trimming tape. Surely this was the trick I needed to take my skill from barely good enough to world champ. Unfortunately, I quickly learned that the only benefit I realized from a tapeless call was that I could swallow the thing better.
But there’s a lesson: If the mouth call you’re having trouble with doesn’t seem to fit right, trimming it with a scissors can make a difference. I have altered a few production mouth calls in that manner and run them better.
It’s no coincidence that several call makers have recognized our widely varying palate sizes. Hunter’s Specialties, for example, has introduced a small-frame line of its popular Premium Flex mouth call series. Don’t be fooled. You don’t have to be a child to blow one of these calls. Some of us — beefy adults included — were born with narrower palates, and a smaller frame size might be the ticket to a better fit.
There are other options. Quaker Boy has adapted to differing palate shapes with its new Foam Fit series of mouth calls. The softer cushioning material is substituted for the tape normally used in a diaphragm. The foam-like tape creates a better seal and is advertised to work even for denture wearers.
The message is simple: Just because you can’t run one maker’s mouth call doesn’t mean you can’t play another’s. Experiment with various frame sizes and tape materials — or no tape — until you find a style that fits.
Of course, the guts of any mouth call are the reeds — or reed — that produce sound when you blow air over them. And if you’ve spent any time staring at the call rack at your sporting goods store, you recognize there are a dizzying number of combinations. Layers and half-layers. Splits, cuts and v’s. Colors and whites. All are guaranteed to bring cable-bearded gobblers marching.
I’ve talked to enough callers and call makers to believe this: The quality of the latex is probably more important to the sound of a call than anything else. Call rubber — a generic term for latex or prophylactic — arrives stateside in big sheets, which wholesalers chop down and sell to call makers, who further size them down and turn them into calls. Some call companies are fanatical about the quality of latex they’ll use. Mike Pentecost, owner of Woodhaven Custom Calls, builds thousands of mouth calls every year.
“We use a hand-micrometer to determine latex thickness for every batch of rubber we get,” he said. “Anything that isn’t the proper thickness is rejected. The same goes for other imperfections. In this shop, the latex is perfect or it isn’t good enough.”
Another process that affects the sound quality of a mouth call is the amount of stretch, or tension, that’s applied to the latex as it’s laid across the frame. When a mouth call is made, the latex is first stretched side to side. That puts the first bit of tension in the rubber but still leaves tiny wrinkles. Only when the latex is pulled toward the back of the frame — away from the open part of the U — are those wrinkles straightened. If done properly, this process — called back-stretching — can improve the quality of the sound and durability of the call.
It might surprise you, but most mouth calls on a store rack are handmade. Some companies use a press, or jig, that lets them speed up the process and produce more calls. Other — usually smaller — companies might forgo most mechanization and hand-stretch their product.
“All our calls are made by only three or four guys here, and we don’t use a press,” said Doug Adkins, owner of Cane Creek Calls. “We bill ourselves as a custom call company, and I don’t feel we can make that claim if we mass-produce them.”
Look for more companies to follow such painstaking procedures as the mouth call market becomes increasingly competitive. M.A.D. Calls staffer Tad Brown acknowledged that when he told me the company’s newest mouth call is called the Touch series, because each diaphragm is hand-built — or touched — by pro-staffer and calling champion Billy Yargus.
Finally, a word about call cuts: Experiment. As I noted, you can go cross-eyed looking at the variety of cutters, split-v’s, stacks and splits. Call companies spend countless hours experimenting with scissors to perfect a diaphragm that breaks or rasps in a certain tone. That doesn’t mean you can run it. It also doesn’t mean you can’t. Like everything else diaphragm-esque, the only way to know if it’s the call for you is to buy it and run it. And if a call sings for you, buy two (or five or 10) of the same call — immediately.
I have a love/hate relationship with mouth calls. Every now and then, I’ll stumble onto a model that seals to my palate like a wad of peanut butter. With a little huff of air, I can make a sweet little yelp. Mild hyperventilation will produce some sassy cutting. And when the stars and moon line up just so, I might actually coax in a gobbler with the thing.
Inevitably, though — and just when I’m feeling a little cocky — I’ll hunt with or listen to someone who can really run a mouth call. During a recent hunt, I listened to one of my mentors trade kee-kees with a little lost hen. The notes coming from that mouth call were so pure and true I found my head rotating between bird and man like I was a spectator at a tennis match. It was the only way I could tell who was doing the talking. It was a display of virtuosity I know I would never match — not with a lifetime of practice.
And so help me, when that exchange ended, part of me wanted to ask my friend if he could, just for me, yelp the chorus of “Disco Duck.”