It was an odd day in Texas. The sun wasn’t shining. I hadn’t seen a rattlesnake in several hours. Even weirder, there were no turkeys gobbling. The misaligned planets must have put my host in a goofy mood.
“Why don’t we try heatin’ things up a bit?” he said, settling in against one of the few trees that wouldn’t poke a hole in a turkey vest. “We’ll both run a call. You know, make those gobblers think they’re missin’ a party over here.”
“Oh good Lord,” was my only thought. My friend had yelped in a gobbler for me the previous day, a henned-up nut job that roared on the limb and then flew tree to tree to reach my buddy’s smooth talking. The sun was barely revving its engine when that Rio pitched from a live oak and landed 15 steps from my toes. When my friend whispered, “Kill him,” I could have done so with a long stick. The man hadn’t just called the turkey in. He’d stuck his hand down the bird’s throat and yanked him into our wheelhouse.
I can make basic turkey sounds, but I’m downright call-shy in the company of a master — perfectly content to let him make music while I play trigger-man. Play a duet with my buddy, a renowned friction caller? I immediately recalled my boyhood friend Hughie, who was so awful on the trombone that our band teacher told him to fake-play during concerts, lest his sour notes spoil things for the rest of the ensemble. I’d chuckled at Hughie’s humiliation, and it struck me that payback had finally arrived. A cluck or two from me, and my friend might have me playing the air-call.
But my friend was serious, so I gulped and then stuck my hands in my vest. My right produced a metal-faced pot call, and my left clutched a rosewood striker. In the early stages of shock, I was too preoccupied to tremble as my host grabbed a well-worn slate and an equally loved peg. He was in his second yelping series when I jumped off the bridge and joined him. A bluegrass player would call that jamming, but all I did was listen to the leader and then try to ape what he’d just banged out. We made that Texas plain ring for a while, and I eventually got into things so deep I didn’t realize I was playing alone. My friend listened politely as I nervously and somewhat abruptly finished. Then he gave me a compliment that was as left-handed as it was kind.
“You call pretty well ... for an outdoor writer,” he said.
We chuckled, and then he made a pitch.
“But there are a few things you can do better, and if you’d want, I can show them to you.”
Only an idiot would turn down such an invitation, so I spent the next half-hour learning how to amp up my pot-call game. My mentor’s advice has helped me become a better pot-caller — even for a writer — and I’ve passed his advice on to other callers.
Here’s what I learned.
The Grip’s the Thing
The most natural thing — especially for a guy — is to rest a pot call in the palm of your hand, like you’re gripping a mini pan pizza. Wrong.
“The sound from a pot call goes two ways,” my friend said. “Up, and down. You want the palm of your hand away from the bottom of that call as far as you can, so the sound comes out from the bottom even better than the top. If you palm it, you not only lose half the sound, but your yelps have no ring to them.”
To demonstrate, he held his slate up at eye level for me, so I could see the broad swath of daylight beneath it. The edges of the disc were braced on his fingertips, and there was only a slight curve in his digits as they pointed skyward. He was holding the call as delicately as you’d hold your grandma’s favorite China tea cup. My friend’s hands are anything but dainty, but he braced that slate like he was afraid he’d break it. But when I visualized little notes of turkey music slipping out the bottom of the call, it was easy to see why the tips of his fingers were all that touched the edge of the call.
“The other thing that’s important is where you hold that call hand,” he said. “Keep it away from your chest. Clothing is another sound-muffler. You want that call hand sitting out in front of you, not mashed into your torso like you’re afraid you’ll drop it.”
That can take some practice to master, as it changes how you position your call hand and striker hand (more on that later). But the advice is, well, sound. If you need proof, watch a really good caller run a pot sometime. He’s not sticking that call arm out for dramatic effect. He’s doing it so the call can ring to its full potential.
Violin Bow, Not Writing Utensil
After he got me holding the pot at an awkward angle, my friend watched my striker hand as I made a few tentative yelps.
“Here’s the other mistake almost everyone makes,” he said. “You already know how to write, so quit gripping that peg like a pencil.”
Glancing at my fingers, I realized I was holding the slim wand of rosewood in a death grip. The broad tip of my thumb was pressing the striker against my index and middle fingers, and my fourth and fifth fingers were struggling to get in on the act if I got lazy.
My buddy knocked out a few yelps while I watched his striker hand. Like his grip on the call, his fingers didn’t grasp the striker so much as they flirted with it.
“For almost all yelps, you can almost pinch the striker lightly between your thumb and middle finger,” he said. “If you need that index finger at all, just use it to lightly guide the striker. It should barely touch the wood when you’re doing it right. Don’t even let your other fingers come close to that thing.”
When you try that, you’ll quickly realize it can take some practice. What great technique does not? After the tutorial, I forced myself to shrink my finger contact with the striker. To my ear, it makes a huge difference in tone and clarity. Better, it seems to make a difference to turkeys, especially when I’m working a bird that’s close and I’m striving for subtlety.
Search Out the Sweet Spot
Most pot calls are 4 to 5 inches wide. If you’re like me, you want to make full use of as much of the playing surface as possible. Before my friend’s lessons, I liked to make a fairly sweeping arc of striker along the slate, hoping that somewhere in its travels, the peg would make a pleasing sound or two. Plus, I hated to see good material go neglected. Why would the callmaker have put it there if he hadn’t intended for me to use it?
Naturally my pal told me that approach was off course.
"The call is that big so you can hold on to it,” he said sternly. “But the place where all the good notes are stored is about as large as a dime. Watch the tip of my peg while I call.”
He then banged out a perfect series of yelps, morphed into some excited cutting and ended with a few happy clucks. During the run, his striker stayed in a tiny zone on the edge of the playing surface. As if to prove a point, he placed his fingertip on a small series of scratches in the roughed-up slate — the perfect tracings the peg had made during its run.
So where is the sweet spot on a pot call? It’s different on every model. On some calls, the best notes are made nearly dead-center on the surface. Others might sport that zone closer to one edge. It’s up to you to find the exact spot on each call that produces the best notes. Some callers mark that zone by scratching a slight scar on the edge of the pot. After you’ve found the sweet spot and played it several times, you should be able to pick it out just by looking.
Obviously, you can usually call in a turkey by yelping on almost any spot on a call. But let’s face it, we’ve encountered gobblers that sound off to one note lustily while summarily ignoring almost every other turkey sound they hear. In my experience, those gobble-inducing yelps usually emanate from one spot on a call — the area that consistently produces the truest turkey notes.
When I started buying pot calls, I found it almost insulting that many came pre-packaged with two — sometimes three — strikers. How could the marketing boys know that I lose strikers — and other gear — with frightening regularity? It wasn’t long before I realized their intentions were not personal and highly practical.
Using a striker of a different material can give one call multiple tones. The hickory peg that drove a gobbler nutty one morning can bore him to silence the next. But switch to a walnut striker — without swapping calls — and the bird might suddenly go ballistic. The lesson is simple; I might carry only a few pots with different surfaces — slate, glass or metal — but I keep my vest stuffed with a generous supply of strikers.
Proper care and feeding will keep pot calls running and sounding great. I keep a Ziploc sandwich bag in my vest that’s crammed with two-sided scratchers. One side is a fairly abrasive sandpaper to which I glue a matching-sized Scotch-brite pad. I use these to maintain a roughed-up surface on my friction calls. And don’t forget to give strikers the same attention. After an extended calling session, the striker tip — especially if it’s wood — will clog up with material and become so slick it’ll barely make a sound. Dirt and moisture can also accumulate on striker tips and pot-call surfaces, and a scratcher is the only way to resurrect the sound.
I learned a lot from my friend that day — skills I continue to try to perfect. I have a long way to go to catch up with the master — he can make a kick-butt kee-kee run on a slate — but I know I’ve yelped up a gobbler or two that I might not have killed without his tutoring on that odd Texas morning.
And that’s pretty good I guess — even for an outdoor writer.