Hands down, the most commonly used turkey call of the 21st century is the mouth call — mostly because it’s, well, a hands-down type of call. You don’t need to move your hands to run it.
But if you want the considered opinion of a guy who’s been kicked around by gobblers from coast to coast for 35 years, the diaphragm takes a back seat to the standard box call when it comes to sounding like a turkey. Although a box is big, bulky, awkward to carry, often expensive and always less convenient to run than the diaphragm, I believe it’s still the winner.
In the beginning, like almost every other turkey hunter who’s taken up this frustrating activity during the past 45 years, I ran diaphragms almost exclusively. I killed some turkeys, too. But after I hunted with one of the big names in the business and watched him use a box call to bring a stubborn longbeard up a ridge and into my kill zone, I started to rethink my position.
Twenty-five years later, I’m still a box call man. I still almost always have a diaphragm tucked into one cheek for emergency use, but my go-to call is the box.
Looking through my hunting logs from those earlier years, it’s striking to note the sudden increase in my success rate immediately after I switched to box calls. Some of that, I like to flatter myself, is because I was beginning to learn something about turkey hunting. But I suspect the truth is less flattering. It wasn’t me that got better, it was my calling. And the box call gets the credit.
Before we get too far into this subject, we need to make something clear: When run by a virtuoso — a real Grand National-level caller — the diaphragm is a more versatile instrument than the box call. But to achieve that level of proficiency with a diaphragm, those Grand National guys spend thousands of hours practicing.
Most of us lesser lights are not willing to make that kind of commitment, and so our level of proficiency is much lower. We can’t coax those sounds out of a diaphragm the way the pros can.
It’s much easier to achieve proficiency with a box call. In 15 minutes, usually less, you can teach somebody who’s never held one before to run a box well enough to kill a turkey. The nuances — how loud, when and where to call, and which calls to make — take much longer to learn, of course. But give me an inexperienced youngster or adult and a quarter-hour in a quiet place, and I’ll give you someone who can make the appropriate noises with a box call.
It’s this ease of use that makes many of today’s turkey hunters think of the box as a beginner’s call. It’s just too easy to use, so how can it be as effective?
Well, it just can, that’s how. For most hunters, a box call is simply a more versatile call than a diaphragm. It will yelp, cluck, cutt, purr, cackle, whine and will even make a passable gobble. What more could you ask?
Basically, there are two types of box calls — scratch box and hinged-lid — but we’re talking about the hinged-lid type. This type can be further divided into two basic designs: the Gibson style, with a box made of one solid piece of wood; and Lynch style, with several pieces of wood glued together.
Both are good, but I prefer the Gibson style for several reasons. It’s more durable because of its one-piece construction, and I use turkey hunting equipment hard. Also, the joints and glues used to hold multiple-piece calls together tend to dampen the sound and make the tone more mellow, and I think one of the main reasons box calls are effective is the loud, sharp, ringing tone a good one produces. I seem to find that more often in a one-piece call.
What material makes the best box call? How do you pick out a good one when they’re in blister packs and you can’t hold one in your hands and run it?
Nobody can answer that question, because there is no correct answer. But here are some thoughts.
Wooden box calls create the best turkey sounds, and hardwood is better than softwood. Further, tight-grain hardwood usually sounds better. That is, slow-growth trees with close-set annual rings usually produce better box call material than trees that grew faster and had their annual rings farther apart. My favorite two box calls are made of tight-grain burl walnut, but I also have good-sounding boxes made of cherry and mahogany. Sassafras is also a popular call-making wood that produces some good sounds, although sassafras falls outside that hard hardwood parameter.
Mixing types of wood between the box and paddle can also produce some good tones. For example, a cherry paddle matches well with a walnut box, or vice versa.
However, most of today’s production calls are in blister-packs, and you can’t pick a call up and run it before making the purchase. What then?
Look for clean, regular, close grain, with no flaws or irregularities. If the wood has a consistent color and grain density, it’s probably going to sound OK. Different colored wood grains running through a call might be pretty, but each color has a different degree of hardness, and the call might not sound as good as that plainer-looking model beside it.
Another consideration: Price is a poor indicator of how a call will sound. If you want to spend the money for a custom box call, fine. I have several, and they sound good. But a call you paid $200 for probably isn’t going to sound any better than a production call that costs 10 percent as much.
Making it Work
A good box call has a tonal quality that almost hurts your ears. It’s a ringing, carrying sound that will reach farther — and, in my experience, pull responses out of turkeys farther — than any other type of turkey call.
I once watched two longbeards feeding in a pasture more than a half-mile away gobble repeatedly at a loud box call being run by Brad Harris. Harris had already called at the gobblers with a diaphragm call, and as I watched through binoculars, I detected no reaction from the turkeys. But when he pulled out a box call and cutt loudly on it, the birds stood up straight and looked our way. One went into a half-strut. Harris called again, and when the sound reached them, I saw their necks shoot out. Seven seconds later, when the sound reached us, we heard two feathery whisper-gobbles. If I hadn’t seen them gobble, I’d never have heard it.
It was late afternoon, and the gobblers were feeding before roosting, so they didn’t advance toward us. But Harris made them gobble a dozen more times with that box, and every time he tried with a diaphragm or slate call, they ignored it. The episode made a lasting impression on me, and I’ve since done much the same several times.
On the other end of the spectrum, you can run a box call so softly a person on the opposite side of your set-up tree would have difficulty hearing it. As mentioned, it’s the most versatile call there is, and in the hands of someone who knows how to run it, a box will produce every turkey sound.
Like all musical instruments, a box call needs to be tuned. It will work right out of the box, but a new box can usually benefit from some tweaking.
The first step is smoothing the contours and edges of the call. Take fine-grit sandpaper, and run it lightly over the inside of the box chamber and on the striking surfaces of the box and paddle. Then, just start playing with it, adjusting the hinge of the lid, sanding the surfaces lightly here and there, and finding out how to coax the right sounds out of it.
Every call is different, and you must learn a call to use it well. After that, it’s just a matter of practice and developing the muscle memory that will let you run it the way it should be run.
This tuning process, incidentally, is a never-ending thing. A box call produces its sounds through friction, and just by using the call, you’ll gradually and inevitably take it out of adjustment. So re-sanding and re-tweaking is necessary from time to time.
What about chalk? My advice is throw it away. I can’t figure out how or why the practice of chalking a box call got started. To repeat: A box call produces sounds through friction. Chalk is designed to reduce friction and lubricate the interface between the striking surfaces. Why would you want to do that? It’s like putting nonskid pads on a set of stairs and then putting grease on the pads. It doesn’t make sense.
Keeping a box call dry can be a problem in wet weather, but if you just carry an empty bread sack in your vest, you can solve that problem. You can even run the call while it’s in the sack if you need to, although that will affect the sound somewhat.
There are waterproofing chemicals, of course, but those work by penetrating or coating the wood of your call, which will invariably affect the sound. Maybe it won’t hurt anything, but I’m not willing to take the risk. A bread sack works fine for this old country boy.
If a box call gets wet despite your precautions, it’s not going to sound good until you dry it out, and if you dry it improperly, you stand a good chance of ruining it.
The key to success is using slow, low, dry heat. Place the call on a piece of cardboard or an old towel, set it aside in a dry place with good air circulation, and leave it alone for a week or two.
If you’re in a hurry, you can do it in the oven by turning it to the lowest setting and putting a wooden spoon or small wooden block in the oven door to hold it open just a crack so the moisture can escape. Leave the call in the oven for at least 24 hours.
You should never try to dry a wet box call too fast. The wood grain will split or warp, and either way, you’ve ruined the call.
After the call has dried, you’ll have to go through the sanding and conditioning process again, because the wetting and drying process will change things. The call might not ever sound the same as it did before you got it wet, but in most cases, you can bring it back to life as a pretty good call. Of course, the best path is the keep the thing dry.
Let’s revisit that easy-to-use aspect of the box call. Everyone knows that having confidence in what you’re doing makes you better at doing it, and because a box call is easier to learn than all other calls — except maybe the push-button type — it’s also easier to get confident with using it.
That’s extremely important when you’re tutoring new hunters and trying to get them far enough up the learning curve so they can strike out on their own. Hunting turkeys in a one-on-one situation is the essence of the sport, and the box call can serve as a handy tool to get your beginning hunter into the woods on his own, thus doing you both a favor.
In final analysis, of course, there is no “best” turkey call. I run a box as my first choice, but there are times when the turkey I’m working doesn’t want any of it. When that happens, I’ll switch to a slate, diaphragm, wingbone or tube call in a heartbeat. When I’m out there with the turkeys, my favorite call is the one the gobbler I’m working likes the best.
More often than not, that turns out to be a box call.
Editor’s note: If you like Jim Spencer’s “Bad Birds” column, which appears in every issue of Turkey & Turkey Hunting, you’ll love his new book, Bad Birds. Order a copy for $15.99, plus $5 shipping and handling, from Treble Hook Unlimited, Box 758, Calico Rock, AR 72519, or order from Spencer’s website at www.treblehookunlimited.com.