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Keys to Successful Predator Calling
By Major L. Boddicker

Key 3: Calls and Calling—Generally Speaking

A delegation of three Dutch muskrat trappers was visiting Denver several years ago for a meeting of the European Economic Union's humane trapping group. I was asked to host them for an expedition; so, I took them on a coyote-calling safari. None of them had called before, but all had some sort of firearms experience in the police or Dutch Army.

Each was issued a Swedish Mauser in 6.5 x 55-mm, and we went into the bowls of the plains. When we got to the ranch, I gave each a Crit'R·Call and a five-minute lesson. Then each gave it a try and demonstrated what they could do. The range of calling quality was from lousy to dismal. They were embarrassed at their inability to master such a simple tool. I stuffed my earplugs in tightly.

At the first three stands, they alternated calling every five minutes, each taking his turn. Oh, it hurt me to listen. I had this compulsion to take over the calling, but held back. Finally, at the fourth stand, ten minutes into this miserable calling effort, I put my Crit'R·Call up to my lips for the sweet sound of death that I make. I was just ready to blow when the first shot went off. Off to my right, two coyotes were charging in, not hesitating, running full tilt to that dismal sound. One of the Dutchmen had flattened the lead coyote. I went into a puppy yelp and stopped the second coyote, then flattened it with my .25-06. It was a great moment for the Dutch muskrat trappers and for me.

Miserable calling techniques are often rewarded nicely; so, don't be self-conscious and think negatively about your calling. Like any hunting, you start out less than great and become great with practice and experience.

Hand-Held Calls

There are two basic types of hand-held calls: the open-reed type and the closed-reed type (aka as fixed-reed). The former, like the Crit'R·Call, Tally-Ho, and sundry copies, have the main operating feature of an exposed reed that is manipulated with the upper lip to give it range, modulation, and quality. The closed-reed type has an internal reed where the reed length is fixed and therefore it cannot be modified as it is blown.

Both types of calls can be manipulated by how hard the air is blown into them, muting them with the hands over the barrel, back pressure from closing the hands over the barrel, and inflection by the length of breaths blown into them.

The closed-reed calls with the pre-set reed length have a fixed sound. They are simple, repetitive, and work fine under most conditions. It does not take much practice or sophistication to use them, which is an advantage. On the downside, the closed-reed calls have tendencies to fail often from moisture and dirt interfering with the reed vibration. They commonly freeze up in cold weather. The metal reed types often fail from the reed hardening and breaking or warping. Replacement of the reeds is frequent under heavy use, or a new call is needed. Compared with open-reed types, closed-reed calls do not produce the volume or variety of sound required for consistently good results. Varmints get educated to the closed-reed calls more quickly. Ease of use is traded for quality and variety of sound.

There are millions of closed-reed calls sold each year, and they are successfully used. The average sportsman has the closed-reed call model fixed in his mind as the only call around.

By contrast, open-reed calls have long and open reeds that are operated on by the upper lip, tongue, and cheek muscles. An infinite number of pitches, tones, notes, and subtle sound quality can be produced easily and instantly—caller's choice.

The reeds are made of break-proof nylon, plastic, and epoxy that work under all temperatures and moisture conditions. The longevity of open-reed calls is many years. The variety of sounds varies with each caller, so varmint education is less of a problem.

A caller can make mouse squeaks and bird tweets of ultra-high pitch by tweaking the tip of the reed. Moose grunts and ultra-low-note bawls can be made on the same call and reed the next moment by vibrating the entire reed. The lip can be slid forward on the reed to produce a slurring weeep sound. The lips and tongue can be quivered to get delicious wails and whimpers. Open-reed calls can produce emotion of much better quality than can fixed-reed calls.

If the caller likes the fixed-reed characteristics on an open-reed call, he can roll a rubber band onto the reed of an open-reed call to the length and sound he wants, and leave it. Blowing with the lips behind the rubber band produces the closed-reed sound on the open-reed call. So, Crit'R·Calls (and copies) can be used either way with authentic sound production. Using the lip produces by far the best sound quality.

The reeds in open-reed calls are very tough and resistant to breakage, warping, and damage. They are easily changed or replaced and can be tailor-made by the caller to fit his needs. Open-reed calls can use jerry-rigged reeds made of credit cards, plastic pop bottles, collar stays, and various substitutes and work fine.

Soon after I made Crit'R·Call, I tried to sell the open reed call to a famous call maker. He told me "No, your call is no good. The average hunter is too dumb to learn how to use it.” It was a good lesson. So, at Crit'R·Call we go out of our way to instruct customers how to use our calls. It does take a minimum amount of practice to learn how to use them. As the open-reed calls are used and the techniques mastered, quality and confidence improve, but simple repetition of the basic Crit'R·Call rabbit squalls with emotion wins predator calling contests all over the USA. Even we calling dummies can learn how to use them. When you buy a call, read the instructions. It really is no statement about your manhood, just read the blasted instructions! Buy an instruction tape which gives you examples of what you should sound like. It will bring you up to speed quickly.

Open-reed calls like the Tally-Ho, Crit'R·Call, and copies, all work pretty much the same. Put the call in the mouth, reed up with the upper lip resting on the reed. The barrel is pointed away from the mouth, held between the thumb and forefinger. Place the lip or rubber band down on the reed to produce a fulcrum so the reed length is established. Hold the lip there as you blow into the call.

Bring the air up out of the chest and into the reed in a tight column that vibrates the reed and makes the basic sound. Muting the call with the hand over the barrel is important for volume and inflection of the sound. Start with the hand closed over the barrel and as you blow into call, saying whooo, open the hand at the same time. When the whooo is finished, the hand is open.

To use less reed, move the lip or band back, pushing the call further out of the mouth. That produces a higher pitch and notes. Tightening or loosening the lip bite produces higher or lower notes and pitch. Slide the lip forward or backward as you blow, which produces nice slurring and a weep sound. Slide the call further into the mouth, resetting the lip back on the reed produces lower notes.

Blow harder and softer, change the cadence of your blowing by holding your breath for fractions of a second, and then resume the blowing. Wiggle the lip or call and bring the air out of your throat with a roll. Put all of that together and you have excellent calling for coyotes, fox, bears, bobcats, and literally hundreds of other animals.

With the Crit'R·Call, I can sit down with the Standard and Magnum or PeeWee and Song Dog and call every critter from the weasels to moose in the USA and pygmy mongoose to elephants in Africa.

Open-reed calls have it for volume and range. On a quiet night, line of sight, a coyote howl on a Magnum Crit'R·Call can be heard 2.5 miles by the human ear with normal hearing. Predators hear better than do humans. Calls can also be quieted down to very soft whimpers by muffling with the hands and low pressure blowing.

Open-reed calls will make teaser mouse squeaks, low- or high-volume rabbit squalls, and variety from puppy whines, fawn bleats, doe bawls, etc. at an instant with no change in calls or reeds. That variety of sound adds scores of predators to the bag.

Cost of most open- or closed-reed calls is under $20. Metal, closed-reed calls used frequently last one season or less. Calls with plastic reeds (closed-reeds) last longer.

Open-reed calls last indefinitely. Some of the first Crit'R·Calls are used frequently today, 27 years old with the original reeds! I have a Tally-Ho call I bought in 1965 that still works fine.

Electronic Calls

South Dakota winters are tough! In 1968, a friend and I bought a famous brand-name electronic caller, a record player adapted for portability, battery operated with a speaker. It was -10 degrees the morning we first tried it. We lugged it out to a stand overlooking a cattail marsh, set it up, then turned it on and sat down. The player rolled the record around about ten revolutions then wound down to a stop. It froze up; batteries would not run the turntable. My friend shrugged his shoulders. I pulled out an open-reed Boyton's Famous call and called up a nice red fox that we bagged. The electronic call was packed up and returned for a refund. Electronic callers have come a long way from those pioneer efforts.

Cassette tapes, CD's, and microchip electronic callers are available for $1000 or less. Most run in the $250-$450 range with all of the bells and whistles. Many have remote switches and are wireless or in one unit with the speaker. They are portable, dependable, and handy.

Most are 12-volt with sundry battery configurations, including rechargeable C- or D-cell replacement batteries. Claims of superiority vary, but there is a large range of quality, dependability, range, and convenience. The major companies—Burnham Brothers, Lohmann, Western Rivers, and Johnny Stewart—make good products. Looking at the components, most seem to be made of very similar stuff.

Electronic calls handle many kinds of tapes, CD's, and chips with a large variety of bird and mammal misery. Some brands are recordings of actual live animals; some are made from recordings of people using calls. Do not dismiss people using calls to produce the recorded sounds. Exaggerated animal distress cries often work better than the original animal distress recordings.

Many are excellent, clear, with no feedback or aberrations, just the animal sounds. The recent products are much better than the old cassette and record sounds because of electronic computer cleanup of the flaws.

Volume, of course, varies with turning the volume switch up and down, and the size and quality of the speaker. Generally speaking, electronic units send sound no farther than good open-reed calls. The louder the volume on electronic calls, the more sound distortions are amplified, and the quality suffers. Some units are affected by side winds that interact with the speaker to produce distortions.

Most electronic units now available, are reliable, durable, and work quite well. However, electronics and batteries are still susceptible to cold, moisture, and corrosion.

An alternative to the made-for-varmint-hunter-type electronic callers are the common boom boxes and tape players you can buy for $60-$150 at the local electronics or discount stores. Most of these units are great, with excellent quality speakers and sound, have remote switches for on/off, volume, and for selecting CD choices. If you don't like the color of the unit, paint or tape them up, or put in a brown carrying bag. If you don't like the large sizes, use the small portable type with the small plug-in speakers. They work just fine under ordinary conditions. Point the speakers at where you think the predator is, walk away 20 yards and sit down at a convenient place, get ready, turn on the unit with the remote, and prepare for action.

There are several disadvantages to electronic calls. They are inconvenient to carry around. Weather causes failures. There is an inability to change call sounds when needed; however, you can use hand-held calls with the electronic calls. Some remote units also allow for selection of different sounds on the same CD at the touch of the remote button.

For convenience of putting your effort into looking for predators and shooting, the electronics are great. The work is a trade-off—carrying some of the units is work and inconvenient. Calling with a hand-held call is work, and it is more difficult to concentrate on finding and shooting the predator while blowing at the same time. Open-reed and some closed-reed calls can be used without hands.

My recommendation is to try both and use whichever you like best. After comparing both types of calling, I use open-reed hand-held calls 98% of the time.

Recently, a friend called. "My friend has a mountain lion on his farm. It is killing his calves and dogs. He called the Game and Fish and they said it couldn't be. Must be dogs. What can he do?" he asked.

"Well, see if he can get a permit to kill it. Usually, state law gives him the right to kill predators that are killing stock. Then take my CD#2 with African sounds, plug it in to his kid's boombox, set it on #5 (Steenbok squalls), point it to the direction the lion should come from, turn it on, sit back 50 yards and play it for an hour. If the lion comes in, shoot it," I said.

The place was 200 miles from mountain lion range, out in the middle of the northern prairie.

I got a call from my friend two weeks later. "Hey man, you know what you are talking about. My friend did just what you suggested. He killed a 120-pound lion after 20 minutes of playing the Steenbok song.” It sure is nice to be right some of the time!

Selecting the Right Sound for the Predator

Predators respond to a wide variety of sounds. Sounds like high-pitched rabbit squalls will attract all predators. Some sounds, like an adult coyote yelp, will attract basically coyotes. The following is a basic list of common sounds and species that can be expected to respond.

Sound/ Distress Cry Predators that will respond
Cottontail, jackrabbit, and snowshoe distress calls All predators
Mouse squeaks Canines, cats, and some weasels (badger and marten)
Fawn bleats Coyotes, wolves, bears, lions, and bobcats
Adult deer bawls Lions, coyotes, wolves, bears, and bobcats
Turkey chirps Coyotes and bobcats
Bear cub squalls Bears, coyotes, and wolves
Cat caterwauls, purring, and mews Bobcats, lynx, and lions
Coyote talk: adult howls and yelps Coyotes
Puppy ki-yi yelps Coyotes, foxes, and wolves
Bird distress cries Cats, foxes, coyotes
Baby pig squeals Coyotes, foxes, cats, bears, and pigs

When you sit down and listen to a wide selection of recorded bird and animal distress cries, you can't avoid the conclusion that they all sound very similar in pitch, sequence, and high and low notes. From a distance, it would be hard to tell which critter was squalling. One essential common characteristic seems to be the C-sharp note. Most of the serious squalls get to that high note which flips the predators' switch on. All of these distress sounds have a similar pulse.

I gave a seminar once in California to non-hunters where I demonstrated several calling techniques. After the session, a young lady came up to me. She was an EMT (emergency medical technician). She said my coarse cottontail call brought back a horrible memory. She responded to an auto accident where a young woman had the top of her skull cut off, including the top of the brain. This fatally injured woman was making that very sound and did not stop until she died on the stretcher in the ambulance. She said that sound still rings in her ears and runs chills up her spine every time she hears it.

These distress cries strike an ancient cord that probably goes way back in evolutionary time. I visited some friends in a southern state who had a severely retarded son. The unfortunate kid was born with no brain above the cerebellum, so he breathed and had essential bodily functions, but he could do absolutely nothing else—no sight, no speech, no control over any muscles, and no awareness to respond. He was about 12 years old and about 60 pounds, in diapers, and was handled like a baby. It took an admirable amount of guts, patience, love, and sacrifice to deal with him. He rarely moved and required many hours daily of physically moving his limbs and body to keep any muscle tone in his body.

My friend had a gathering of trappers at his house to meet me. My friend asked me to demonstrate the Crit'R·Call. As I began making the coarse cottontail call, the retarded boy started moving and making similar sounds like some long dormant critter finally coming to life. I stopped, wondering if the sound was hurting him. My friend's wife asked me to continue because she thought the sound was pleasurable to the boy. She wanted to buy a call so she could make those sounds for him. I continued for ten minutes or so, while the boy writhed and grimaced like he was trying to speak and reach out to the sound. It was an interesting experience. I gave her my call.

Prey death-cries reach out from the dawn of time, sounds that make dogs and cats—which have never been out of a house—jump. These are sounds that they could not have heard before. I have watched 50,000 people turn around and look at me in Time Square in New York City when I blew a loud rabbit squall.

In Africa in 1987, on the Hshshiluwe River, in an eerie early morning fog, I was sitting in a boat, calling to see what would respond along the bank. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a ripple in the glass-still water. A pair of golf ball sized eyes emerged, which were about a foot apart and 8 feet out from the boat. I pointed my finger at it so the two wildlife officers with me could see it. When they saw it, they hit the starter on the boat and we quickly moved. The crocodile, a modern dinosaur, was scoping out a meal—us. It was quite capable of jumping in and pulling us out of the boat. It was 17 feet long and weighed approximately 1200 pounds.

There is magic in predator calling with origins from the foggy gloom of the dinosaur age. It is fun to know and be able to repeat those sounds to trick the ultimate tricksters—the predator.

When you get the hang of it, there is no comparison between fixed-reed calls, electronics, or open-reed calls. Open-reeds have it. The most important key to successful calling is having a call that works in all kinds of weather, is simple to use and to carry, and produces the variety of sounds needed for tripping the hearing threshold of the predator and makes it want to come.

Next: Key #4 —Weather and Country, Coping with the Elements