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World Champion Turkey Caller Sadler McGraw details his preferred calls

Sadler McGraw
Sadler McGraw of Camden holds the slate-type call with his fingertips to ensure maximum sound transmission.  Photo courtesy National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF).
By David Rainer

-- About a dozen or so years ago, two-time World Champion turkey caller Larry Norton of Butler made a prediction about a young, lanky turkey caller from Camden.

“Larry came up to me after a calling contest in Linden and asked if I wanted to call for his team,” said Sadler McGraw. “I asked why he wanted me because I had never won a contest. He said, ‘I heard you call. If you stick with it, you will win some day.’”

Norton’s prediction was dead-on. McGraw, now a lanky 36-year-old, recently accomplished an unparalleled feat. He was crowned champion in the Senior Friction Division of the National Wild Turkey Federation’s Grand Nationals competition in Nashville in February.

 With the latest victory, McGraw became the first caller to win all five major friction titles – 2009 Grand National, 2009 Grand America, 2008 World, 2008 Yellville National and 2007 U.S. Open.

McGraw said he’s had an affinity for friction calls from the first time he set foot in the turkey woods with mentor Ross Self. In fact, the first time I laid eyes on him back in the mid 90s, he was hanging out a truck door on a logging road yelping on a slate-type call, making turkeys gobble on both sides of the road.

 “The reason I like friction calls so much is when you pull a friction call out of your bag at 6 o’clock in the morning or 6 o’clock in the evening it’s going to sound the same all day,” said McGraw, who calls on the WoodHaven team. “With a mouth call, after you’ve had it in your mouth for 15 minutes the reeds become wet and soggy and it changes the tone and doesn’t sound good, to me.

“I’d say 90 percent of my locating turkeys is done with a friction call. I locate them. I fire them up, and then we go to them. I do the last 20 percent of calling with a mouth call. But that’s why I love a friction. It’s the same, all the time. A little bit of sandpaper, a little bit of chalk and you’re good to go.”

The three most common surfaces for slate-type calls are anodized aluminum, crystal or slate. Pot materials range from wood to plastic to exotic materials.

“The slate has a more mellow sound,” McGraw said. “The crystal and aluminum are very similar in sound. It depends on personal preference. Some people can’t run an aluminum call because of the way they hold the striker and vice versa on the crystal. But they’re very, very similar in sound.

“The average caller can’t tell the difference between a plastic pot and a wood pot. But for people who are more proficient at using a friction call, your two best pot materials are cherry and walnut. Cherry will give you a higher-pitched sound, and walnut will give you a bolder sound. Also, the sound varies from person to person – how big your hands are, how big the pot is, how you hold the call and striker – all those factors determine the sound. I could hand you my calls and you might sound awful with them. But the next guy might have a cherry pot call and you might go to town on it.”
The most common strikers are two-piece glued wood or laminate (layers of wood glued together under high pressure) strikers.

 “For me, I like the laminate strikers because they are more consistent,” McGraw said. “For the two-piece strikers, the most common wood used is hickory. I might go through 15 or 20 hickory strikers before I find one that stands out. If I go through 10 laminate strikers, seven, eight or nine of them will catch my ear. Now I will use a carbon striker on a real slate call because it grabs so much better.”

 McGraw suggests hands-on testing when choosing a quality friction call, something that is difficult to achieve at large retail outlets with a few exceptions.

  “If I was going to advise people who wanted to buy a good call, the best bet is to go to a big show, like the World Championship or Grand Nationals, where you can go from booth to booth running calls,” he said. “The first thing I look for in a call is will it make a kee-kee (most often the lost call of a young turkey). If I pick up a call and it won’t kee-kee, I keep walking. Most of them won’t. To get one that will kee-kee, you need aluminum or crystal. What I’m doing when I make a kee-kee is choking down on my striker and making three little backward Ws.

“The biggest misconception with friction is you can’t make all the sounds a turkey makes. If you take your time and learn it, the average guy on a friction call can sound better than the average guy on a mouth call.”

 When he’s competition calling, McGraw mainly uses slate-type call with a walnut pot and crystal surface. Of course, there is a great deal of detail in his technique, as well.

 “I hold my call with my fingertips,” he said. “You see some people hold their call in the palm of their hand. In my opinion, when you do that you’re killing the sound. When you hold it on a pedestal, you’re letting the sound escape.

“There are a thousand ways to hold a striker, and it’s a matter of personal preference. But if you picture a windshield wiper on your car – that side-to-side motion – and then picture a little bream hook. That’s the motion you’re going to do – side to side with a little hook on the end. That’s where you get your hen yelp.”

If you look at almost all well-used slate-type calls, you’ll find that only a small portion of the surface has been used. The turkey hunter will call that his sweet pot, but McGraw insists that’s a misconception.

 “It’s not really a sweet spot,” he said. “It’s a sweet circle. There is about a 3/8ths-inch circle all the way around that slate-type call where, if you condition it, it will sound good. It starts about a half-inch from the edge of the call and goes all the way around the call. If you can keep your striker in that sweet circle, your calling will sound good. If you’ve ever been calling and your yelps sound good and then all of the sudden you hear a dead note, that’s usually because you ran your striker through the sweet circle. I run my calls from east to west to make sure I keep the striker in the sweet circle.”

When it comes to hunting real Alabama gobblers, McGraw’s main tool is his trusty box call made of American and Brazilian cherry.  “No question, if I’m in the woods hunting, my favorite call is a box call – the trough-style call,” he said. “You get a higher, raspy sound, and you can hold it away from your body and be able to hear the turkey gobble. A lot of times, somebody will be standing in the middle of a logging road yelping on a slate or mouth call, the turkey can be gobbling and they never hear it. With a box call, you can hold it away from your body and do it just long enough to catch the gobbler’s attention. Then you quit and you can hear him respond. The box call just carries so far. This season, we’ve struck turkeys over a half-a-mile away. There is no doubt they were hearing that box call. Some of those same turkeys, once you get within 300 yards they won’t gobble at you.

“I go up and down (logging) roads all day. When we strike a gobbler, the box call gets thrown into the cup holder and we take off toward him. Then I go to a slate-type call or a mouth call. But a box call is the best thing to make one gobble.”

If the weather forecast predicts a significant chance of rain, McGraw’s friction calls stay at home.

“If you think about it, it is a piece of wood and wood glue,” he said. “Water and wood are not going to mix. If you have a cheap plastic call, that might be okay. But some of these custom calls cost $60 to $100. I just don’t take them in the woods when it’s raining.” Neither does McGraw change his hunting style during the course of the six-week season.

“I’ve always said that every turkey has five minutes a year that he’s going to die,” he said. “You’ve just got to be there enough times to find that five minutes. I hear people talk about late-season turkeys being call shy. If a turkey wants to hear aggressive calling, I’ll blister him from the tree to the gun. But you’ve got to be open-minded enough or experienced enough to know what he wants. If he doesn’t want aggressive calling, I’ll back off and do clucks and purrs, soft yelps and scratching in the leaves.

 “I am so thankful that I grew up turkey hunting in Wilcox, Clarke, Monroe and Conecuh counties. If you can consistently take two, three, four turkeys here, you can take turkeys anywhere – with ease.”

 Visit to learn more about the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

-- David Rainer
Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

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