There's no better way to pass off-season time . . .
Like some of you, I'm both a spring and fall turkey hunter. Off-season is a time of reflection and thinking about the hunts to come. One way to speed the days is making wingbone turkey calls.
Calling in a wild turkey with a tool crafted from the radius, ulna, and humerus bones of a fall bird or spring gobbler is hard to beat as purist hunting goes. It connects such thoughtful callers and hunters with early calling history — both personal and traditional. It’s a simple and meaningful experience in this age of excessive twenty-first century complexity.
First things first: before making the wingbone call, you’ll need to kill a wild turkey. Tagged bird in hand, you’ll gather some old newspapers (assuming some of you still read 'em in print), paper towels (these work fine too), a plastic bag, a reliable knife, a hacksaw or similar cutting tool, a tapered file, sandpaper, some pipe cleaners, even wire, and a glue gun or similar epoxy distributor. Some of my wingbone callmaking buds use a Dremel tool. It's a lot easier.
To craft a wingbone call, follow these steps:
Step 1: Spread the newspaper or paper towels on the tabletop where you’re working. Have those paper towels nearby as well. Put the turkey on the newspaper. Locate where the wild turkey’s wing joint and body meet. Remove the wing from the turkey’s body by twisting and cutting it free from the socket joint, careful as not to break the bones in the wing. Obviously you can also choose to make two wingbone calls. If so, simply remove both wings.
Step 2: Now remove the bony wing tip, with the radius, ulna and larger humerus bone still attached. Gently scrape away feathers and meat from the bones with a knife. Put all this in the plastic clean-up bag. At this point, radius and ulna wingbones, found parallel in the wing’s middle section, are still connected to the larger humerus bone. As construction goes, you can create structural and sound variations by using hen bones, gobbler bones, or wingbones from both sexes. In the end, you choose. Single- and two-bone calls can work well, too.
Step 3: Separate the three bones. The radius (the thinner of the two middle bones), the ulna (the thicker of the middle two), and the humerus (the largest bone remaining) should be boiled in water for 15 minutes or so. Watch attentively: the longer bones boil, the more brittle they’ll become.
Step 4: Carefully scrape the remaining cartilage and meat off the bones again with your knife. Cut off each bone’s two ends with a bandsaw, hacksaw, tapered file edge or other similar tool — just enough to expose the insides. There you’ll find marrow, which needs to be removed from the bones. Discard the bony ends. Clean out the marrow inside each bone using a piece of wire or pipe cleaner. Use your knife tip, and tidy up the immediate interior end of each bone. Sand down or file the ends to be smooth.
Step 5: At this point, you can boil the bones just a bit more, or soak them in dishwashing liquid, hydrogen peroxide or an equal mix of water and bleach to brighten the bones. Bleach can also make the bones brittle if left in the solution too long. After this, dry the bones thoroughly. Study the bones a little. You’ll see that the radius (again, the thinner middle bone) has both a rounded end and flattened end. Fiddle some with the pieces to get a feel of how they’ll fit before gluing. If your significant other wonders what the heck you're doing down in the basement, just tell them: "Thinking." Seriously though, this is part of the fun.
Step 6: Insert the rounded end of the radius bone into the ulna (which once ran parallel to the radius). Glue airtight and let dry for several days. Some callmakers stop here, as the radius and ulna bones alone can make clucks and yelps. Others add the humerus bone to the call for better sound projection. To connect a third bone to your caller, insert the ulna’s opposite end into the smaller tip of the humerus (again, the biggest wingbone), which amplifies your calling. Glue these two parts together, aiming for a tight fit.
Step 7: Once dry, gently file off any rough edges, especially near the radius bone’s mouthpiece end. Check the glue seals, and if they have remained airtight, your call is ready to use. Touch up with glue and sandpaper, or file as needed. You’re ready to call in a turkey.
Some hunters inscribe turkey hunting memories with fine point permanent markers on the finished call, touched up with acrylic paint. Others will brighten up the call with colored thread and even a rubber lip stopper on the mouthpiece end. A Krylon clear coat or other fixative may help preserve your work — careful: too much and your inked inscription may run; keep coats light.
Though your handiwork may fade some with time, the memories likely won’t.
Want some other ideas about building wingbone turkey calls? This must-have book from the late great biologist, turkey writer, author, hunter and callmaker Lovett Williams also includes many ideas for preserving other trophy parts: After the Hunt. First published almost 20 years ago, it's still a great go-to reference. Want more Realtree turkey hunting tips?
Are you wingbone turkey callmaker? Any tips to add? Comment below.
Steve Hickoff is Realtree's turkey hunting editor and blogger.
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Realtree turkey hunting editor Steve Hickoff has chased gobblers all over the United States and Mexico. He was born and raised in northcentral Pennsylvania, and now makes his home in Maine. Hickoff was named the NWTF Tom Kelly Communicator of the Year for 2019, a prestigious award reflecting his longtime work promoting hunting and conservation as a turkey hunting writer, editor and book author.