Today's Sportsman: Turkey calls

McAfee Mountain Calls are uniquely designed mouth calls made locally.

This nice gobbler was taken by Justin McAfee while hunting in South Carolina in 2019. The gobbler was called into range by his father and call maker Jeff McAfee.

Jeff McAfee, of Smithsburg, tagged his first gobbler at the age of 17. It was his first hunt for wild turkeys, and the experience ignited his passion for a bird that has become the most popular game animal in North America.

Wild turkeys have a reputation for being one of the hardest game animals to pursue due to their incredible ability to avoid predators, especially man. That might be why they are so popular to hunt. A wild turkey’s exceptional eyesight, hearing and uncanny survival instincts make it extremely challenging to lure a gobbler into shotgun range by imitating their vocal sounds.

For McAfee, it is all about the challenge. He has elevated turkey hunting in new ways by making his own turkey calls and entering turkey-calling competitions. Jeff made an impressive start onto the calling contest stage by placing at the Maryland State Chapter of the NWTF Open Turkey Calling Contest held in Ocean City on Sept. 8, 2019.

Building calls

For McAfee and his son, Justin, calling turkeys has grown from a passion into a business. The father and son team with the help of Justin’s girlfriend, Kendra Keeney, have started building diaphragm turkey calls for sale.

“I am in charge of production, Justin does the testing and research while Kendra does the marketing,” Jeff said.

He added, “People are going nuts for them.”

A quick look at McAfee Mountain Calls on Facebook backs up his claim. The page is stacked with photos and endorsements from hunters who have used his calls successfully this season in several states. Brad Marx, of MarXma Outdoors in Minnesota, wrote, “These mouth calls are easy to use and they sound absolutely awesome! Thanks Justin and Jeff for making such a great product.”

Jeff’s interest in call-making began as a hobby many years earlier. Jeff has good friends who are acclaimed call-makers, such as Ronnie Johnson, the original owner of Mountain Hollow Calls, and master call-maker Scott Bashore.

“My RJS call is named after Ronnie, who was my best man at my wedding [25 years ago],” Jeff said.

Jeff is employed as a wildlife response technician for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. He works closely with Harry Spiker, Game Mammal Section Leader, who recently tagged a tom in hunting in West Virginia using McAfee’s RJS mouth call with the unique “ghost cut” feature.

Jeff has not been allowed to work due to the COVID-19 restrictions on state employees. This has allowed him to devote more time and efforts into the call-making business. With the equipment he purchased last summer, Jeff and Justin can produce as many as 100 calls a day in their basement workspace.

Diaphragm calls, also known as mouth calls, are the preferred calls of expert-level turkey callers. The mouth call is probably the most versatile turkey call, as it can mimic a variety of unique turkey vocalizations, including yelps, cackles, putts, purrs and clucks. Mouth calls are the most difficult to learn but the easiest to operate once you have mastered them.

“We run calls all the time,” said Justin, explaining that he and his father will practice calling for hours each day.

McAfee Mountain Calls has a production line of five color-coded mouth calls with double and triple reeds. The sound of each call varies by the number of reeds, the thickness of the latex used and the different cuts to the top reed.

The key to building precision calls is applying the exact amount of tension to the latex layers. The high-end equipment used by the McAfees to accurately measure the tension ensures that each variety of call will have the same desired pitch.

In addition to the RJS, the line also includes: Lost Creek Thunder, Ashe to Ashes, Purple Rain and Green Goblin. Justin is currently experimenting with a sixth call to add to their line. McAfee Mountain Calls are sold exclusively online through their Facebook page with two local exceptions: Geisinger’s Taxidermy and Andy Wolf’s Deer Processing in Thurmont.

Jeff is now on a quest for the coveted Grand Slam of turkey hunting. A Grand Slam involves taking four of the subspecies of wild turkeys in North America. He has been successful with the first three subspecies. He has the Eastern, Rio Grande and Osceola mounts on display in his home. A trip is being planned to hunt Montana in the spring of 2021 for Merriam’s wild turkey to complete the Slam.

After McAfee completes that feat, I won’t be surprised if he sets his sights on a Royal Slam and travels to northern Mexico for a Gould’s turkey.

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