By his estimate, Brett Ladeau spends anywhere from one to two hours per day trying to get the sounds just right.
The yelping. The chirping. The clucking. The turkey noises Ladeau makes with his hand-held contraptions, known as friction calls, can sometimes drive his family to plug their ears — so he takes his hobby outside.
And when he’s not making the array of bird sounds himself, he’s constantly and carefully listening to recordings of them online so he can master both volume and cadence.
But if you want to be a respected turkey-calling contender on the local, regional, and national circuits, this is what it takes.
“If you want to be a competitor you have to listen, and you have to practice,” said Ladeau, a Vermont resident who has won state titles for his niche pastime there and in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania. “People are definitely dedicated to the craft.”
On Saturday, Ladeau, 51, will travel to the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife’s headquarters in Westborough, where he will fight to keep his local title as turkey-calling champion in the friction class, at this year’s Bay State Open Calling Contest. The event is hosted by the state chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation, a turkey conservation and hunting organization founded in 1973.
Dozens of hunters and turkey-calling enthusiasts are expected to attend the daylong gathering. Prior to the contest, MassWildlife will run a four-part workshop where NWTF instructors will go over the various types of turkey sounds — of which there are many — and the calls used to make them.
“It’s pretty entertaining to watch," said Keith Fritze, president of the state chapter of the NWTF. "You’ll see all the hand motions and everything that the callers will make. Especially if you’ve never been exposed to the sounds a turkey makes or the shows the callers will put on, it’s pretty interesting.”
It may seem a strange passion to some. But turkey-calling competitions, which can be traced back decades, attract a broad audience.
Earlier this month, around 50,000 people showed up in Nashville for the NWTF’s annual convention, according to NPR. The star attraction of the five-day event? The Grand National Calling Championships — or as competitors and spectators call it, the “Super Bowl of turkey-calling.”
“That’s the big one,” said Ladeau, who finished third in his class at the 2018 convention. “That’s the one everybody wants to win.”
While there’s an abundance of calling methods used in the field, competitions like the one happening Saturday typically focus on three of the most common ones: the diaphragm (or mouth) call, the pot call, and the box call. The noises that competitors can make with these contraptions have names like the Yelp, the Kee-kee run, the cluck, the cut, purring, the fly down cackle, and, of course, the good old-fashioned gobble.
As its title suggests, to do a mouth call competitors put a small reed in their mouths and “huff” air from their lungs to mimic a turkey.
“Mouth calls can produce the sweetest, most realistic turkey sounds of any calling device,” according to the NWTF, “but they can also prove difficult to master."
For a pot call, a person takes a stylus-like striker or peg and drags it across a circular surface to get the desired effect. When using a box call, contestants use a hollowed-out box with a lid on the top, which they move back and forth in different ways to make it cluck and yelp.
By now, you may be asking yourself, “Call a turkey? There’s about a dozen of them in my backyard right now.”
This may be true, as evidenced by countless complaints around the state. But Fritze said the birds they bag for sport behave quite differently than the suburban turkeys that run amok in peoples’ neighborhoods.
“Some of those suburban turkeys and urban turkeys are real jerks, there’s no doubt about it,” said Fritze, adding that the way in which they act is usually due to humans feeding them. “The non-urban birds, they’re a lot more shy than the urban birds. We have to work pretty hard to hunt them.”
Contestants, he said, will bring the skills used to call birds from the wild while hunting into the rooms to impress the crowds. That’s the key.
“We know what turkeys in the woods sound like,” Fritze said, “so they try to really paint that picture, or that scenario, for the judges.”
The contests are credited with helping spark interest in turkey hunting and conservation efforts, “planting seeds” for the industry as a whole, the NWTF says. According to MassWildlife, roughly 25,000 turkey permits were sold in the state last year.
But they’re also responsible for something else: forging strong bonds within the hunting community.
Ladeau, the Vermont hunter who has been competing since 2013, said things can get fierce on the day of a contest. But when the call devices get packed away and everyone heads home, the friendships remain.
“Our group from Vermont, we all usually travel together to come to the contests so we can’t get too, too riled up,” he said. “It is turkey-calling after all. We aren’t saving the world or anything."