Knowing When to Chew the Rag with Your Ham Radio

By H. Ward Silver

Whether you’re on HF or VHF/UHF, you’ll find that ragchewing on your ham radio has its good times and its poor times. When calling CQ (signifying that you want to talk to any station), you can let it be known in several ways that you’re looking for an extended contact. You also hear numerous clues that a ragchew may not be what another station has in mind.

Listening is the best way to learn operating procedures in ham radio. The most important part of any amateur’s station is between the ears. If you want to call CQ successfully, spend some time listening to more experienced hams do it.

Good times for ragchewing

Assuming that you’re tuning an open band (with signals coming in from various points), when is a good time to ragchew? First, consider the social aspects of your contact timing. Weekdays generally are good days to ragchew, especially during the daylight hours, when hams who have day jobs are at work or student hams are in class.

If you like to talk regionally, you can always use a repeater or one of the low-frequency HF bands. For a coast-to-coast talk, one of the high-frequency bands is your best bet. The better your antenna system, the more options you have.

Lots of hams do their operating on weekends, but that’s also when special events and contests are held. Be prepared for a full band every weekend of the year. The silver lining of this cloud is that plenty of hams will be on the air for you to contact. If you know that one mode or band is hosting some major event, you can almost always find a quiet spot on another mode or band.

The WARC bands never have contests and usually are wide open for ragchews and casual operating.

Not-so-good times for ragchewing

Because a ragchew can last for a long time, pick a time and band that offer stable conditions. Propagation changes rapidly around sunrise and sunset. Local noon can be difficult on the higher bands. Don’t be afraid to make contacts at any old time, though. You may surprise yourself and find out about propagation from the best teacher: experience.

Because weekends are busy times, you should check the contest and special-event calendars. A little warning keeps you from being surprised when you get on the air and allows you to be flexible in your operating.

It can be a very different time of day at the other end of a DX contact.

When the bands seem to be frustratingly full, here are some helpful strategies that keep you doing your thing:

  • Try a nontraditional band. Most nets and all contests are run on the traditional bands. The WARC bands almost always have sufficient space for a QSO.
  • Try a different mode. Very few big contests have activity on more than one mode. You can change modes and enjoy a nice ragchew, too.
  • Be sure that you know how to operate your receiver. Cut back on the RF gain, use narrower filter settings, know how to use controls such as the IF Shift and Passband Tuning controls, and generally be a sharp operator. You can remove much interference and noise just by using all the adjustments that your receiver provides.
  • Always have a backup plan. There’s no guarantee that any particular frequency will be clear on any given day. Hams have frequency freedom second to none, so use that big knob on the front of your radio.

Receivers are very sensitive and can easily be overloaded by strong signals, causing distortion that sounds like interference. You can make a huge improvement in listening quality by ensuring that your receiver is operating linearly. Start by turning off the preamp and noise blanker. Turn down the RF Gain control until the signal you’re listening to is at the lowest comfortable level; you’ll hear the noise background fade away. You can even switch on the receiver’s attenuator to knock down strong signals even more. Use the minimum amount of sensitivity required to make the contact, and you’ll enjoy listening a lot more.