By Gary Koehler
The morning dawns cold in northeast Arkansas duck country. There is no ice where we are headed, although a couple of degrees less would make for a close call. It does not take long, however, for the opening in the flooded timber to begin warming up. Not incidentally, I find myself surrounded by what must be considered the equivalent of a duck-calling all-star team.
On one side is Kent Cullum, who represents one-half of the 1999 World Team Duck Calling Championship duet. On the other side, left shoulder propped up against a tree, is his partner, Christian Curtis. Down the line is Charles Petty, a fixture in the final round of the World's Duck Calling Championship for a decade. And, among other assorted accomplices, no one need be told into which end of the call to blow.
Witness the mallards, gadwalls, wood ducks, and wigeon that arrive out of nowhere and flutter down through windows in the tangled overhang to see what all the excitement is about. Cullum, Curtis, Petty, and friends are hosting the party, greeting miscellaneous winged guests with a full-blown repertoire of duck talk that many birds cannot resist. No one person assumes center stage. No one person directs the overhead traffic. This is a team effort, and the raucous method works wonders.
"You can practice it [working with a teammate] but the best thing you can do is hunt together and learn what works that way," says Curtis, a Missourian who spends a good part of each waterfowl season laboring as a guide. "When two people are calling, and you are working as a team, one can be calling like one or two different ducks, and the other can be calling another way. That sounds like several different ducks."
And that's the whole point of this exercise: creating auditory enhancement so convincing that ducks passing by figure that they owe it to themselves to join in on the fun. This is accomplished by creating the illusion that your decoy spread is a flock of resting or feeding ducks. Mallards, in particular, perceive safety in large assemblages of their brethren. Efficient team-calling techniques enhance your chances of bringing birds to the gun.
"You learn to tell what's going on just by listening to your partner call," says Cullum, an Arkansan who teams with Petty to manage a waterfowling guide service headquartered in Jonesboro. "You blend in your calling with what he's doing. It's not a back-and-forth thing. When we are calling together, I listen to him-to what he's doing-and I try to do something opposite, to sound like more ducks. If he's doing a lazy hen, then I might be doing a coarse hen, or a bouncin' hen."
Both Cullum and Curtis, after spending countless hours listening to live ducks, say they have categorized four types of sounds generated by mallard hens. Recognizing that ducks, like people, speak in different pitches and tones, they have developed a calling style that is a mix of what they consider the basic sounds. This is a personalized method that works for them.
"There's what we call a fine hen, who hardly opens her throat, and whose call tapers off at the end. And a coarse hen, which will open her throat more wide open. A lazy hen will drag out the notes. And the bouncin' hen, she'll hit a couple of notes and then just bounce it all the way to the bottom, excited," Cullum says. "Those are the four main sounds you'll hear. Get them together with two guys calling and it sounds like a lot of ducks."
Game-call maker Will Primos of Jackson, Mississippi, says team calling may have been around as long as duck calls themselves. Putting a label on this technique may or may not be appropriate.
"No doubt, it's more effective to have more than one caller," Primos says. "I don't do anything but team call. But, we don't really call it that, because we probably take it for granted."
Primos and his cohorts observe a few basic rules when working together trying to pull ducks to their decoys. "There is definitely a right and wrong way," Primos says. "What we do, let's say one guy sees a group of six mallards. He knows right then they need a certain call. He latches on to them. The first thing I do is look at that person to see where he is looking, where the ducks are, because I don't want to be moving around and having them see me. I want to know where the birds are. Then, we key into the birds, feeding off what he is doing. You don't want three guys doing the comeback or the hail call at one time.
"What we are trying to do is add to what he's doing. The guy who latches onto the birds first is in control, and the rest of us are supporting him. If you watch and listen to ducks on the water, one old hen is doing most of the work. We try to mimic that."