by Wade Bourne
During hunting season, I used to keep an apartment on Tennessee's Reelfoot Lake. The mallards that hung around a nearby boat dock were what I'd call semi-wild, but I would sit and listen to them for hours. They made many different calls—long and short hail calls, single quacks, drake raehbs, and feeding chatter. I was always amazed by the variety and subtlety of the sounds they made and by other ducks' responses to their calls. But I was especially intrigued by their feeding calls.
The guttural chatter of an individual hen usually consisted of three to five staccato notes in quick, repeated series. When several hens were chuckling simultaneously, the overall sound they produced seemed nearly continuous and was quite loud. Hens would produce these calls when they were feeding and at other times as well. For instance, hunters commonly hear ducks make a "rolling chuckle" when they are flying overhead in the predawn, headed to a feeding area. This call is steadier and more drawn out than the feeding chatter ducks make while on the water or ground.
So what's the deal with the chuckle? Most hunters chuckle with their calls when ducks are circling close. Is this an effective way to finish birds, or is it an irrelevant call with a reputation greater than its true effectiveness? What role should it play in a hunter's calling strategy?
In my years as a writer and television host, I've shared blinds with some of North America's best hunters and callers, and I've heard many different styles and philosophies regarding the feeding chuckle. Some hunters think of the chuckle as a contentment call, and they chuckle quietly and almost monotonously (like the rolling chuckle) as birds work their spread.
But I've hunted with others, including world champion callers and longtime guides, who use the chuckle as a main pillar of their calling routine. Instead of using it subtly to indicate contentment, they chuckle aggressively and loudly to convey excitement or urgency to circling ducks.
For instance, I once hunted with an Arkansas guide in Bayou Meto who blew a broken tuk-a-tuk, tuk-a-tuk as mallards swung over the treetops. He never backed off this rhythm. It was as if he hypnotized the birds with his staccato notes.
On another memorable day, I watched two expert callers work together to lure birds in. They blew more of a chatter than a rolling feed call, and they adjusted their volume according to what the ducks were doing. If the birds were sailing tight around their setup, they chuckled at a low volume. But if the ducks began showing any hesitancy about decoying, both callers picked up the volume and intensity of their chatter, which was far more compelling to the ducks.
One of these callers was John Stephens, president of RNT Game Calls and a three-time world champion caller. Stephens is far more aggressive with his chuckling than most callers. "If I want to break ducks my way," he says, "I'll chuckle louder and with more force. I give them something that will hold their attention and work them tighter around my setup. This is especially important when you're hunting in an area where other hunters are trying to call the same ducks."
Stephens says this more aggressive chatter will work in open areas as well as in timber, but he tones it down in the open when the ducks get close. "In the woods, the ducks can't see the setup as well, but in a field or on open water, they can see everything and can pinpoint you if you're too loud for too long," he explains.
There's one more option with the feeding chuckle: using it sparingly or not at all, relying instead on single quacks, persistent quacks, and even silence to finish working birds. I've spent many days on Reelfoot Lake with guides who never chuckled. Instead, when they had ducks circling, they'd quack them right into the decoys, as if they had them on a string.
So, back to the question: What's the deal with the chuckle, and how should hunters use it in their calling routine?
I believe hunters should not think of the chuckle as an actual feeding call but rather as a call they can use to express certain behavioral conditions such as excitement or contentment. Remember, ducks use it relative to feeding, but not only when feeding.
Above all, hunters should never forget that different calling methods (louder, more insistent calling versus quieter, subtler calling) work better on different days. I believe the same is true with chuckling. Try different approaches and see how the ducks respond. By adjusting calling styles each day to what the birds want, you will be far more effective than if you use the same routine on every hunt.
—From the May/June 2008 issue of DU Magazine