By Will Brantley
When most hunters think of duck calls, they think of mallard calls-and for good reason. Mallards are the most common and most vocal of North America's ducks, and hunters who can accurately reproduce the raspy quacks of a mallard hen can lure just about any species of dabbling duck into their decoys.
But quacks aren't the only sounds made by ducks, and in certain areas of the country, hunters have improved their success by imitating the wide range of sounds made by wigeon, pintails, teal, gadwalls, wood ducks, and divers. Although many of these calls are subtle compared to a mallard highball, including them in your repertoire can add realism to your calling. And realism is always a good thing when it comes to calling ducks.
As the director of conservation planning at DU's Western Regional Office in Sacramento, California, Dr. Fritz Reid is a busy man. But come duck season, catching him at his desk can be difficult at times. Reid is an avid duck hunter and has a reputation for being one of the best pintail callers in the state's waterfowl-rich Central Valley. Pintails, along with green-winged teal and wigeon, are the primary species here. Consequently, many waterfowlers in this region consider whistles to be more important to their hunting success than mallard calls.
Reid says California duck hunters call pintails using multispecies duck whistles, like Wingsetters, as well as old-style police whistles. "You&'re just trying to make a rolling chirp, sort of a two-part call," he explains. "Pintails will really respond to a good whistle, and quickly go away from a bad one. Subtlety is what you want. Whereas ducks like green-winged teal want strong whistling, with pintails, you need to make a couple of chirps and then stay quiet and give them time to respond to you. It's almost like how you call when mallards are committed to the decoys, except you have to be subtle all the time while calling pintails."
When the birds are acting particularly wary, Reid breaks up his pintail calling with an occasional wigeon whistle or two. He also uses a mallard call to imitate the soft chuckles made by hen pintails. "This call sounds like an abbreviated version of the mallard feeding chuckle," Reid explains. "I never use the chuckle if they're committed, but if they're swinging or going away, this call can pull them back in."
Jeff Wallis hunts along the Colorado River near his hometown of Yuma, Arizona, and makes and sells his own call lanyards. The company moniker, Widgnwhackers Custom Made Lanyards, is a tribute to his favorite quarry. Wallis often sets up specifically for wigeon, and over the years, he's learned a thing or two about calling these quirky ducks.
"The predominant sound you hear from wigeon is the wha-wee-wee whistle made by the drakes," Wallis says. "Occasionally, you'll also hear a real nasally quack from the hens. There are certain days when they're really vocal, and others when they aren't."
Wallis prefers to use the Sauvie Island Wigeon Whistle, a handmade call that can be purchased on his website (widgnwhackers.com). "I use air from the diaphragm with this call," Wallis says. "It's not a puff from the cheeks, and it takes some practice. But it really mimics drake sounds."
Wallis believes wigeon, especially in the southern portion of the Pacific Flyway, are a little harder to call than mallards. He usually calls sparingly, even when flocks seem to be responding to his calls. "If I'm talking to them and they're talking back, I just call from time to time," he says. "But if they start to flare or climb out, I back off and let the decoys do the work. I usually set my wigeon decoys in small family groups along with coot decoys, and I mix in a few gadwall decoys here and there as well."
Blue- and green-winged teal are almost universally popular among waterfowlers, and cinnamon teal are treasured in the Pacific Flyway. Imitating the calls of all three teal species is relatively easy and can be surprisingly effective.
Blue-winged and cinnamon teal are closely related, and the two species can interbreed in areas where their ranges overlap. Hens of both species make greeting calls that sound vaguely like a mallard comeback call, only softer, faster, and more high pitched. This call begins with one long, shrill note, followed by three or four short, sharp quacks. It is a great attention-getter for passing flocks of teal and, used at the right moment, will often turn them on a dime toward your decoys. Drakes make subtle whistles and peeps that are easily reproduced on any multispecies duck whistle.
"Most teal will buzz your decoys, and they will often make a second pass if you call them," says Tony Ruiz of Primos Game Calls (primos.com), who grew up hunting teal in the coastal marshes of south Louisiana. "Get their attention with quacks, and peep them the rest of the way in."
Ruiz believes greenwings are easier to call than bluewings. Those same blue-winged teal quacks, as well as standard mallard calls, will grab their attention, but busy whistling often finishes the deal. "In the winter, greenwings are often in large groups. If you can turn one, you can turn them all," he says. "You want to call with a little more volume. And I like to sound like many birds calling at once. If you've ever listened to teal feeding, it sounds like a bunch of little kids at a party blowing toy whistles. So let everyone in the blind whistle at them."
Kenny Anglin, owner of Kritter Getter Custom Game Calls, spends most of his duck season chasing wood ducks in sloughs and flooded creek bottoms in his home state of Georgia. During the last few years, Anglin has perfected a calling style, as well as a handmade call, to lure these birds into range.
Anglin says calling blind (when no birds are visible) can be amazingly effective on wood ducks. "When shooting light first comes, I always make three or four hen squeals," he says. "If birds on the water start answering back, I'll just call to them from time to time, but not too much. On opening morning last year, they were going crazy answering us back, and they started coming right in. We quickly shot our limit."
In addition to hen wood duck squeals, Anglin imitates the whistles made by drakes, as well as the excited chatter of hen woodies on the water. He says the latter call is especially effective when wood ducks can be seen loafing on the water within 100 yards of the decoys. "It's like a vibrating greeting call," Anglin says. "If you use this call on a wood duck on the water, it's probably going to swim toward you to check it out."
Even with good calling, wood ducks are still wood ducks, and Anglin advises that scouting is the most important part of hunting them. He believes in using only a few wood duck decoys-never more than four and sometimes just one.
"When a wood duck is coming by, he'll either land in your hole or fly on by," Anglin says. "They rarely turn and come back. It's pretty simple hunting, although it can be physically demanding."
The gadwall is underrated, especially if you ask Mike Boyd, a waterfowl guide on legendary Beaver Dam Lake near Tunica, Mississippi (662-363-6288). Here, the gray duck is often the bread-and-butter bird. Gadwalls seem to have a split personality when it comes to calling and decoys. Birds that are new to an area often commit to a spread immediately, with or without calling, while those that have been around awhile can be incredibly wary.
Gadwalls do have their own lingo. Drakes make a nasally meep, meep, me-meep sound, while hens emit a soft, mallard-like quack. Many of their calls can be easily reproduced on a mallard call or a special gadwall call, such as Haydel's GW-01 (haydels.com).
Boyd typically relies on standard mallard-calling techniques when gadwalls are working his decoys because he believes it's easier for birds circling high over the flooded timber to hear louder mallard quacks. But he occasionally mixes in a few soft quacks imitating hen gadwalls when birds are circling at close range. "It's not pretty at all, not like the classic hen mallard call," he says of this sound. "But it can work."
Serious diver hunters often live and die by their decoy spread, and many consider calling to be far down the list of important skills. But Tony Toye of Big River Guide Service (608-375-7447), who hunts divers on Pool 9 of the upper Mississippi River, will seldom let a flock of canvasbacks, bluebills, or redheads fly by without "growling" at them on his mallard call.
"I love calling," Toye says. "Any duck I see, I'm calling at it. For divers, I think calling can be effective all the time. I know I've seen it work."
Toye explains that while divers may not have a mallard's wide vocabulary, the birds are far from silent. "If you have divers land in your decoys, they will often answer right back if you call to them," he says. "We're usually hunting near big rafts of these birds, and they make all kinds of different noises."
While Toye has tried special diver calls in the past, he can replicate the most important diver sounds on his mallard calls. "I just use a regular mallard call and make the quick brrrt, brrrt, brrrt sound on it," he says. "I'm fairly aggressive with it. If the birds pass me, I'll follow up with a mallard comeback call."
He carries both single- and double-reed mallard calls, but has no preference for calling divers. "I'm usually calling at mallards, so if divers come by, I'll just use whatever call I have in hand," Toye says.