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Reading Ducks

Consider duck body language when calling
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  • photo by Mark Locke
Image of
Story at a Glance
  • Calling ducks is a two-part process.
  • Callers must know when to call and how to adjust their calling to the disposition of the birds.
  • Ducks' body language can tell you what they like and don't like.

Steve Barnett:
"Don't let ducks slide away"

Every time Steve Barnett is in his west Tennessee blind, he applies the calling savvy he has accumulated over four decades of waterfowling.

"To read ducks, you have to be a good watcher," Barnett states. "You have to study the ducks and pick out the one that's most anxious to come, the bird that responds best when you call to the flock. (Usually the one that wants to work the best is a hen.)

"Then focus strictly on that bird," Barnett continues. "Don't take your eye off her (or him), and tailor your calls to what that duck's doing. Don't worry about the rest. If you can fool one duck out of 150, many times the rest will follow that bird to the decoys."

Barnett bases calling cadence and volume on weather conditions. "If it's windy and/or sunny, I'll call louder and faster. This is the style of calling they'll probably like best, especially if it's cold. But if this approach doesn't work, I'll back off on the call or try another call with a different pitch. I won't just keep doing the same thing. I'll look for what works best on that day. How the ducks react will tell me when I've found it."

Barnett says some days he has to call ducks right to the decoys. On other days (typically warm, cloudy, and still) subtle calling works better. "On those days when they're not in a good working mood, if you blow too loud or aggressively, you can see the ducks flare out. Then you know not to try that again. So you're looking for that fine line between calling enough but not too much, and this will change from one day to the next."

One mistake Barnett says many novice callers make is trying to turn working ducks too soon. "They'll be circling and start downwind, and a caller blows a comeback when they're just barely out of the decoys. When the ducks respond and cut back, they're too high to land, so they have to circle again, which gives them another look.

"Instead, I like to let ducks circle 100 to 150 yards downwind, then hit them with the comeback call. Then when they turn back, they've got plenty room to get down without circling again."

Barnett believes "finishing" incoming ducks is perhaps the most critical calling stage. "You've really got to watch and not let them slide away when they're coming in," he says. "As long as they're on line, I usually don't call too hard. But if they start easing out to one side or another, I'll get on them to hold their attention and line them back up."

Barnett says another mistake is, when ducks are coming in, the caller quits calling to reach for his shotgun. "If they're coming like I want, I'll keep calling until they're in range. Many times they're homing in on that call, and if you shut up, they'll get spooky and slide away. If they're doing what you want, don't change anything until you come up to shoot."

One calling trick Barnett sometimes uses when ducks are on final approach is blowing repetitive lonesome hen quacks. "They home to the sounds," he says. "Frequently you can pull them right in front of the blind by doing this."

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