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Banding Together for Waterfowl

Reading Ducks

Consider duck body language when calling
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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.

Richie McKnight:
Call differently from other hunters

Richie McKnight runs the North Fork Outfitters guide service in southern Illinois and is a member of the Knight & Hale game calls pro staff. When it comes to calling ducks, he describes himself as an "experimenter." More and more, he's finding that less calling leads to more birds hovering over his spread.

"Today, with delayed migrations and more hunters and mechanical decoys, ducks have seen all the tricks by the time they get to my area, and they can be tough to work," McKnight says. "I'm finding that more days than not, I do better by calling less and trying to sound different from what the ducks have heard over and over back up the flyway."

Like Barnett, McKnight says hunters must watch how ducks respond to initial calling, and then adjust from there.

"If ducks are coming toward me, I'll let them get close, then I'll blow a five- to seven-note greeting call to try to lock them up. If they start sailing, I might not call anymore. I'll just let them come on their own," he explains.

"But if they don't respond to the greeting call, or they lock initially but then start veering away, I'll get a little louder and faster—more demanding. This is where the reading part comes in. You tailor your calling to how the ducks are reacting. This is an on-going process."

McKnight doesn't like to call working ducks that are upwind of his spread. "Instead, I prefer calling when their butts are toward me," he says. "When they're circling, I might give a real soft feeding call or do no calling whatever. And again, I prefer a soft calling style over a loud, demanding style."

McKnight says some days ducks respond better to a high-pitch call that makes "clean" notes. Other days they prefer a double-reed call that produces lower, deeper, and raspier sounds. Hunters should take both styles of calls to the blind and try each to see which yields the best results on a given hunting day. "The birds will tell you which sound they like," he says.

One more duck calling approach that McKnight uses is radical but also extremely effective: clucking on a goose call. He says, "Three or four hunters blowing goose calls and one hunter blowing a duck call can be deadly.

"I think this is because this is different and maybe more natural sounding to ducks. By the time ducks get to southern Illinois, they have heard standard duck calling all the way down from Canada, and they're skittish of it. But mixing goose and duck calling (and doing likewise with decoys) is different and natural, and in the past couple of seasons the mallards, especially, have responded very well to this. We've worked some big flights at some long distances using this technique."

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