There is no question that what is required of a polished contest routine and what a hunter does in the duck blind constitute different approaches. The former is designed to appeal to human judges. The latter requires adjusting to what actual birds want to hear on a given day, in a given situation. But neither is exclusive of the other.
"That old fable about contest callers not being able to call ducks, well, that's just crazy," says Butch Richenback, the honorable mayor of Stuttgart, a past world champion and duck calling tutor to literally thousands of students, both young and old. "That's like saying a race car driver can't drive on the freeway.
"Your contest routine and duck hunting are two different things," Richenback continues. "A contest is not about actually calling ducks. What contest calling is all about is having total control of the duck call, being able to do anything you want with that call when you want to do it. And that's going from the high point on the scale down to the low point without messing up, and then going from the bottom back up. The one who can show the most ingenuity and best control from all points of the call, that's what it's supposed to be all about."
Therein lies the connection to the wailing hail calls common to contests. Participants are required to tackle the extended hail because it demonstrates their control of the call. Those who miss a note, or squeak, are quickly eliminated from the remainder of the day's activity. The point here is, in order to be competitive, contest callers must spend a lot of time with their duck calls. They must learn what a call can and cannot do. They gain control of the call. Those who are also duck hunters may translate those skills into the field.
"The reason a lot of people think competition callers can't call ducks is they say a duck doesn't sound that way," Richenback says. "No, a duck doesn't sound that way. But a duck does everything that's in a routine, just not as long. And probably not as good. The object is trying to be better than the duck."
Richenback, who seldom hunts these days because of medical issues, grew up following accomplished gunners around Arkansas' fabled flooded timber. He's been there, done that, beginning about age eight.
"When you're calling a duck," he says, "what's important is what you do and when you do it. You have to be able to read the duck and know what to throw at him at any time. The better you are with a duck caller, the better chance you are going to have at bringing that duck in. The biggest mistake most people make is that they call too much. They're calling when they ought to be quiet."
One of Richenback's disciples is John Stephens, a two-time world champion, a part-time guide, and these days the president and call-making guru at R-N-T. He will be among the favorites on stage at the World's Championship Duck Calling Contest later this month.
"In competition, you are doing everything you can to impress the judges, and there's a certain structure to it," Stephens says. "The way we look at it, we like to take that structure and apply as much hunting to it as we can. We try to make it sound more like we are calling ducks. To me, that's what the contest should be about. I guess that's a personal preference, but I don't think that's where we are today. I think we ought to try and get back to that."
Stephens began contest calling as a young boy, participating in Richenback's legendary classes (35 years running as of this month), and then traveling on the competition circuit. The early start was key.
"It's like anything else, the younger you start, the better off you are going to be," Stephens says, "because you don't have any bad habits. Kids have a clean slate when they start learning how to blow a duck call, and if they get started right, they're way ahead of a lot of people."