Waterfowler's Notebook: A Blast from the Past

Old-school metal-reed duck calls can still grab the attention of passing birds

By Wade Bourne

Metal-reed duck calls are a throwback to an earlier era. Even so, many waterfowlers continue to use them. Granted, these old-school calls aren't nearly as popular as plastic-reed models. Metal-reed calls are somewhat costly and difficult to master. And yes, they can be hard to retune if their original tuning is lost. 

Despite these drawbacks, however, metal-reed duck calls have two advantages over plastic-reed models, says Reelfoot Lake guide and call maker Mark Pierce. "A metal-reed call will blow the bark off a cypress tree. It's got the volume to reach out and turn ducks at long distances or in high winds. Also, a metal-reed call won't freeze up when the temperature plummets. It'll always quack when you need it to," he explains.

Pierce says that he keeps both a plastic- and a metal-reed call on his lanyard. "I may start calling to a passing flock with a plastic-reed call, and if they don't respond, I'll switch to the metal-reed. Some days the ducks show a strong preference for that metal-reed sound."

Call maker Frank Bryant of Louisiana believes that a metal-reed call's quack sounds closest to that of a real duck. "A properly tuned metal-reed call is very natural-sounding to live ducks," he says. "There's just something about it that they like. Several years ago I sold one to a hunter in Oklahoma, and after he used it awhile he called me and said, 'I own 20 duck calls, and after trying yours, I'm going to sell the others and blow your call exclusively.'"

Mark Warmath of Clarksville, Tennessee, is a longtime duck call collector and an expert on the history of call making. He says that the first documented metal-reed calls were made by Charles Grubbs of Illinois in the 1860s. Grubbs's calls were the forerunners of what became known as the Reelfoot-style call.

Another Illinois call maker, Victor Glodo Jr., moved to Reelfoot Lake in the late 1890s and carried Grubbs's metal-reed design and expertise with him. Glodo's calls became popular among Reelfoot guides, and in subsequent years, other call makers began emulating his style and craftsmanship. Three of the most significant of these call makers were Tennesseans Tom Turpin, Johnny Marsh, and Glynn Scobey. Today a handful of artisans continue to make and sell metal-reed calls. Pierce and Bryant are two of the most prominent. 

Pierce is a fourth-generation call maker. His Cochran calls are named after his grandfather, famed Reelfoot guide and call maker John F. Cochran. Cochran calls feature a large tapered wooden barrel and a flat tone board with a curved phosphor bronze reed, a distinctive design that is characteristic of the metal-reed calls made in northwest Tennessee. The reed is held in place by a wooden wedge when the stopper is snugged tightly into the barrel. 

Bryant's Mallard Master calls, which are patterned after the original Turpin calls, come in two styles—a big- and a small-barrel call. The bigger call is louder and takes more air pressure to blow. The smaller call is quieter and easier to blow. Bryant says that a metal-reed call can be trouble-free if you don't start messing with it. "It holds its tuning well. It'll blow wet. In fact, it sounds better when it's wet," he says.

Tuning a metal-reed call is best left to the pros. "It really is a fine art," Bryant says. "You've got to know what you're doing, or you'll mess it up. My calls are tuned right when they leave the shop, and they're very dependable and carefree. And that metal reed will last a lifetime. You can give it to your grandson when you give up hunting, and it'll sound as good then as it did the day you bought it."

Bryant cautions hunters to be careful when cleaning their metal-reed calls. "Sometimes foreign objects get under a call's reed and cause it to quit blowing properly," he says. "If that happens, wash it out. Then if it's still not blowing, take the call apart and clean it, being very careful not to bend the reed. The duck is already built into the call; you don't want to take it out."