Waterfowler's Notebook: Finesse Calling

When ducks get call-shy, try a subtler approach

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Photo © Chris Jennings

By Wade Bourne

Sometimes ducks respond best to aggressive calling, but at other times they work better when you use a little finesse. This is usually the case when there hasn't been an influx of new ducks for several days and local birds are decoy-shy from hunting pressure. It's also true when the weather is warm, the sky is gray, and the wind is calm-or under any combination of these factors. Such conditions can make ducks wary, and spooky birds tend to shy away from throw-the-kitchen-sink-at-'em calling.

Here's what I do when the ducks are cautious and a subtler calling approach is needed. I start by replacing my loud call with one that's quieter, raspier, and "sweeter." The idea is to coax the birds in with some gentle persuasion, and the best tool for this is a soft, mellow call.

When ducks are passing, I will blow a four- or five-note greeting call as naturally as I can, rather than the loud, attention-getting highball I rely on when calling conditions are better. If the ducks are already eyeing my spread, I may remain silent to see how they react. Otherwise I keep my calling to a minimum, offering the birds a low-key invitation composed of a little feeding chatter with maybe a single quack or two mixed in.

Perhaps the most important finesse call is a three- or four-note comeback call when the ducks circle downwind. Blow this call only once. If the ducks come back around, go subtle or silent again. If they fly on, forget about them. They weren't coming anyway.

At other times the best calling is no calling at all. Several years ago, for instance, I was hunting alone in a west Kentucky swamp from a blind overlooking a small open pond. It was a "soupy" day-warm, overcast, and windless. Not many ducks were flying, and those that were did not respond to my calling. I hadn't fired a shot by midmorning. That's when I decided to try a different approach.

Our decoy spread included a Canada goose floater rigged with a lead-ball swivel system that would make the decoy tip up and bob like a feeding goose whenever we pulled the cord. The next time a duck appeared, I left my call dangling on my lanyard and pulled the goose cord instead. When the decoy tipped up, I bobbed it several times to push surface ripples throughout the spread. The drake mallard cupped its wings and dropped right in. I took him with a clean shot at 25 yards. Then I bagged two more single mallards with the same trick before heading home for lunch.

Granted, that wasn't my best day of hunting. But three handsome greenheads beats going home empty-handed. All I had to do was experiment a bit and change tactics. Often, though, we get stuck in a calling rut. Too many hunters rely on the same calling style day in and day out. Some days they pull ducks in. But on other days, when conditions aren't a good match for their calling technique, these hunters scare birds away.

Don't be afraid to experiment and mix things up. Try different cadences and volume levels when calling. And when ducks shy away from a strong-arm style, don't hesitate to back off. Offer the birds a subtle invitation, summon them with finesse instead of force, and chances are they will accept. A little sweetness can go a long way toward winning over the most hesitant waterfowl.