Waterfowler's Notebook: Reading Ducks

Follow these expert tips to match your calling to the birds' behavior

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Photo © Chris Jennings

By Wade Bourne

To be a good duck caller, you've got to be a good duck watcher,' a veteran guide on Tennessee's famed Reelfoot Lake once told me. 'You've got to pay close attention to the birds' reactions and determine whether you have to tease them in or demand that they come to the decoys. Some ducks are susceptible to calling, while others are going where they're going regardless of how well you call.'

This guide would study different flights of ducks as they passed, and many times he'd never raise the call to his lips. He simply knew that he didn't have a chance at turning the birds. Other times, however, the flight pattern of passing ducks would indicate that they might be persuadable. The guide would then 'get on them,' and more often than not he would turn them with his calling and bring them in.

The following tips will help you master the art of reading ducks and adjust your calling to toll more birds into the decoys.

The first flights of the morning will be your 'test ducks.' When calling to them, watch the birds' reactions carefully. Do they slow their wing beats or keep flying with the same steady cadence? Are they hedging your way or sticking to their original flight path? Sometimes subtle signs can tell you whether the ducks are reacting to your calls or ignoring you. Adjust your calling accordingly.

Experiment with different calling styles. Start out with soft, natural calls. If the ducks snub this approach, try louder, more insistent calling. As a general rule, subtle calling techniques tend to work best when the weather is calm, warm, and overcast. And aggressive calling is generally a good approach on windy, cold, and blue-sky days.

Try calls with different pitches and volumes. Some days the ducks will react well to a high-pitched single-reed call; other days they will respond better to a raspier double-reed.

Add persuasion with multiple callers. Having two or three callers working together at the same time is often more effective than a single caller.

If passing ducks show an initial interest but then begin veering away, call quickly and insistently to regain their attention and pull them in your direction.

Likewise, if ducks are circling downwind but show signs of losing interest, call them quickly and adamantly to bring them upwind.

Look for the 'lock leader,' which is the term my longtime hunting partner and I use to describe the one bird in a passing flock that shows the most interest in our highballs and comeback calls. In many cases this duck will be a hen mallard that signals her attention by slowing her wing beats and perhaps sliding out from the flock toward your decoys. Watch intently for such a reaction. If you can convince that susie to lock her wings and circle back, her companions will likely follow.

If a working hen calls down to your spread, quickly imitate her call to encourage her to join the 'ducks' on the water.

Watch for ducks that aren't following a regular flight path. Flocks of ducks that routinely fly the same route between feeding or loafing areas are less likely to respond to calling than those that drift back and forth as if searching for a spot to land. This flight pattern may indicate that these birds are 'new ducks' that are eager for company. Call aggressively to capture their attention and steer them in your direction.

Finally, there's no substitute for experience. The more time you spend in the marsh reading ducks, the better you will become at it. Study their body language and become proficient at reading the signals they give you. That's the best way to learn how to adjust your calling to get the ducks to do what you want them to do.