By Bill Buckley
Just as birds of a feather flock together, so too do they produce their own unique sounds. While many waterfowlers focus their attention on mallards, other puddle ducks and divers often make up a considerable portion of our season's bag. So why do most duck hunters have only one call on their lanyard?
Truth be told, mallard hen calls are amazingly effective at drawing in almost any species of duck. But while those other species will often respond to a mallard call, they react most favorably to the sounds of their own kind. If you are dedicated to mastering these species-specific sounds, you will find that there are calls available for almost every duck you can hunt. Or to keep it simple, you can just buy a pintail whistle to complement your favorite mallard call.
The Versatile Mallard Call
The standard mallard call is capable of imitating almost any sound a mallard hen makes, and because it can be blown sharply and loudly it's a wonderful tool for grabbing the attention of virtually any passing duck even on the windiest days. But the versatility of the mallard call does not stop there.
Whenever a sharp greeting call fails to turn a flock of teal, my friend Bill Cooksey uses his mallard call to imitate the high-pitched sounds of a greenwing hen. He draws out the first note of a standard mallard greeting call and follows with a series of short, sharp notes. Also, when diving ducks fail to respond to his calling, Cooksey will trill his tongue to mimic the staccato grunts made by canvasbacks, scaup, and ring-necked ducks. You can even use a mallard call to simulate the monotone quack of a gadwall by blowing short, soft notes while cupping your fingers over the end of your call. Indeed, the average duck call is an amazingly adaptable instrument.
The Underrated Pintail Whistle
Even in areas where mallards are dominant, pintails generally respond best to their own trilling whistles. In fact, because many hunters rarely use these whistles, they are especially effective on pintails, wigeon, and teal in mallard country. In regions where mallards are scarcer, such as the Gulf Coast and the West, the pintail whistle should be a waterfowler's go-to call.
Expert caller Rod Haydel, of Haydel's Game Calls, relies heavily on his pintail whistle when he hunts Louisiana's duck-rich Gulf Coast. "Where we hunt, mallards make up about 10 percent of the population, so we use specialty calls most of the time. If there's one call that every hunter would benefit from, it's the underrated ten-dollar pintail whistle," he says. "Not only can it perfectly imitate pintails and wigeon, but blown in different ways it can make the peeping sound of a greenwing drake, the whistle of a bluewing drake, the whine of a wood duck, and the soft, contented sounds many species make when they are loafing. Best of all, because so many ducks make these sounds, it's almost impossible to blow a wrong note and spook the birds."
Signs of Life
Although they typically reach for their mallard hen call when targeting greenheads, most hunters know how well a pintail whistle can imitate the drake's raeb, raeb call. For that reason alone, these whistles can be close-range confidence builders for wary mallards. They can also fool late-season greenheads conditioned to hearing lots of aggressive mallard calling from other hunters.
Sometimes simply mixing the soft quacks and whistles of a variety of species will give late-season mallards the confidence to come in. Haydel has found that a combination of gadwall quacks and pintail whistles works well on these educated birds. He points out that on late-season hunts you're not so much calling to ducks as you are producing the "signs of life" that lend authenticity to your decoy spread.