Secrets of the Call Makers

Sage advice from four of the nation's most respected call makers 

By Matt Young

For many hunters, calling is the most rewarding aspect of waterfowling. There are few hunting experiences more satisfying than hailing a distant flock of mallards with a highball and watching the birds cup their wings and turn in unison as the sound reaches them. By allowing waterfowlers to communicate directly with ducks, calling fosters an intimate relationship between hunters and their quarry that elevates the sport to a higher level.

No one knows exactly who invented the first duck call or when and where it was constructed. Howard Harlan and W. Crew Anderson, coauthors of Duck Calls: An Enduring American Folk Art, discovered what may be the first evidence of their existence in an 1854 Nathaniel Currier art print, in which a dapper sportsman is depicted with a primitive tongue-pincher-style call tucked in his breast pocket. In 1863, Fred Allen of Monmouth, Illinois, is believed to have fashioned the first modern-appearing duck call, consisting of a barrel, stopper, and internal reed assembly. A few decades later, another early master, Victor Glodo, developed a more effective design, which he put to good use as a market hunter on Tennessee's Reelfoot Lake. Over time, many individuals experimented with and improved upon these early prototypes. Another major innovation occurred in 1957, when Texans Jim Fernandez and George Yentzen patented the first double-reed duck call.

The evolution of the modern duck call continues today, as call making has grown into a multimillion-dollar industry. While many call makers now mass produce their wares in state-of-the-art manufacturing facilities, others continue to painstakingly fashion calls by hand, upholding the grand traditions of their craft. Visit your local sporting goods retailer and you are likely to find a plethora of duck calls made of almost every conceivable material, from traditional woods to space-age acrylics.

With such a wide selection, how do you decide which call is best for your hunting needs? Following is sage advice from four of the nation's most respected call makers about duck calls and calling.

Greg Hood is founder and president of Hoodwinked Game Calls of Clarksdale, Mississippi, which currently manufactures a call offered as a Ducks Unlimited membership premium. Todd Heidelbauer of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, carries on his family's call-making tradition established by his grandfather, Frank Heidelbauer, 50 years ago. Call making also runs in the family of Rod Haydel of Bossier City, Louisiana, whose father, Eli, used his expertise as an accomplished saxophone player to develop one of the nation's most popular duck call brands. And, Jim Olt's family business, the P.S. Olt Company of Pekin, Illinois, has the distinction of being the oldest game call manufacturer in the world.

Most modern duck calls fall into two basic categories: single-reed calls and double-reed calls. A favorite of contest callers and traditionalists, single-reed calls are known for their wide tonal range and for being easy to blow in terms of the amount of air pressure that is required to operate them. Hood says, "I typically hunt with a single-reed call because I like its versatility. When you have a single-reed that is tuned properly to your voice, all you have to do is to talk into the call (saying the words hoot or wit) to sound like a duck. You can also vary the pitch of the call simply by raising and lowering your voice."

A well-known issue with many single-reed calls is their tendency to stick or "blow down," when too much air pressure is applied to the reed. "A duck call is basically like any other woodwind instrument," Heidelbauer says. "The sound is produced by the vibration of the reed on the tone board. In many single-reed calls, when you blow too hard, the air pressure lifts the reed right off the tone board. The reed continues to vibrate, but in mid-air, where it makes no sound."

Although single-reed calls can be modified in a variety of ways to be more tolerant of varying levels of air pressure, double-reed calls are generally considered to be more user friendly. The tradeoff is that double-reed calls lack the range of single-reed calls, especially on the high end of the scale. "In a double-reed call, the upper reed serves as a vibration suppressor, which prevents the call from sticking," Olt says. "This enables just about anybody to get a decent sound out of the call no matter how much air control they have."

Haydel agrees, "For the average hunter, double-reeds make the most sense. While single-reed calls often have to be blown with precise air pressure to sound right, you can blow a double-reed call in many different ways. You can grunt real hard into them, or you can just kind of buzz the reeds like I do, or you can blow straight air into them. Any one of these methods will enable you to produce a sound that is somewhere in the vicinity of that of a hen mallard." The materials from which duck calls are made also can have an impact on their performance in the marsh.

Traditionally, all duck calls were made of wood. More recently, plastic, and harder acrylic calls have gained popularity because of their consistent performance in all weather conditions and for their clear, resonant tone. Haydel advises, "A wooden call will absorb sound, which gives you a softer, smoother tone, while an acrylic or standard plastic call will give a sharper, more high-pitched sound. In most cases, these differences are too subtle to make much difference, but, in some situations, such as in a high wind when you want to get as much volume as you can, acrylics are hard to beat." In general, the design and tuning of calls has a greater influence on how they sound than the materials that are used to make them. Hood recalls, "When I was taught by Butch Richenback several years ago, he told me that one call will do it all.

Every call has its own character, but every call can be tuned to sound the way you want." Considering the aforementioned characteristics, waterfowlers should select calls that will perform best in their particular hunting area. For those who hunt on big water areas, such as large lakes and flooded agricultural fields, it pays to have a high-volume call that can be heard by passing flocks at great distances. Heidlebauer says, "In South Dakota, we hunt a lot of big water areas with no trees, and generally experience high winds. In this environment, you need a call with a large air channel that allows you to use a lot of air pressure and to produce a lot of volume." The pitch of a duck call also is critical to how well it performs in different environments. Olt says, "On big water, I prefer a high-pitched, raspy call. In the old days, the horse cavalry used a bugle to sound the charge rather than a trumpet, because a higher-pitched sound carries better."

Hood adds, "When you are hunting open water, you want a call that produces sound that is not only loud, but also travels quickly. High-pitched, raspy calls are better for this purpose because they produce high-frequency sound waves that move faster and travel farther than lower-frequency sounds."

Conversely, while hunting in flooded timber or small, secluded marshes, softer, lower-pitched calls are more desirable. "If you think of sound waves as ripples on a pond, working ducks generally respond to the outside edge of the sound, and then work in toward the source of the calling," Hood says. "If you blow a loud, open water call in the timber, you will get a lot of echoing that makes it hard for ducks to pinpoint the source of the sound. When you use a softer, lower-pitched call, the sound waves move slower, echo less, and are much easier for ducks to follow."

Perhaps above all else, however, selecting a duck call is a highly subjective decision. "A duck call is a very personalized item, and a call that is perfectly suited for one hunter might not work at all for another," Haydel advises. "For example, some hunters might need a larger call because they have big hands, while others may want a call that is harder to blow because they have more powerful lungs. My advice is to try out as many calls as you can, and then pick the one that just feels right to you."


Making the Most of Your Call

When it comes to calling tactics, it's no surprise that call makers have some strong opinions. Greg Hood maintains, "The biggest mistake most callers make today is trying to sound like one duck. Listen to a bunch of ducks on the water, and you'll notice that every duck has a distinctive voice, just like people. The more you can vary the pitch of your calling, the more natural your calling will sound. When I hunt, I try to sound like four different ducks. These include a very high-pitched young hen on the high end, a real low-pitched, coarse old hen on the low end, and two medium-pitched hens that fall in between the two on the scale. Once I have captured the attention of a flock of ducks, I'll give them a series of [hail calls] using these four different pitches, and, frequently, the birds will just lock up and fall into the decoys on the first pass."

Rod Haydel recommends that even experienced callers should continue to experiment and learn new calling tricks. "It's easy for people who hunt a lot to get into a routine or systematic way of calling. But you often have to change your calling tactics and try new things to successfully call ducks that have received a lot of pressure. If one call doesn't get a reaction, try something else. I'm always experimenting in the field, trying to find a new sound or trick that will give me an edge."

To help vary his calling repertoire, Haydel keeps several different calls on his lanyard. "I usually bring along an acrylic call for when I need a lot of volume and a few softer-sounding calls for close working ducks. Another favorite of mine is a variable-tone call that has a hole in the exhaust barrel that enables you to change the pitch to sound like different ducks. A very effective tactic is to leave the hole open and give a nonchalant hail call, then close the hole with your hand and immediately follow up with a faster, higher-pitched call."

However, Todd Heidelbauer cautions that callers should never lose sight of the fundamentals. "I think today's waterfowlers get bombarded with so much information that a lot of them get overwhelmed and don't know where to begin. The instructional tapes that include intricate calling demonstrations can be downright intimidating to a beginner. Guys shouldn't worry about knowing 30 different types of calls when they really need only three. All you have to do is go out to a marsh, listen to ducks, and try to imitate them. The bottom line is that a caller who can sound like a duck will be successful."