10 Tips from Top Callers

Experts share secrets for calling late-season ducks

By Wade Bourne

He was a grizzled old Arkansas guide with a double-barrel attitude. On this morning, he’d had a couple of clients in his party who wanted to help with the calling. “We’d have shot more ducks if they had left their calls in their pockets,” the guide grumbled. “There are duck callers, and then there are duck call blowers.” He undoubtedly felt that these two men belonged in the latter category.

Sprinkled throughout North America, however, are hunters who truly have the gift of gab with waterfowl. They are genuine calling experts who know which sounds to make, and when to make them, to consistently pull ducks and geese into close range.

The following calling tips from 10 such authorities will help you bag more waterfowl and experience the special fulfillment that results from talking these birds down into the decoys.

1. Try Aggressive Chatter on Circling Ducks

Jim Ronquest of Holly Grove, Arkansas, was the 2006 world champion duck caller and is a full-time producer of RNT Game Calls’ television shows and videos. Ronquest has guided hunters on the duck-rich Arkansas Grand Prairie since boyhood.

“Late in the season, when ducks are educated by hunting pressure, they sometimes get shy of the traditional comeback call. They’ve heard this call over and over, and I think they get leery of it,” Ronquest says.

 “So, when ducks are swinging and are at the point where it would be appropriate to blow a comeback call, I’ll use an aggressive feeding call instead,” he says. “This is a fairly loud, rapid series of kuks with a lot of growling into the call. This is louder and more demanding than regular feeding chatter. I tend to think of it as an assembly call. I push it pretty hard, and I vary the air pressure to break the sounds up.”

Ronquest says ducks aren’t used to hearing this call, so they’re more likely to respond to it. “It’s all about inflection and insistence. It’s another way of saying ‘get in here right now,’” he explains.

2. Develop a Dialouge With Specks

Kelly Haydel of Bossier City, Louisiana, is promotions manager for Haydel Game Calls, the company founded by his father, Eli. Kelly has also guided in the Louisiana marshes for 22 years. His favorite bird is the specklebelly (white-fronted goose), and he’s a master at calling these cagey birds into his decoys.

“When calling specks, you have to develop a dialogue with an individual goose,” Haydel advises. “When he makes his two-note yodel, blow it right back at him. He calls, and then you call. You have to develop a rhythm and a dialogue that goes back and forth.”

Haydel says if the goose quits calling, the hunter should continue calling with the same rhythm. “Just call as though the goose is still responding to you,” Haydel says. “Sometimes he’ll skip two or three sequences, but if you maintain the rhythm, he’ll join back in.”

What if the specks circle just out of range and won’t finish? “Try ground-clucking to get them to come on in,” Haydel advises. “Just say hut-hut-hut into your call. Cluck rapidly five to 10 times, take a breath, and do it again. If the geese turn in, keep calling until you reach for your gun.”

3. Keep it Simple for Snows

Tony Vandemore of Kirksville, Missouri, starts hunting snow geese in the fall and chases them throughout the spring season. An Avery pro-staffer and Zink Calls Z-Unit member, Vandemore is known for his innovation with decoys and different hunting styles.

 But when it comes to calling snow geese, he says most hunters are better off sticking with the basics. “They should concentrate on making one clear, good-sounding call instead of trying to make too much noise,” he says. “Hunters should imitate just one bird making the high-pitched bark that snows make naturally. This is a single note spaced two to three seconds apart.
Sometimes you might alternate from this with two quick notes in succession. But basically, you just make that high single note. Juveniles, especially, will home right in on that.”

When snows are gliding and coming in, Vandemore scales back on the volume and frequency of his calls. But if the birds begin to flap their wings again, he calls louder and faster to try to lock them back up.

“You don’t need the loudest call on the market,” he adds. “You just need a good, clear call that will hold the birds’ attention and pull them down to the decoys.”

4. Try The “RAU-RAU” Call

Mike Boyd of Tunica, Mississippi, hunts on Beaver Dam Lake and has lured thousands of mallards, gadwalls, and other ducks into his cypress tree-lined hole over the last 40 years. He has done this mostly with a quiet, subtle calling style that produces very little echo off the standing timber.

Boyd’s secret calling weapon is an excited chatter that he calls the rau-rau call. “I’ve heard mallards make this call at other ducks that are passing by,” he explains. “It’s different from any other call ducks make. It’s four to five fast single notes that ascend the scale in volume, over and over. It’s a type of chuckle, but it’s more persuasive than a standard monotone feed call.”

Boyd says when ducks circle close, he tones down the rau-rau call. But when they swing away, he ratchets the volume back up. “I test every day for what the birds like best,” he says. “Generally, though, I try not to overcall and just let the ducks work themselves if they will.”

5. Be Aggressive on Stormy Days

Curt Wilson of Oroville, California, is a territory manager for Avery Outdoors and a lifelong duck hunter. Wilson grew up in west Tennessee, and he took calling methods he learned there with him when he moved to the West Coast. Once there, he also learned a few new things about calling Pacific Flyway mallards.

“Back home in Tennessee, the best days for calling ducks were cold and clear with a moderate wind,” Wilson says. “But out here, the best calling days are windy and rainy. This is when you need to be aggressive with your calling—more frequency and louder volume. It’s as if the ducks have trouble hearing you in the wind. So on days like this, I’ll usually call right up until it’s time to shoot. If you let up on the birds, they’ll start sliding away.”

Wilson believes storms stir up ducks, and this is why they respond enthusiastically to his aggressive calling. “It’s as if the storm excites them, and a loud, compulsive calling style is the best match to their mood,” he says.

6. Call Less; Make it Mean More

Barnie Calef of Palo, Iowa, is a three-time world champion duck caller and the founder of Calef Calls, makers of fine duck and goose calls. He has years of guiding experience in the upper Midwest. Calef believes that ducks are warier now than ever, so he’s gone to a more natural calling style.

“When ducks are within calling range, blow some type of call at them—a hail call, greeting call, feeding call, whatever—and watch their reaction,” he advises. “If they turn toward your decoys, ease off on the calling. Then, when they start to leave, hit them again with the call they reacted positively to before. This is the call you should stick with to get them to come in.

“I find myself calling less and making it mean more,” Calef adds. “I think if you blow at the right time and with a call the birds like, you’re better off with a lot less calling. Personally, I use a five-note greeting call just about all the time now.”

7. Double-Cluck for Call-Shy Canadas

Jason Connellee of Port Deposit, Maryland, is an Avery and Zink Calls pro-staffer and an avid, longtime Canada goose hunter. In years past, he has pursued honkers in Canada, the upper Midwest, and around Chesapeake Bay.

Sometimes Connellee hunts places where several groups of hunters may be calling to the same flock of geese. He says this kind of pressure educates the birds, and they soon learn to ignore standard calling styles.

But he has an ace up his sleeve. “When a flock is coming over the field, I don’t call to them. Instead, I let them fly by, and when they get about 200 yards past me, I blow a sudden, loud series of comeback calls,” Connellee explains. “Basically, these are three strings of fast double-clucks that sound like two geese clucking back and forth to each other.”

Connellee says double-clucks are calls of excitement or aggression. “Put these strings of double-clucks together, and it sounds like birds on the ground are excited or protective of a food source. Many times this will cause the passing geese to believe the decoys are real, and they’ll cut back to them,” he says.

8. Stop Canadas From Landing Short

J. R. Adkins of Rogersville, Tennessee, is a member of the Knight and Hale Game Calls pro staff, and he’s an avid Canada goose hunter and competition caller. He won the Tennessee state goose calling championship in 2006.

Adkins says it’s common for geese to be coming to decoys and then land short by a couple of hundred yards. When most callers see this happening, they give up. “It’s as if they resign themselves to the fact that the geese are about to land out of range, and they continue making the same clucks and moans (laydown calls) they were blowing when the geese were approaching.”

But Adkins doesn’t give up. When incoming honkers are about to land short, he “pours the coal to them,” switching to very loud, fast, excited calling to pull the birds those last few yards. “What I blow is wild-sounding. It’s really off the wall, but it’s unreal how well the geese respond to it,” he says. “Then once they pick back up and keep coming, I change back to regular laydown calls. It’s as if the geese are thinking, ‘Something’s going on over there, and we’d better go take a look.’ And they usually do.”

9. “Call” Divers With a Flag

Jeff Coats of Bel Air, Maryland, has guided waterfowlers on Chesapeake Bay for 15 years. He specializes in hunting divers from boats over big, open-water decoy spreads. His clients typically take canvasbacks, redheads, scaup, buffleheads, and other species over his spread of more than a hundred decoys.

Coats “calls” divers with a flag instead of a duck call. “I use a black cotton flag that’s 24 by 24 inches,” he says. “I rig it on a 36-inch pole. When ducks are passing at a distance, I stand up tall in the boat and wave the flag over my head. It’s just a big left-to-right, a slow wave. It’s like saying, ‘Hey, over here!’ When the birds see me and turn my way, I put the flag down and let them come on to the decoys.”

Coats says flagging is especially effective when divers are skimming along barely above the water’s surface. “When the birds are low, they can’t see my decoys from as far,” he says. “So I flag to them to get them to flare up off the water. It’s a lot easier for them to see my decoys if they’re 50 feet high than if they’re two feet high.”

10. Finish With a Hiccup

 Brian “Bubba” McPhearson of Madison, Mississippi, supervises the waterfowl calling division of Primos Hunting Calls. During duck season, if he’s not making calls, he’s using them, mostly on mallards in this state’s duck-rich Mississippi Delta.
 
“By the time ducks get this far down the flyway, they’ve heard a lot of calling, and they’re hard to finish,” McPhearson says. “So when they get tough, I blow a quiet little ‘hiccup call’ because it’s a call that’s rarely used in the field.”

McPhearson describes this call as a series of five to six notes with an extra half-note separating the long notes. “It sounds like ‘wank-a, wank-a, wank-a. . . .’ You make the half-note with your tongue, pushing air up against your teeth. It’s almost like a stutter note or a little squeal at the end of each long note.”

McPhearson uses this call when ducks have circled his spread a couple of times and have turned back for one more look. “It’s a convincer,” he explains. “I don’t know why it works, but it does, especially with ducks on public areas that have been called to a lot. They like it, and they come to it.”