by Matt Young
A wise old waterfowler once told me that a duck call is one of the best conservation tools ever invented. Blow a call well, he explained, and you will bring ducks in close enough to clearly identify individual birds and make clean kills. Blow a call poorly, he continued, and most of the ducks you see will keep a safe distance from your blind.
Of course, most waterfowlers' calling ability falls somewhere in between these two extremes. Some days, many duck hunters can work wonders with a call, bringing flock after flock into their decoys. But other times, especially in bluebird weather, their same calling efforts are met with indifference or, even worse, hasten the departure of working flocks.
Even the best callers make mistakes, and these mistakes are what most often cost birds in the bag. In duck calling, as in so many endeavors, knowing what not to do can be as important as knowing what to do. On the following pages, Ducks Unlimited interviewed four of North America's best duck callers—Fred Zink, Rod Haydel, Christian Curtis, and Jim Ronquest—to find out the most common calling mistakes made by duck hunters and, more importantly, how to correct them.
1. Calling too much
Having won more than 20 duck and goose calling titles during his career, veteran Ohio call maker and Avery pro-staffer Fred Zink knows the value of good calling. Therefore, many hunters might be surprised to learn that Zink believes the most common mistake that separates good callers from average or bad callers is calling too much.
"A duck call should be used as a tool rather than just for making background noise," Zink says. "In areas where hunting pressure is intense, ducks get wise to calling pretty quickly because they hear it every day. Aggressive, continuous calling can work in migration areas or other locations where there are large concentrations of waterfowl, but in most of the places I hunt, less is more in regard to calling.
"You have to think of yourself as a duck hunter not just as a duck caller," Zink continues. "I use my duck call to draw in ducks and keep them interested in my decoys when they are unsure. I don't think of a duck call as some type of magical instrument that can mesmerize the birds. All the other aspects of duck hunting—being in the right place, setting a good decoy spread, and concealment—are more important than calling. But when a duck call is blown correctly at the right times, it can make the difference between success and failure. A duck call is the finisher, but everything else has to be in place for it to be effective."
2. Poor timing
In addition to calling too much, Zink says that duck hunters often call at the wrong times. "Timing is everything in duck calling," Zink explains. "I have hunted with a lot of guys who were excellent callers in their ability to sound like ducks, but they didn't really have a grasp on when to call. I've also hunted with guys whose calling didn't sound all that good, but they knew when to call and were much more effective hunters."
The key to effective calling, according to Zink, is to read and understand the body language of ducks while they are working. "I keep my duck call to my lips at all times so I can call at the exact moment that ducks get confused or start to hesitate," he says. "As long as ducks are circling my decoy spread and are flying steadily and making the turns as they should, I don't blow my duck call. But as soon as they get indecisive, I'll hit them immediately with one or two five- to seven-note greeting calls. Telltale signs are when the birds start to move their heads and necks a lot from side to side or when their wing beat or flight path starts to waver. That's when you blow your duck call. If you wait for them to start to slide away, it's often too late."
Veteran Louisiana call maker Rod Haydel has developed a similar calling philosophy. "I like to call at times that will make it easier for ducks to get into my decoys—in effect, acting like an air traffic controller," Haydel says. "For example, when ducks are circling downwind, I try to call at the moment that will turn them in a position that will give the birds a straight and easy approach to the decoys. You don't want to call and turn ducks at a time that will make them have to work harder to line up for landing."
Haydel believes that not all ducks are callable, especially late in the season. He has a good tip for calling these wary birds. "When ducks are turning well to your call but have been circling several times without committing to your decoys, try giving them a greeting call as they circle behind you upwind," he says. "This will sometimes turn them back over your blind, giving you a passing shot that you otherwise wouldn't get. This can put a lot of birds in the bag late in the season when ducks have gotten very wary."
3. Failing to finish
In duck calling, as in business, it's all about closing the deal. Unfortunately, many waterfowlers come up short in their ability to coax waterfowl to fly those last 20 yards into gun range. Missouri outfitter Christian Curtis says finishing is the most challenging aspect of calling, especially in this era of intense hunting pressure. "Nowadays, ducks have been hunted all the way down from Canada, and they've heard and seen it all many times," says Curtis, an Avery pro-staffer who has numerous state and national calling titles to his credit. "If you don't get ducks to commit quickly and you give them a chance to start circling over and over again, they are going to find something they don't like. This usually happens after only three or four passes. On windless days when your decoys aren't moving, one or two passes might be all you'll get. Your calling has to force ducks to make that decision quickly.
"When the birds get 75 yards out and you drop your call, that's when they'll slide off and start circling," he continues. "When I'm finishing ducks, I like to use a lot of five-note greeting calls, feeding chatter, and short, sharp quacks. As birds get closer, I increase the speed and urgency of my calling. But I also lower the volume. I call just loud enough for ducks to hear me. If you call too loud when ducks are working close, you'll blow them out. The secret to finishing ducks is to call aggressively enough to get them to go ahead and commit without flaring them."
And Curtis says many hunters have a hard time controlling the volume of their calling. "Sometimes this is because of the caller, and sometimes it's the call," he attests. "It's pretty difficult to finish ducks with a loud, open-water style call. A good solution to this problem is to add a quieter finishing call to your lanyard. Blow the louder call when ducks are working farther out and then switch to the softer finishing call when they get close. There are a lot of timber-style calls on the market today that work well for this purpose."
4. Getting stuck in a rut
Another common mistake made by duck hunters, according to Curtis, is failing to adjust their calling tactics to changes in weather and duck behavior. "You can't just call the same way every day and expect it to work," Curtis says. "You have to adapt your calling to the conditions and find out what the ducks want to hear on that particular day. On a sunny, windy day, ducks may respond well to loud, aggressive calling, while on a still, cloudy day, they may work better to feeding calls and single hen quacks. Mix up your calling and see how the first few flocks respond to different calls. If they react favorably to a particular call or style of calling, go with it."
Haydel also encourages duck hunters to experiment with their calling techniques. "Back in my younger days, I did a lot of contest calling," Haydel recalls. "There was one morning when I tried every calling trick I knew, and the ducks never responded. So I finally took out my contest call and started ringing it like I was on stage. Sure enough, the ducks started responding, and before we knew it, we had a limit. You never really know what is going to work best on any given day."
Arkansas outfitter and call maker Jim Ronquest concurs. "You want to establish a dialogue with the ducks when you're calling," he says. "Read the birds and see how they respond to different calls. In this way, you can see what's working and then use those tactics to get the birds to do what you want them to.
"Say you have a high bunch of ducks," he continues. "I'll usually hit them with a couple of loud, hard greeting calls. Then I'll see if their wings check or their wing beat slows down a little. If they do, I'll become even more aggressive with my calling, and if they keep coming, I'll keep on calling the same way. But if they slow down, or start to waver a little, then I'll back off and slow down my calling. Or vice versa, if I start calling soft and easy and get a good response initially, I'll stay with it. But if they start to drift, I'll pick up the pace and the urgency of my calling and try to get them back on line."
5. Using the wrong call
Like people everywhere, waterfowlers can be creatures of habit, and many duck hunters use the same call for years simply because it's what they've always used. But Ronquest advises waterfowlers to be more discerning in their call selection. "A duck call is just like a pair of waders—if it doesn't fit you, you won't want to put it on every morning," he explains. "A lot of people get a call and stick with it when they would really be better off with another call. On the other end of the spectrum, there are guys who are constantly switching from call to call without ever really mastering one. They just keep buying calls trying to find the magic flute, and they never really succeed.
"You need to find a call that you like and then learn to do everything that call can do," Ronquest adds. "The best way to find the right call is to blow and experiment with a lot of different calls. We always encourage guys to come by the shop to try our calls, or go to outdoor festivals and shows and visit the booths that are selling calls. Don't be embarrassed to blow all the different calls and to ask the call makers questions. That's what we're there for. There are lots of good call makers out there, and all of us will do whatever we can to get you the call that's best for you."
6. No maintenance
While most waterfowlers spend considerable time and effort maintaining their shotgun, boat, and decoys, they often completely neglect their duck calls, which can severely degrade their sound and tone. Haydel offers the following advice to keep plastic duck calls working as they should. "Soak calls overnight in water mixed with a little liquid soap to loosen up any particles that might be stuck in the reeds," Haydel advises. "The next morning, run water from a faucet backwards through the call to flush the particles out. Use a crisp dollar bill or dental floss to clear away any remaining debris that might be stuck between the reeds."
Most duck calls will hold their tune well for at least two or three years, but after several seasons, they may require retuning. Reeds and other internal parts may need to be replaced. "Most call makers offer retuning services and replacement parts for a small fee," Haydel says. "In our case, you can send us your call, and we'll retune it and replace any worn out parts. We also make a retuning kit that will allow you to do it yourself. It includes reeds, wedges, and o-rings and provides easy-to-read instructions on how to position them to get different pitches and levels of raspiness."
7. Forgetting to practice
Novice waterfowlers often embrace the challenge of learning to call ducks with great enthusiasm and spend countless hours practicing. But the learning process for many duck hunters ends once they have achieved a certain level of proficiency. Haydel recommends that even expert callers should invest some time in practicing before and during the hunting season. "It's best to practice outside rather than inside a house or car because that way your calling will sound more like it does when you're actually hunting," Haydel suggests. "When you call inside, the sound reverberates off the walls and gives you an inaccurate sense of what your call will actually sound like in the marsh."
Curtis offers this additional advice. "One of the biggest mistakes beginning callers make is trying to emulate other callers rather than ducks," he says. "When you are practicing, don't listen to a recording of some other guy calling; go out to a refuge or even a city park and listen to live ducks. Or buy a CD recording of live ducks and practice making those real duck sounds on your call. The same goes for being taught to call by someone else. A great calling teacher will help you learn to operate a call and make it possible for you to sound like a duck, but that will only get you so far. You still have to know the cadence and inflection used by real ducks to become an effective caller."
And Ronquest believes there is no substitute for real hunting experience. "You have to have confidence in your calling ability, and this only comes through experience with live birds," he concludes. "Many hunters simply freeze when ducks start working because they are afraid to make a mistake. But you have to be in control and be willing to engage the birds. Now, you are going to make mistakes and mess up on flocks, but when I get so good that I no longer make mistakes, I'm going to quit duck hunting because it won't be fun anymore. It's the challenge that makes duck calling and duck hunting so addictive."