Ultimate Duck Calling Challenge

Is a caller's true test on the stage or in the blind? Both, claim many of today's champions, who say that competing in contests makes them better hunters.
Story at a Glance
  • Your contest routine and duck hunting are two different things.
  • The difference between competition calling and calling in the field is that you have to put all the basic calls into a routine.
  • Duck calling is like anything else - the younger you start, the better off you are going to be.
  • Many calling contests are won and lost, in the last few seconds.

by Gary Koehler

Bernie Boyle would be the last one to tell you that it takes a world-class competition duck caller to bring birds to your decoys. His 30 years of waterfowl hunting experience have personally proven much more valuable. Still, Boyle's time on stage has also provided benefits. He is convinced that contest calling has made him a better field caller.

Boyle, the defending world duck calling champion, has qualified 17 times to compete in Stuttgart, Arkansas, the site of the World's Championship Duck Calling Contest, winning twice. Overall, he has won 25 calling contests in nine states.

"I got into contest duck calling because I wanted to get the ducks in close," Boyle says. "And to do that, you have to sound like a duck. To get better in the field, I got better by competition calling. It's all about practice and learning the call.

"I don't do anything like a competition routine in the field," he continues. "When I'm hunting, I basically rely on a five- or six-note mallard hen call. That's the same call that gets ducks from east to west. It's very simple, and it works everywhere."

Any knowledgeable hunter who has ever attended a duck calling competition ("meat calling" contests do not count) quickly recognizes that contest routines do not reflect the typical behavior of a hen mallard. The ear-piercing 20- or 25-note hail call that competition callers thrive on, for example, would be an impossible task for a live duck. Contest routines are exaggerations of a duck's vocalizations.

"The difference between competition calling and calling in the field is that you have to put all the basic calls into a routine. These calls are blown in succession," Boyle says. "In the field, these same basic calls are used only at certain times. If you take the pieces out of a routine, you can call live birds with them.

"The highball, or hail call, has been a part of duck hunting for a long time. A lot of people say it doesn't attract ducks, but I guarantee you it does. I have called ducks for years. At certain times, like on a real windy day when the ducks are far off, the hail call can work and put ducks over your decoys."

There is no question that what is required of a polished contest routine and what a hunter does in the duck blind constitute different approaches. The former is designed to appeal to human judges. The latter requires adjusting to what actual birds want to hear on a given day, in a given situation. But neither is exclusive of the other.

"That old fable about contest callers not being able to call ducks, well, that's just crazy," says Butch Richenback, the honorable mayor of Stuttgart, a past world champion and duck calling tutor to literally thousands of students, both young and old. "That's like saying a race car driver can't drive on the freeway.

"Your contest routine and duck hunting are two different things," Richenback continues. "A contest is not about actually calling ducks. What contest calling is all about is having total control of the duck call, being able to do anything you want with that call when you want to do it. And that's going from the high point on the scale down to the low point without messing up, and then going from the bottom back up. The one who can show the most ingenuity and best control from all points of the call, that's what it's supposed to be all about."

Therein lies the connection to the wailing hail calls common to contests. Participants are required to tackle the extended hail because it demonstrates their control of the call. Those who miss a note, or squeak, are quickly eliminated from the remainder of the day's activity. The point here is, in order to be competitive, contest callers must spend a lot of time with their duck calls. They must learn what a call can and cannot do. They gain control of the call. Those who are also duck hunters may translate those skills into the field.

"The reason a lot of people think competition callers can't call ducks is they say a duck doesn't sound that way," Richenback says. "No, a duck doesn't sound that way. But a duck does everything that's in a routine, just not as long. And probably not as good. The object is trying to be better than the duck."

Richenback, who seldom hunts these days because of medical issues, grew up following accomplished gunners around Arkansas' fabled flooded timber. He's been there, done that, beginning about age eight.

"When you're calling a duck," he says, "what's important is what you do and when you do it. You have to be able to read the duck and know what to throw at him at any time. The better you are with a duck caller, the better chance you are going to have at bringing that duck in. The biggest mistake most people make is that they call too much. They're calling when they ought to be quiet."

One of Richenback's disciples is John Stephens, a two-time world champion, a part-time guide, and these days the president and call-making guru at R-N-T. He will be among the favorites on stage at the World's Championship Duck Calling Contest later this month.

"In competition, you are doing everything you can to impress the judges, and there's a certain structure to it," Stephens says. "The way we look at it, we like to take that structure and apply as much hunting to it as we can. We try to make it sound more like we are calling ducks. To me, that's what the contest should be about. I guess that's a personal preference, but I don't think that's where we are today. I think we ought to try and get back to that."

Stephens began contest calling as a young boy, participating in Richenback's legendary classes (35 years running as of this month), and then traveling on the competition circuit. The early start was key.

"It's like anything else, the younger you start, the better off you are going to be," Stephens says, "because you don't have any bad habits. Kids have a clean slate when they start learning how to blow a duck call, and if they get started right, they're way ahead of a lot of people."

Mike McLemore, one of only five men who have won the World's Championship Duck Calling Contest three times, says that competition calling is a good way to get youngsters involved with hunting.

"There's something about contests that intrigues kids and turns them on," McLemore says. "The thing about young people is that they will often practice more than adults will. Before they get their driver's license, they don't have much going on.

"Calling comes easier for some than for others. Whether it's kids or adults, they have to be willing to put some time into it. Those who stay with it will begin to see the improvement. Kids who learn to call, well, they feel a lot more a part of what's going on when they're actually in the blind hunting."

Living proof is Kelley Powers, who grew up a West Tennessee goose and duck hunter. By age 26, Powers had won every major Canada goose calling contest in the nation, including the World, International Invitational, Avery Worldwide, and Winchester World Open.

"Calling on the stage is a formal, set routine," Powers says. "In the field, you are on Mother Nature's clock. Personally, everything I use on stage I use in the field. I'm not saying I use everything all the time, but the arsenal is there if I need it."

Goose calling competitions have retained a more hunt-oriented tone. That is, there is less exaggeration and more realism to contest routines than those of the duck calling fraternity.

"I think that contest goose calling is more appealing to the average person to listen to," Powers says. "It's a more accurate representation of the species we are trying to call. People recognize that.

"Generally, your top contest guys are good hunters in the field, too. I think that most of us do this to become better hunters. Tim Grounds (perhaps the most successful contest goose caller of all time) always says that the best feeling you can have when you are calling is ‘fooling them,' fooling the geese. It's not just about shooting them, it's about getting to a level to communicate with them."

On stage, the communicating is done with judges.

"The perfect contest routine is all about the flow," Powers says. "What I mean by that is that the judge relies on sound. It's like listening to a song. If it's got an erratic flow, it's probably not going to be a hit.

"Judges want to hear your hail, come-on, comeback, and laydown calls. The laydown call comes at the end, when you're demonstrating what you'd do when the geese are fixing to land. That's when finesse comes into play in the contests. That's where many contests are won and lost, in the last few seconds."

Kind of like what goes on in the field.

What's up with Iowa?

Stopping short of hanging wanted posters bearing their likenesses, it is a given that Barnie Calef, Bernie Boyle, and Todd Copley are marked men within the competition calling circuit. Iowans all, this trio has combined to win five of the last six World's Championship Duck Calling Contests in Stuttgart, Arkansas.

Calef, a Hunter's Specialties pro-staffer from Cedar Rapids, claimed back-to-back titles in 1999 and 2000. He won his first championship as a relative youngster in 1989. In late November, Calef figures to be in the thick of the action when the Champion of Champions competition unfolds. This event, with contestants limited to past world champions, is held once every five years.

"We are actually working on a new call right now, so I've not practiced as much as I should. I have not blown a contest routine seriously for about two years," Calef says. "But I am not going to go down there unprepared. I'm going to go down and do my best."

Boyle, of Danville, who now produces his own line of calls (Mallard Mauler), was graded best in the world in 2002 and 2004 after finishing second to Calef in 2000 and runner-up on two other occasions. Boyle is currently ranked number one in the world on one website, www.callingducks.com, which tracks contest callers. Copley, a Des Moines resident, is the third amigo, claiming top honors in 2003.

Only Brent Easley, of East End, Arkansas, has had an answer for this Hawkeye onslaught of late, winning the 2001 crown at the upstart age of 21. Stuttgart native John Stephens, a two-time world champion (1995 and 1998), has found his third title elusive—finishing second the past three years by a single point on each occasion.

"I really can't explain it," Boyle says of the Iowa influence. "Some people joke about it and say it must be something in the air, or something in the water. We blow basic, fundamental stuff. We don't get off the beaten path, and I think that's why we have done very well."

Only once before in contest history has a specific region outside the state of Arkansas dominated so dramatically—that stretch coming from 1963-1967 when Mel DeLang (the first Iowa champion), Mick Lacy, John Liston (a two-time winner), and Fred Harvey pieced together a string of five titles. Lacy, Liston, and Harvey all hailed from western Illinois—as the mallard flies, less than an hour from DeLang's home in Burlington.

Not to be forgotten in this current surge of Hawkeye duck calling fever are 1978 champion Richard Schultz of Cedar Rapids and 1980 champion Dan Sprague of Buffalo, Iowa. And don't look now, but among the national circuit's up-and-comers is the reigning Iowa state champ, Dan Guillaume, of Council Bluff, who finished 10th runner-up in Stuttgart a year ago and is currently ranked among the world's top 20 competition duck callers.

So, is Boyle feeling the heat to repeat? "Really, there's not any more pressure this time than any other time," he says. "I honestly start practicing seven days before a contest, just to get my wind down. I don't want to peak before the contest. People come over and say that I must practice for hours every day. It's like they think I just sit around and that's all I do."

Past world champion duck callers by state

Arkansas—Harry Wieman, Stuttgart (1937, 1938); Kenneth McCollum, Stuttgart (1939); M.T. McCollum, Stuttgart (1941); Clyde Hancock, Stuttgart (1943); Howard T. Conrey, Stuttgart (1944); D.M. (Chick) Major, Stuttgart (1945); Louis (Red) Wilhelm, Stuttgart (1946); J.E. (Jake) Gartner, Stuttgart (1947, 1948, 1949); Pat Stephens, Stuttgart (1955, 1956); Edward L. Holt, North Little Rock (1968, 1969, 1970); Butch Richenback, Stuttgart, 1972); Mike Starks, Little Rock (1975); Trey Crawford, North Little Rock and Mayflower (1976, 1986, 1993); David Starks, Stuttgart (1981, 1984); Johnny Mahfouz, Stuttgart (1988); Blake Haynes, Pine Bluff (1992); John Stephens, Stuttgart (1995, 1998); Rick Dunn, Beebe (1997); Brent Easley, East End (2001).

California—David Jayne, Clovis (1987).

Illinois—Mick Lacy, Knoxville (1964); John Liston, Knoxville (1965, 1966); Fred Harvey, Galesburg (1967).

Iowa—Mel DeLang, Burlington (1963); Richard Schultz, Cedar Rapids (1978); Dan Sprague, Buffalo (1980); Barnie Calef, Cedar Rapids (1989, 1999, 2000); Bernie Boyle, Danville (2002, 2004); Todd Copley, Des Moines (2003).

Lousiana—Fred Parnell, Baton Rouge (1953).

Michigan—Art Beauchamp, Flint (1954).

Mississippi—Thomas E. Walsh, Greenville (1936); Herman Callouet, Greenville (1942); W. C. Cross, Greenville (1957, 1958).

Missouri—Ed Landreth, Joplin (1960); Pete Claett, Kansas City (1961); Sam Harper, Grandview (1982); Mike Keller, Kansas City (1985).

Nebraska—Larry Largent, Shelton (1971); Jim James, Omaha (1996).

Tennesse—W.H. Claypool, Memphis (1940); Herb Parsons, Sommerville (1950, 1951); W.C. Cowan, Memphis (1952); Mike McLemore, Hendersonville (1973, 1974); Don Ansley, Nashville (1983); Roy Rhodes, Germantown (1990); Buck Gardner, Collierville (1994).

Texas—James Fernandez, Port Arthur (1959); Charlie Stepan, Port Arthur (1962); Mike McLemore, Hallsville (1977); Vernon Solomon, Marshall (1979).

Wisconsin—Tim Gesch, Woodruff (1991).

Qualifying for the big show

Calling in the World's Championship Duck Calling Contest in Stuttgart, Arkansas, entails more than simply showing up on game day. In order to be eligible, an individual must first win one of the more than 60 (state and regional) sanctioned calling contests. Qualifying events, like the championship finale, require callers to perform a hail call, mating call (lonesome hen), feed call, and a comeback call within 90 seconds. This sequence is referred to as a routine. Each participant is scored on the quality of his performance by a panel of judges. Those who win the title three times are retired and are eligible only to compete in the Champion of Champions competition, which is held once every five years. This year's World Championship finale is scheduled to begin at 2 p.m. on November 26. The Champion of Champions event will follow. For more information on the location and dates of sanctioned events, visit the Stuttgart Chamber of Commerce's website at www.stuttgartarkansas.com.

The World Championship Goose Calling Contest, which was introduced in 1976 as part of the Waterfowl Festival, does not include qualifying competitions. Entry is open to all interested callers. Here, too, participants are graded on how they perform by a panel of judges. Top prize is $10,000. This year's competition is scheduled for November 12 in historic Easton, Maryland. For more information log on to www.waterfowlfestival.org.

Past world champion goose callers by state

Delaware—Keith McGowan, Middletown (1987, 1989, 1990); Kevin Popo, Claymont (2001, 2002).

Illinois—Tim Grounds, Johnston City (1988, 1992, 1994); Alan McCree, Carterville (1991, 1993); Hunter Grounds, Johnston City (2003).

Kentucky—Harold Knight, Cadiz (1979).

Maryland—Tim Covey, Easton (1976, 1977, 1978); Pete Rossing, Stevensville (1980); Joe Bacon, Queenstown (1981); David Coleman, Chestertown (1982); Sean Mann, Easton (1985, 1986); Josh Neuwiller, Cordova (1995, 1996, 1997); John N. Taylor, Quantico (1998).

Michigan—Shawn Stahl, Allegan (2000).

North Carolina—Bill Privott, Currituck (1983, 1984).

Ohio—Field Hudnall, Clayton (2004)

Tennessee—Kelley Powers, Union City (1999).

Fowl facts

Arkansas rules: On the women's side of the ledger, Arkansas has dominated the past nine world duck calling championships. No one from outside the state has won since Lucy Lee McLain of Clarksdale, Mississippi, captured back-to-back titles in 1994 and 1995. Angela Garner of Weiner has swept the last two crowns.

Happy anniversary: This year marks the 70th anniversary of the World's Championship Duck Calling Contest. The winner's prize package is worth more than $15,000. The first champion, Thomas E. Walsh, received a hunting coat valued at $6.60 for his efforts.

International: The International Invitational Goose Calling Competition has been held each January in Southern Illinois since 1997. Champions have included (from the first event to 2004): Alan McCree, Fred Zink, Josh Neuwiller, Richie McKnight, Matt Porter, Tim Grounds, Kelley Powers, Kevin Popo, and Field Hudnall.

Quotable: "If you're out hunting and a guy wants to try a competition routine on ducks, you are probably hunting with the wrong guy." – Bernie Boyle

Sage advice: "When you are practicing for a contest, you don't necessarily have to do the whole routine over and over. That can put you in a rut. Practice segments of the routine, then when the contest gets close, pull all the segments together." –John Stephens