Reading Ducks

Consider duck body language when calling
Story at a Glance
  • Calling ducks is a two-part process.
  • Callers must know when to call and how to adjust their calling to the disposition of the birds.
  • Ducks' body language can tell you what they like and don't like.

by Wade Bourne

It was the Kansas version of the "duck snub," and I didn't like it!

DU Media Biologist Mike Checkett and I were on a mid-state reservoir, taping a segment for Ducks Unlimited TV's 2005 lineup. We were hunting from my boat-blind next to an island in the middle of the lake. For two days, mallards had traded overhead, and virtually all had ignored our best highballs and greeting calls.

"Call-shy," we had decided, so we tried calling less, then none at all. Still, the results were the same—rejection. It was maddening.

"I've had it," I announced to Checkett. "On the next flight, I'm going to blow my lungs out at them. I'm going to start calling when we see them, and I'm not going to stop until they're out of sight." I figured we had nothing to lose by trying something radical.

In a few minutes a pair of ducks appeared headed up the lake, and I cracked down on them: taaa, ta, ta, ta, ta, ta, and so on until I was out of breath. I filled my lungs and started calling again. I kept it up as the drake and hen mallard passed overhead, acting as if they never heard me. I felt like blowing "Hail and Farewell" as they stuck to their flight plan.

Suddenly I noticed a slight change in the drake's wing beats. He slowed his flap speed slightly and started gliding out to the side of the hen. I poured the calling on him—even louder and faster notes.

And then it happened. The duck locked his wings, sailed in a big half-circle downwind, then came straight in to land with our decoys. We took him at 20 yards.

That greenhead gave us the key. When the next flight appeared, I called aggressively and nonstop. When I'd see any reaction whatever, any hesitation or the slightest change in wing rhythm, I'd call even more persuasively. From that point on, we worked almost every flight we saw. In the next two hours we bagged, 10 mallards and a widgeon.

Calling ducks is a two-part process. First, callers have to make good sounds—hail calls, come-ons, lonesome hens, etc. They must be good musicians with the duck call—able to hit the right notes. Any hunter with any musical talent, a good instructional tape, and a little practice can learn to sound "ducky."

But the second part of being a good caller is more complicated. Callers also have to know when to call and how to adjust their calling to the disposition of the birds. They must be alert to how ducks respond to various calls, cadences, and volumes, then fine-tune accordingly. This is called reading ducks, and expert callers know this is a critical part of pulling birds in.

"Every day is different," affirms veteran caller Steve Barnett of Huntingdon, Tennessee. "It's as if the ducks change moods. One day they might be anxious to work, and they'll respond well to loud, excited calling. The next day conditions may change, the ducks don't want much calling, and you have to tone it way back. You just have to try different approaches with the call and watch how the ducks respond. This is how you zero in on what's working best."

"Your first bunch of ducks is your indicator of what's going to happen that day," explains Richie McKnight of Dawson Springs, Kentucky. "If you call to them and they flare, then you'd better start easing off on the call," he says. "You just try to figure out what appeals to them based on the way they respond to the style and volume of calling you're using."

"Ducks have a body language that tells you what they like and don't like. If you learn how to read this body language, then tailor your calling to the signals they give you, you'll be a lot more effective caller," says Bryan Hanson of Watertown, South Dakota.

Each hunter develops his own theory and style of calling, and these theories and styles vary depending on location and hunting conditions. But the common thread is that callers who know how to read ducks and respond accordingly will be far more successful at tolling these birds in. Here is how these three experts take visual cues to be more effective callers on each hunting day.

Steve Barnett:
"Don't let ducks slide away"

Every time Steve Barnett is in his west Tennessee blind, he applies the calling savvy he has accumulated over four decades of waterfowling.

"To read ducks, you have to be a good watcher," Barnett states. "You have to study the ducks and pick out the one that's most anxious to come, the bird that responds best when you call to the flock. (Usually the one that wants to work the best is a hen.)

"Then focus strictly on that bird," Barnett continues. "Don't take your eye off her (or him), and tailor your calls to what that duck's doing. Don't worry about the rest. If you can fool one duck out of 150, many times the rest will follow that bird to the decoys."

Barnett bases calling cadence and volume on weather conditions. "If it's windy and/or sunny, I'll call louder and faster. This is the style of calling they'll probably like best, especially if it's cold. But if this approach doesn't work, I'll back off on the call or try another call with a different pitch. I won't just keep doing the same thing. I'll look for what works best on that day. How the ducks react will tell me when I've found it."

Barnett says some days he has to call ducks right to the decoys. On other days (typically warm, cloudy, and still) subtle calling works better. "On those days when they're not in a good working mood, if you blow too loud or aggressively, you can see the ducks flare out. Then you know not to try that again. So you're looking for that fine line between calling enough but not too much, and this will change from one day to the next."

One mistake Barnett says many novice callers make is trying to turn working ducks too soon. "They'll be circling and start downwind, and a caller blows a comeback when they're just barely out of the decoys. When the ducks respond and cut back, they're too high to land, so they have to circle again, which gives them another look.

"Instead, I like to let ducks circle 100 to 150 yards downwind, then hit them with the comeback call. Then when they turn back, they've got plenty room to get down without circling again."

Barnett believes "finishing" incoming ducks is perhaps the most critical calling stage. "You've really got to watch and not let them slide away when they're coming in," he says. "As long as they're on line, I usually don't call too hard. But if they start easing out to one side or another, I'll get on them to hold their attention and line them back up."

Barnett says another mistake is, when ducks are coming in, the caller quits calling to reach for his shotgun. "If they're coming like I want, I'll keep calling until they're in range. Many times they're homing in on that call, and if you shut up, they'll get spooky and slide away. If they're doing what you want, don't change anything until you come up to shoot."

One calling trick Barnett sometimes uses when ducks are on final approach is blowing repetitive lonesome hen quacks. "They home to the sounds," he says. "Frequently you can pull them right in front of the blind by doing this."

Richie McKnight:
Call differently from other hunters

Richie McKnight runs the North Fork Outfitters guide service in southern Illinois and is a member of the Knight & Hale game calls pro staff. When it comes to calling ducks, he describes himself as an "experimenter." More and more, he's finding that less calling leads to more birds hovering over his spread.

"Today, with delayed migrations and more hunters and mechanical decoys, ducks have seen all the tricks by the time they get to my area, and they can be tough to work," McKnight says. "I'm finding that more days than not, I do better by calling less and trying to sound different from what the ducks have heard over and over back up the flyway."

Like Barnett, McKnight says hunters must watch how ducks respond to initial calling, and then adjust from there.

"If ducks are coming toward me, I'll let them get close, then I'll blow a five- to seven-note greeting call to try to lock them up. If they start sailing, I might not call anymore. I'll just let them come on their own," he explains.

"But if they don't respond to the greeting call, or they lock initially but then start veering away, I'll get a little louder and faster—more demanding. This is where the reading part comes in. You tailor your calling to how the ducks are reacting. This is an on-going process."

McKnight doesn't like to call working ducks that are upwind of his spread. "Instead, I prefer calling when their butts are toward me," he says. "When they're circling, I might give a real soft feeding call or do no calling whatever. And again, I prefer a soft calling style over a loud, demanding style."

McKnight says some days ducks respond better to a high-pitch call that makes "clean" notes. Other days they prefer a double-reed call that produces lower, deeper, and raspier sounds. Hunters should take both styles of calls to the blind and try each to see which yields the best results on a given hunting day. "The birds will tell you which sound they like," he says.

One more duck calling approach that McKnight uses is radical but also extremely effective: clucking on a goose call. He says, "Three or four hunters blowing goose calls and one hunter blowing a duck call can be deadly.

"I think this is because this is different and maybe more natural sounding to ducks. By the time ducks get to southern Illinois, they have heard standard duck calling all the way down from Canada, and they're skittish of it. But mixing goose and duck calling (and doing likewise with decoys) is different and natural, and in the past couple of seasons the mallards, especially, have responded very well to this. We've worked some big flights at some long distances using this technique."

Bryan Hanson:
Use "natural calling" on field-feeding ducks

Bryan Hanson makes and sells Heartland Custom Calls, and he hunts geese and ducks throughout the northern plains and Canada's prairie provinces. He mainly targets geese in dry grain fields, but he and his partners routinely shoot ducks over their goose spreads. He says calling is less critical in fields than over water, since ducks are coming to land and feed with the geese. Still, he says good calling can coax ducks in for closer shots, and their responses to various calls give important clues as to what calls to blow and when.

"I pretty much use a natural approach when calling ducks," Hanson states. "I typically use a standard hail call when they're coming toward the spread. When they break down, I'll let them come as far as they will without calling anymore. But if they start away, or they're going to land out of range, I'll give a comeback that's generally the same call but with a heavier first note and maybe a little more urgency in following notes."

When a flight of ducks starts heading away, Hanson watches carefully to determine if the birds are really leaving or simply circling. "If they're flying straight away, not curving at all, then I'll blow the comeback before they get 100-120 yards away. I don't want to let them go too far before trying to pull them back.

"But if the birds go downwind, still have their wings cupped, and are curving even a little bit, I stay off the call and let them come back on their own. Then, when they're approaching, I may blow a single, soft quack with a few seconds between notes. I've heard ducks on the ground do this when a flight is coming in. It's a reassuring call that draws the birds to the source of the noise."

When he's in a goose spread and sees ducks flying cross-country at long distance, Hanson waves his T-Flag at them. "This can attract the attention of ducks that are too far away to hear a call. A lot of times they'll see the flag and turn, and they'll spot the decoy spread and come to it. Then I might blow some occasional quacks as they get in close."

Become a "duck psychologist"

Humans have a body language, and psychologists learn to read fidgets and other subtle cues that reveal when patients are nervous, comfortable, bored, etc.

This same concept applies in duck calling. Hunters should learn to read ducks' body language and utilize this in their calling. They should watch for positive responses that indicate the ducks are anxious to join their decoys. Conversely, they should be alert to what scares ducks or causes them to be cautious about coming in. This ability to "read" ducks comes through experience aided by instruction from such experts as Steve Barnett, Richie McKnight, and Bryan Hanson.

As Steve Barnett advises, learn to be a good "duck watcher" to get inside the birds' minds and figure out what calling approach is working best. Truly, this is the main difference in being an effective caller and an ineffective noisemaker.