The year was 1972. Louisiana hunter Phil Robertson had been experimenting with a new duck call. Never satisfied with the duck calls on the market, he built his own call, one that would reproduce exactly the sound of a mallard duck.
He says, "It was a duck call made for duck killers, not world-champion-style duck callers."
Robertson tested the new call while hunting with a friend, and much to his delight, it didn't take long to get the attention of some passing mallards. The birds were wary, but as Robertson blew that new call, the ducks were convinced to drop in for a visit. The mallards circled several times before cupping their wings and falling from the sky. The two men each killed a bird, the first of several they would take that morning.
"That buddy of mine has since passed on," Robertson says today. "But I'll always remember one thing he told to me back then. ‘Robertson,' he said. ‘You should sell that duck call, and I have a name for it. You should call it the Duck Commander. When you get it going, send me a check for coming up with the idea, would you?'"
And so, the first Duck Commander call was born. Robertson received a patent for this call, and the Duck Commander Company was incorporated in 1973.
"The name was originally for the call," says Robertson. "Now they call me the Duck Commander."
The Early Years
Phil Robertson was born and raised in Vivian, Louisiana, a small town near Shreveport. With seven children in his family, money was scarce, and early on, hunting became an important part of his life.
As a high-school athlete, Robertson was All-State in football, baseball and track, which afforded him the opportunity to attend Louisiana Tech University on a football scholarship. There he played first string quarterback ahead of Terry Bradshaw. The Duck Commander says, "Terry went for the bucks, and I chased after the ducks."
After receiving his Bachelor's Degree in Physical Education and a Master's in Education, he spent several years teaching. His students claim he was an excellent teacher, but spending time in a classroom brought Robertson to the conclusion that his time and talents would be better spent in the woods. The founding of the Duck Commander Company gave him a chance to do just that.
Phil and his family, which by this time included wife Kay, and four boys, Alan, Jase, Willie and Jeptha, worked together to assemble, package and ship the calls from their home. A side business of commercial fishing kept food on the table while the Duck Commander Company was getting off the ground.
Duck Commander calls are still being built, packaged and shipped from the Robertsons' home on the Ouachita River, although now their home is surrounded by several offices and warehouses to help the company run smoothly. Since 1973, Duck Commander products, which now include much more than just duck calls, have been sold in all 50 states and several foreign countries. Not long after the success of the calls, Robertson began a series of videotapes that developed a worldwide fan-base of fellow duck hunters. The Duckmen videos, as they're known, revolutionized waterfowling with their pumped-up, rock-and-roll, "in yo' face" style.
Robertson lives by the motto inscribed on Duck Commander T-shirts: "Arise, Kill and Eat." Sporting a long beard and wearing head-to-toe Realtree camo, the rugged image this hard-core duck hunter portrays now is a far cry from the professional look required by his previous teaching career. Robertson's calls and techniques are helping others bring ducks right into their blinds, and the faithful swear by the deadly effects of the Duck Commander.
As you might imagine, Phil Robertson gets to hunt some choice waterfowling areas each year. But if he could pick only hunting spot, he says it would be a place in the woods.
"There's nothing like hunting flooded timber," he states. "It's good because day in and day out, you can get ducks much closer than in an open field. You'll get them far closer far more times than you will in a field.
"More importantly," he continues, "there's a special feeling you get when you're hunting timber that you don't find anywhere else. There's just something about looking up when the sun is rising in the morning, and those big overcup oaks or cypress trees are there, and the ducks are coming down on top of you. It's not heaven, but it's as close as you'll get on earth. Heaven is endless flooded timber, all the ducks you want to shoot and no game wardens within 100 miles."
Pinpointing duck concentrations is the first step to becoming a successful timber hunter.
"When we see ducks going into the timber, we get a fix on the birds then move in," says Robertson. "We seldom hunt the same spot twice.
"The best places are what I call ‘ancestral holes.' These are openings in the timber that the ducks have flocked into for generations. It's the kind of place where maybe your grandfather hunted and your father and now you. Many of these holes are on private land, so the typical hunter may not have access. But if access is available, this is the type of spot you want to be in because sooner or later the ducks will come in that hole no matter what. You build a comfortable blind and ride it out if you have to, waiting for the ducks to show. And by the season's end, if the ducks move down from the north, you'll get them for sure."
One mistake hunters often make is giving up on a location too early. Robertson notes that even the hunting in ancestral holes is slow at times, and ducks may not show up until later in the day than expected.
"I go to my hunting place in the timber before daylight and don't worry unless the ducks haven't shown by 1 or 2 p.m.," he says. "Often, the best hunting won't start until a quarter to 10 or even later. The period I like best is from about 10 to 11:30 in the morning.
"Bluebird days—days that are clear as a bell—are the best timber-hunting days," he continues. "The wind shouldn't be howling, but I do like a prevailing wind, especially a prevailing wind out of the northwest. The ideal scenario is this. The weather has been cloudy for a week or so, and a good front comes down from the northwest. The front blows all that cloudy weather out, and the ducks ride in on the front. When it blows out and breaks clear two or three days after that, if there's high pressure, this is the very best hunting time, especially about mid-morning each day."
Robertson uses standard-size decoys instead of the magnums many timber hunters prefer.
"If the hole I'm hunting is hot—an ancestral hole, for example—we usually put all the decoys in the timber around the hole and not in the hole itself," he notes. "I know that sounds strange. Most people put their regular decoys in the hole, and maybe put a flapper or two out there with them. But I'm of the studied opinion that ducks are getting smarter all the time, and they can recognize a decoy as a decoy and not a live duck.
Therefore, we put decoys in the brush and timber and not in the holes. And if we put flappers out, we put them in the woods in thick brush as well, so when the ducks fly over, they see a glimpse of movement but they don't get a good look at what it is. That way, the decoys aren't scaring the ducks, and the birds are more likely to light."
The Duck Commander says other types of movement can add to a decoy spread's effectiveness as well.
"It's a good idea to add some swimmers," he says, "such as the models that have a bilge pump in them or some you've rigged with jerk strings. Decoys that are moving and putting off ripples really work to draw birds in, especially when they're placed in thickets and brush. The ducks see them and just drop in. Given the option between flappers and swimmers, we ideally want swimmers. The ripples they create work best to bring ducks into shooting range."
Commander's Calling Tips
You might think that a man whose livelihood is making and selling duck calls would blow a call often while hunting, but such is not the case with the Duck Commander.
"We call less than most people overall," says Robertson. "If you watched us all morning, you would not hear a lot of calling. The ducks that reach us have flown a gauntlet and heard a lot of racket, and we seldom call at them if they're coming toward us. In timber, you can't see a great distance anyway because trees block your vision. You might be able to see only 100 yards or less. We're in the spot the ducks want to go to already; they're coming to that spot.
We don't want to do anything that would spook them away from where they want to go, so we call sparingly—short little licks, three or four notes. When the ducks turn, then we blow a little quicker. We call when they're to the side of us going away, or we call at their butts. If they are coming toward us, we just sit there and let them see the ripples in the thicket. They think ducks are there without us doing anything ourselves. When they pass over, we look back as they come overhead. If they turn themselves, we still don't call. Everything is rocking and rolling. The next time they come back over, at a range of about 60-70 yards, that's when we'll hit them a lick.
"If duck hunters would wait and give ducks one pass on their own before calling at all, their success rate would rise sharply," the Commander continues. "If they lock up over a hole, I'd rather let them come down on their own. A lot of ducks will. Most duck hunters tend to overdo it when what they really should do is wait. If you allow the ducks to make two loops, the success rate rises even more than with one. But to get an old hunter to not blow that duck call … it's hard to do."
In the end, Robertson says, killing ducks in the timber is the result of much more than just good calling.
"A perfect day is one when there's a great population of mallards, and the weather is just right. You've done some scouting and are hunting a place where the ducks are sure to fly over. Your decoys are properly placed, the sun is behind you, and the ducks can't see you in your camo. If all those factors line up, then you can call sparingly and still kill a limit of ducks—if you're a good shot. But having a good call and knowing how to use it is just one of many factors that must line up before you'll enjoy success in the timber."
Duck Commander Products always has been a family-run business. In 1973, Phil Robertson, his wife Kay and his four sons, Alan, Jase, Willie and Jeptha began a quest to turn Phil's passion for hunting and fishing into a livelihood. The family worked from home assembling, packaging and shipping duck calls, and they all still work for the company, including the sons' wives.
"Making a living as the Duck Commander has surpassed my wildest dreams," Phil says. "Not only do I feel lucky to get to hunt for a living, but I am also extremely blessed to get to work with my family. The entire Robertson clan is here together."
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