Call like a Champion

Secrets of an unforgettable Arkansas waterfowl hunt

By Matt Young

In these busy times, it’s hard to do anything on the spur of the moment anymore. Many of us have to live by the clock and the calendar, and throughout most of the year, we grin and bear it. But if you are a waterfowler, there are certain times when you just have to drop everything, get your gear, and go hunting. That was the case last December when I received a late-afternoon phone call from Jim Ronquest. We had been trying to plan a duck hunt since before Thanksgiving, but scheduling conflicts kept getting in the way.

“We have a group of our TV sponsors coming to Stuttgart in a few days,” explained Ronquest, who is multimedia director for Rich-N-Tone (RNT) calls. “John Stephens is hosting the group at his place on the reservoir. We’ve got room for one more hunter. Can you make it?”

While I had a deadline looming in the near future, Ronquest’s offer was hard to refuse. First, it was unlikely that I would ever have the chance to see two better duck callers in action on the same hunt. Stephens, who is president of RNT, has won the World’s Championship Duck Calling Contest three times (1995, 1998, and 2005), and Ronquest took the title in 2006 after several close finishes. They both earned their calling chops in the duck hunting crucible of east-central Arkansas, and their contest calling prowess may only be exceeded by their skill in calling live birds. Second, Stephens’s reservoir is a Stuttgart area landmark that can hold massive concentrations of waterfowl. All things considered, this was an invitation no duck hunter in his right mind would ever pass up.

“Count me in!” I replied. “I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

Less than 48 hours later, I found myself in a natural brush blind listening to two of the world’s best duck callers in stereo. To my right Ronquest was bearing down on an RNT Daisy Cutter, shaking the surrounding brush with rolling feeding chatter that could be felt as much as heard. To my left, Stephens was blowing greeting calls on a Short Barrel, each note so raspy that you could almost watch the sound waves cut through the wind and reach distant birds.

Hunkered down in the brush with us were NaturalGear President Leland Sykes, Mark Wardlaw of Delta Retrievers, David Carrington of Avery Outdoors, RNT creative director Blake Fisher, and videographer Kade Arnell. Handling the retrieving duties was Tank, a four-year-old black Lab co-owned by Wardlaw and Ronquest. Despite the size of our group, we had excellent concealment. Stephens created the ingenious natural blinds during the offseason by transplanting heavy clumps of mature buttonbush, commonly called “buckbrush.” He carefully pruned the limbs to create shooting holes and installed sturdy wooden benches anchored on metal posts for seating.

The weather was also in our favor. The first arctic cold front of the season had just roared down from Canada, bringing clear skies and a hard north wind. As dawn broke over the Grand Prairie, a variety of waterfowl traded beneath the last morning stars. But we were in a mallard hole, and Ronquest and Stephens focused their attention on the scattered bunches of “big ducks” working the flooded buckbrush. No one could accurately describe my hosts’ calling as sounding like “sweet music.” In fact, nasty might be a better description. When it comes to calling mallards in thick cover, nasty will beat sweet every time.

Their calling had a powerful effect, drawing several pairs and small flocks of mallards over the decoys with their wings cupped. The birds seemed mesmerized by the incessant calling, spiraling downward in ever-tightening circles until they finally came straight down into the decoys, their bright red feet glowing in the dim light. We bagged several drake mallards during the first hour of shooting time, giving Tank plenty of retrieving work in the flooded brush.

When Tank had brought the last bird to hand, I asked Ronquest about his calling strategy. “For me, calling is all about realism,” he said, hanging a heavy greenhead on a duck strap. “These birds have already made up their minds and are coming back here to loaf during the middle of the day, so you want to imitate the sounds loafing ducks would make in this particular environment. Listen to wild birds in the places that you hunt, and then imitate the sounds they make.

“But that doesn’t mean you can call the same way every time you hunt in a certain area,” he continued. “Weather can affect the way ducks behave, and it can affect the way your calling sounds to the ducks. Take today for example. This is a good windy morning, and the birds are talkative and responding well. But if the wind were to lay down or if we were to get some cloud cover, we might have to make some adjustments on how we call. And that’s where reading the ducks comes in. You have to watch the birds and see what calls work best. Once you figure out what works on that particular day, keep giving them more of the same until they start acting differently.”

As the sun climbed above the horizon, bright light filtered through the tangled buckbrush, illuminating the decoys, and the wind rose in powerful gusts, rippling the water around us. “Get ready, boys. This is about to get fun,” Ronquest said with a knowing smile. “This is a mallard day.”

Almost on cue, flights of mallards returned to the reservoir from feeding in surrounding rice fields. The birds were clearly looking for company, quacking and chattering and breaking up into smaller groups as they made their first pass over the buckbrush flat. Stephens and Ronquest went to work power-calling a formation of mallards free-falling from high altitude above us. They never let up as the flock made several swings over the decoys, pleading with the birds with comeback calls when they turned away and then reassuring them with soft quacks and feeding chatter when they sailed over the spread. On the sixth pass, the flock finally committed, offering us easy targets as the mallards hovered to land among the decoys directly in front of us.  

With Ronquest and Stephens doing the calling, several more groups of mallards followed suit, and we kept Tank busy retrieving fallen birds. During breaks in the action, I had the rare opportunity to listen as Stephens—one of the most talented callers of his generation—shared some of his hard-earned knowledge.

“It’s the level of intensity that really separates great callers from good and average callers, and that’s true both in competition calling and calling ducks,” he said. “You have to work hard and practice, and you have to have the right call. But what really sets the champions apart is they are absolutely mentally focused on what they are doing. These guys can maintain that intensity throughout a calling contest, and great duck and goose callers can maintain the same kind of focus on the birds while they are hunting.”

By midmorning, each of us was close to bagging a limit of mallards. But the hunt was far from over. I noticed that our decoy spread included a single white-fronted goose decoy. I had written it off as a confidence decoy until a large formation of whitefronts (commonly called specklebellies) appeared over the reservoir. Stephens reached for the speck call on his lanyard and greeted the distant birds with a series of piercing two-note calls. A few of the geese answered back, and gradually the flock veered in our direction. Stephens continued to echo the geese in the air, and as the flock approached the decoys, all the birds set their wings and broke into a chorus of shrill cries that raised the hair on the back of my neck.

Peering through the branches above me, I could clearly see the striking black barring and white face patches on adult birds sailing in a lazy circle above us. Stephens reassured the wary flock with soft clucks and alternated the pitch of his two-note calls. These tactics had an overpowering impact on the geese, and several of the birds broke away from the flock and dove toward the decoys, side-slipping on the way down.

After watching mallards decoy all morning, the geese looked huge as they glided into the buckbrush hole with their pumpkin-orange feet outstretched. Stephens called the shot, setting off a thunderous fusillade of shotgun fire. Several specklebellies crashed and hit the water, and everybody clamored out of the blinds to help retrieve the prized birds. Over the next hour, we decoyed two more flocks of whitefronts as well as several more mallards, allowing each of us to take a limit of both geese and ducks by 10 o’clock.

“I really enjoy calling specks,” Stephens said after the hunt. “They are such vocal birds, and they respond well to calling. The key is to get one bird to answer back to you. Once you get a conversation going, where you and that bird are calling back and forth to each other, the rest of the geese will often join in. It’s pretty impressive when a whole flock gets fired up like we saw this morning.”

Stephens’s personal interest in hunting all kinds of waterfowl is clearly evident at RNT. Since he took the reins as company president in 1999, RNT’s catalog has grown to include a variety of duck and goose calls, including classics like the Original and innovative new designs like the Microhen.

“We are all waterfowl hunters and we all hunt with our calls, so we are always working on new call designs that will give us an edge,” Stephens said. “It’s a thrill to build a call in the shop that feels right in your hands and then take it along on a hunt and have ducks or geese respond well to it. In our business, the birds are the judges that really count.”

RNT calls, videos, and other products can be ordered online from Mack’s Prairie Wings at mackspw.com. For more information about Rich-N-Tone calls, visit the company website at rntcalls.com.