by Gary Koehler
Good duck callers are made, not born. Becoming efficient in the field takes more than dusting off your duck call two days before the opener and blowing a series of quacks through the barrel.
True enough, some folks have a better ear than others for producing sounds attractive to waterfowl, but even those rare naturals must practice to get the most out of their calls. One of the keys to getting ready for opening day is practicing your calling with a purpose. Put a little thought into your practice sessions, and the payoff will be greenheads backpedaling over your decoys.
In addition to practicing individual greeting, feeding, hail, comeback, and lonesome hen calls, spend some time blowing realistic series of calls that you might have to make while hunting. To do so, visualize a common calling scenario, and practice transitioning quickly and smoothly from one call to the next.
For example, you might start with a hail call as if you are working distant birds. As you envision the flock breaking toward you, transition to five-note greeting calls, and then to quacks mixed with feeding chatter as if the birds are circling your rig. Imagine the lead birds starting to slide away, and quickly transition to a comeback call. Of course, your perfectly timed comeback will instantly "flip" the imaginary flock, so practice transitioning seamlessly to feeding chatter as the birds lock up and drop toward your decoys.
Practicing specialized calling situations is also helpful. For instance, still, overcast days might require you to shift from a prolonged single-hen series to a choppy five-note plead call, then back to the single-hen series before transitioning into subtle feeding chatter. Every hunting day brings diverse challenges, so being able to move smoothly from one call to the next as you read the birds greatly enhances your chances for success.
So, where do you go to practice all this calling? Neither my wife nor my neighbors appreciate my squawking in the backyard. Dogs bark. Babies start crying. And the elderly peek from behind their curtains. It just doesn't work in my neighborhood.
I go out to the country, preferably near a pond or river. With no one around to complain, I can let it all out, good and bad. Take along a tape recorder and play it back to see how you sound doing each of the basic calls, or calls in a series. This will give you insight on what you need to work on to improve.
If questions remain, check out one of the many duck-calling videos or CDs now on the market. Listen to what the experts have to say about calling techniques and when to use what call.
Many years ago, while living less than a half-mile from a marshy area that held its share of mallards every fall, I learned a great deal about actual duck sounds. Think about it. How can you go wrong listening to the real deal?
Call care and cleaning
Duck calls get dirty, inside and out. Besides the cosmetic aspect, a little mud on a call's exterior does no harm. The interior, however, is another story. Gunked-up reeds can definitely inhibit a call's performance. Any type of buildup on a duck call reed can alter the sound of the call or make it stick and lock up. But a little preseason maintenance will help prevent that from happening to your favorite calls.
Cleaning can be as simple as running tap water through your call. Or, if you have a plastic or acrylic call, soak it in a bowl containing a combination of mild soap and water. Rinse well, and let the call dry. To finish, work a piece of dental floss between and under the reeds.
If your call's reed is cracked or chipped, it may be time to replace it. Most call makers make replacement reeds available to their customers. These reeds come in varying degrees of thickness and are cut, or trimmed, in slightly different manners. Reed thickness is matched to fit the call.
Before you pull your call apart and remove the reeds, be sure to mark the placement of the pieces with an indelible pen, like a Sharpie. This will let you know exactly how the pieces originally fit. Make a mark on the tone channel so you know where the reed was before the call was dismantled.
Remember, too, that you can alter a duck call's sound by moving the reeds in or out. Lengthening the reeds, or pulling them out, will make the call blow harder and will produce a deeper sound. Shortening the reeds will make the call blow softer and will raise the tone to a higher pitch.
Keep in mind, too, that if you have an expensive acrylic call, you may want to send it back to the manufacturer for reed replacement, tuning, or other adjustments. Most call makers prefer that you send them the call rather than try to fix it yourself.
Don't forget to read the birds
The ability to read working ducks is an essential aspect of calling, but unfortunately, there's no way to practice this skill during the summer. By midseason, reading birds becomes instinctive for many callers, but after a long off-season, reading ducks can be challenging during the first hunts of a new season.
Remember to look for subtle clues from the birds and react immediately with your calling. As call maker Fred Zink explains, "As soon as the birds get indecisive, I'll hit them immediately with one or two five- to seven-note greeting calls. Telltale signs are when the birds begin to move their heads and necks a lot from side to side or when their wing beat or flight path starts to waver. If you wait for them to start to slide away, it's often too late."