by Wade Bourne
No one ever accused me of being timid with a duck call. I grew up hunting on a highly competitive public area where if you didn't call aggressively, somebody else would get the birds. In such a situation, calling ducks is like being a kindergarten teacher. Job one is getting and holding their attention.
Through the years, however, I've learned that sometimes just a little calling or none at all can be better than aggressive calling. In certain hunting situations and weather conditions, silence can truly be golden, whereas overcalling will send up warning flags to circling ducks. Thus, a big part of being an effective caller is knowing when to be subtle—or totally silent—and let the ducks work themselves.
In the following situations, less calling may be better, and none may be best:
Warm, still, overcast days
These conditions are generally the least fruitful for calling ducks. On warm, calm, and dark days, ducks often seem especially wary and unresponsive to calling. This may be because these conditions enable the birds to get a better look at the decoys and blind (no glare, no shadows, no buffeting from wind, etc.) and to hear calling more clearly. In these conditions, ducks can more easily detect when the spread, blind, or calling isn't completely natural.
When ducks are coming on their own
Why risk messing up a good thing? If ducks are locked up and descending, why add a new variable into the equation? The birds obviously like what they see (and don't hear), or they wouldn't be dropping toward the decoys. As long as ducks are coming, there's no reason for any vocal persuasion. Just pick up your shotgun, stay hidden, and get ready to shoot.
Hunting "stale" or heavily pressured birds
If you're hunting ducks that have been in an area for an extended period (as opposed to migrators) and have been subjected to considerable hunting pressure, not calling may be the best option. These birds are well acquainted with local environs, and they can be extremely wary of aggressive tactics—including calling—to get them to come in.
In the final days of the season, callers have two things working against them: the ducks' accumulation of experience over the hunting season and their increased focus on courtship activities. By late winter, paired birds spend considerable time engaging in pair-bonding activities apart from other ducks. In this situation, aggressive calling is often less effective than it was earlier in the season.
Poor calling skills
It's just a fact: some callers would bag more birds if they didn't try to call. Some hunters' inability to "read" ducks and accurately replicate their calls has saved many a duck's life.
This isn't to say that when these conditions prevail, not calling is always the best option. Rather, these are situations when little or no calling may be best. However, ducks don't always do what we expect. Sometimes they respond exactly contrary to how we think they should react. So how can a caller solve this dilemma?
The best approach is to follow the oldest and best duck-calling tip in the book: let the ducks tell you how they want to be called. Try different approaches, and watch the birds' reactions. If you call and the ducks flare or show uncertainty or suspicion, don't call anymore, or call sparingly. Conversely, if you try not calling and the ducks lose interest and leave, next time try a little persuasion, such as a quick, low-volume comeback call as the birds hit the turning point in their downwind circle.
Experiment to find the calling style that yields the best results. When calling conditions are poor, I'll usually start out not calling and watch the ducks' response. If the birds won't work on their own, I'll ratchet up the calling—a little, then a little more, maybe even a lot. I'll blow a menu of calling styles and let the ducks place their order.
Many times when I don't call, I rely on decoy motion to coax birds in. A jerk string, mechanical decoy or some other means of providing decoy and water movement can be deadly on calm, quiet days.
Taking the quiet route is a viable option when hunting conditions are tough. Sometimes ducks just don't want to be battered by insistent calling. At these times, silence can indeed be golden, and less calling can mean more birds in the bag.