Reelfoot Duck Calling: A Style for the Ages

Mallards were thick over the northern Missouri public hunting area, and my brother and I were in heaven. We’d drawn a good blind for the day. The morning was breaking cold and windy on the heels of a strong nor’wester. Our decoys bobbed convincingly on the thin-water chop. If ever there was a duck day, this was it. We knew bagging our limits of greenheads wasn’t a matter of if, but how long.

We loaded our shotguns, and I began calling to high flights of ducks trading overhead. I was using a big metal-reed call I’d grown up with in west Tennessee. Its high-pitched, tinny sound and staccato style of use were developed generations ago on duck-infested Reelfoot Lake. There, guides are famous for mesmerizing high mallards and luring them down into shotgun range. I intended to do likewise.

However, after a few minutes of listening to me blow at passing birds, an unidentified hunter in a nearby blind had had all he could stand.

"Put that *!#@*% CROW CALL in your pocket!” he yelled.

My brother and I were stunned. I didn’t know whether to laugh, get mad, ignore the insult or comply with his “request.” Eventually, I continued using the call, but I cut back on the volume and long, loud hail calls. We got our birds, avoided a fight and collected an anecdote that still produces laughs whenever we share a blind.

Reelfoot-style calls and calling are like nothing else in duck hunting. The calls trace their roots back to the very origins of using mechanical callers to attract passing birds. And the calling style bears little resemblance to natural calls that live ducks make. Still, both work to an amazing degree for those who learn the method and possess the gumption to use it.

Howard Harlan of Nashville, Tennessee has hunted ducks on Reelfoot Lake for more than 50 years. He is also one of the country’s leading authorities on collectible duck calls. Harlan authored the book “Duck Calls – An Enduring American Folk Art.” He also published a quarterly newsletter for the Call Makers and Collectors Association of America. For years, he made and marketed his own Heavy Duty duck calls through various custom outlets.

Harlan says a Reelfoot-style call features a big barrel, flat toning board and curved metal reed. It produces high-pitched, loud notes that carry well across large expanses of open water.

“Reelfoot Lake-style calling is very captivating and geared toward long distances,” Harlan explained. “The metallic sounds carry farther than calls blown with a plastic-reed call. I’ve seen Reelfoot callers turn ducks a quarter-mile or more away, farther than most hunters would even think the ducks could hear. But if the wind is right, they can hear a metal-reed call this far, and frequently they will respond to it.”

Harlan says the famed lake in northwest Tennessee is the origin of the “Reelfoot highball,” a fast, ringing hail call that continues until the caller runs out of air. Then he refills his lungs and starts again, over and over until the ducks begin working or fly out of hearing range.

“You’ve got to be in shape to do this,” Harlan said and then laughed. “You don’t just pick up a Reelfoot call and blow it for 2-3 hours during a morning’s hunt. It’ll wear you out. I’ve seen good callers gasping for air after working a stubborn flight of ducks for several minutes. So this style of calling takes good conditioning and a lot of practice.”

Harlan adds that Reelfoot calling is very effective when a hunter is competing against other callers in nearby blinds.

"There’s something about that high pitch that gets ducks’ attention. It’s not natural sounding like a plastic-reed call, but it just works. If callers in three blinds are trying to attract the same flight of birds, and two have plastic-reed calls and the third one has a metal-reed call, I’d put my money on this last guy.”

Harlan notes that Reelfoot calls have one major drawback along with their pluses.

“Metal-reed calls are hard to keep in tune,” he said. The old timers were constantly bending the reeds and scraping on them to taper them correctly. Today, very few people know how to do this. It’s almost a lost art, and true Reelfoot-style calling is being lost with it. Even on this lake, more and more hunters are using plastic-reed calls, because they’re so much easier to maintain. I feel that eventually this style of calling will be all but forgotten, not because it’s not effective, but because learning the style and maintaining the calls are so difficult.”

Perhaps, but not yet.  Several regional call makers carry on the traditions of the old-timers, still making big-barrel wooden calls with curved metal reeds. And a few hunters on Reelfoot continue using these instruments to work their magic on high-flying ducks, drifting back into the lake after a night of feeding, hearing the continuous pleading of a distant caller and being entranced by the tinny duck-like sounds. No telling the number of greenheads that have fallen victim to these calls and no measuring the thrills and satisfaction brought to hunters who have used them so skillfully during decades past.

- Wade Bourne