By Bill Buckley
Executed properly, a team approach to calling can turn distant or uninterested flocks the way a lone caller simply can't. John Stephens, president of Rich-N-Tone Calls, and Josh Raggio, owner and creator of Raggio Custom Calls, say it accounts for much of their hunting success. Here is their advice for fielding a winning team.
Pick a Leader
Stephens hunts about five days a week with his brother and son, while Raggio spends much of his season with friends who are also expert callers. "When you hunt a lot with the same people, you pretty much know who's going to do what," Stephens says. "But it should always be decided beforehand." Just like you'd designate one hunter to call shots, you should designate one hunter to lead the calling.
"It's important to choose a lead caller to formulate a plan," Raggio adds, "so everyone knows when to make what calls in reaction to what the birds want to hear that day. The whole idea is to sound like as many ducks as possible. If you're all calling the same notes and calling on top of each other, you're not accomplishing that objective."
Play to Individual Strengths
One way to avoid drowning each other out is to focus on which calls each hunter does best. "I do a lot of the duck-chatter sounds that mallards make when they're sitting on the water," Stephens says. "It's what I'm best at. My brother tends to get on birds with greeting and comeback calls to turn them on the corners. And my son will make lots of quacks here and there. We work as a team because everyone does his own part and knows what to do when.
"When you're working birds and need to hit them sharply to make them turn, everyone wants to join in," Stephens continues. "But you can turn ducks with quacks, chatter, or a string of calls. It's all about inflection. If I get sharper and louder with my chatter at the same time that my brother hits them with an aggressive string, it's super effective. Most times it's not what you say; it's how you say it. And in the process we end up sounding like more ducks without overstepping each other."
Complement, Don't Compete
Another way to avoid competition is for each caller to sound like a different duck, even when using the same calls. When Raggio joins a buddy trying to hail a distant flock, he'll come in halfway through a series with a different tone or cadence. "Deliberately trying to sound like different ducks guides how we feed off each other," Raggio explains. "If he's quick and demanding, telling the ducks to come, I'll throw in a more drawn-out, plaintive call, so we're complementing each other. If he's the boss hen, demanding and with a fast cadence, then I'll go slow. Once the ducks come in, we'll go to feed calls with lots of voice and inflection and trade lonesome hen calls as if two hens are answering each other."
Read the Ducks
"Good calling always boils down to reading ducks and taking cues from your hunting partners," Raggio continues. "If a buddy is hitting a hail call pretty loud, I know the ducks are farther off, and I might join right in. Otherwise, I'll wait until I locate the ducks and work off their body language. Conversely, if another caller starts off with a soft feed call or a lonesome hen call, I know the ducks are close, and I won't touch my call. Being in tune with the other callers is crucial to success."
For Stephens, that applies doubly when ducks are working close. "When the birds start keying on your spread, back off the call and really pay attention to what the other hunters are doing," he says. "You want the ducks to focus on the decoys, not you, so we mostly call when the ducks are looking away. Someone once said that the whole idea is to make your calls sound like they're coming from the decoys. That's a good rule for finishing ducks."