I sat in a blind on the south end of historic Beaver Dam Lake in Mississippi as the marsh came alive. If there ever was a duck-calling classroom, it was here, a place the late Nash Buckingham hunted and immortalized in many of his stories. Nearby gadwall greeted the pre-dawn gloom with their reedy "mee-amp" call, while hen mallards greeted the day with hearty "qua, qua, qua, quack" calls. Overhead, early rising mallards made the soft "dug-a, dug-a, dug-a" chuckle and "ka, ka, kuk" clucks. Mother Nature's classroom was in session, and every call you need to bring mallards and other puddlers to your decoys was being demonstrated, right from the duck's mouth.
When I began trying duck calling tactics as a boy in the 1950s, about everyone who owned a duck call sounded like two hogs fighting in a gunnysack. Calling like this was as effective as a fire siren in attracting ducks.
Buckingham once said, "A duck call in the hands of a novice is one of the greatest conservation tools known to man."
There were great callers, but they were sequestered in small pockets in the mid-south and along the Mississippi River. Many guides knew how to call, because they heard the ducks day in, day out and knew what to say. Perhaps the best caller of ducks I ever heard is Maurice Eason, former head guide at the fabled Wingmead, a private duck-hunting paradise near Roe, Ark.
"When I began carrying hunters, I got $2 for taking them, and if we shot a limit, I got $2.50," Eason said. "That extra 50 cents meant a lot to my family, so I learned to say what the ducks want to hear."
Eason's calling repertory included a short hail call built on the four-to-six-note hen mallard's call, with a potpourri of clucks and chuckles when the birds were overhead. It was simple calling from a master who knew what to say and when to say it.
Contest Calling Influence
I would be the last person to criticize calling contests. In the 1950s and 1960s, duck calling in this nation was abysmal. Beginning in the 1970s, though, calling contests began to proliferate. Certainly, some people who won early state and regional contests should have been calling hogs, but as these competitors cycled through the stage in Stuttgart, Ark., or heard good callers at contests, calling took off.
Today, fine callers are everywhere. The problem with calling contests is that they are highly stylized musical recitals. How well you play the duck call determines the winner. However, once you learn to really play a duck call, you can make every sound and have a really vast repertory of duck sounds. It's how you use these sounds that matters when out hunting.
I am a part leaseholder on a farm on Maryland's Eastern Shore that simultaneously offers daily, paid hunts. One morning as we sat in guide Tom Dodd's truck waiting for the geese to fly, he said, "When you're hunting, you have to say what the geese want to hear, you have to read their subtle moves and change your calling accordingly. It changes every day."
Dodd's advice rings true for calling ducks, too.
I once shared a duck pit in an Arkansas rice field dyke with a contest caller, who, despite the continuing admonition of the guide to just blow a few clucks and chuckle a bit, insisted in blowing his whole routine at every passing flock. It was a long morning.
"If you see a far-off flock, give them a long high-ball, because the faster you lock them onto your decoy rig the better off you are," said Greg Hood, a call maker. "They can see every rig and raft of ducks for a mile around, and if you can get their attention, chances are they will come over to take a look."
So by all means, use a long highball when conditions dictate, but when they don't, keep it for the contest stage. Remember, those early rising hen mallards in the marsh don't call incessantly. The most you ever hear are two hens calling at the same time, whose four- or six-note calls overlap, but you can hear both clearly. The idea is to sound like live ducks, and they don't call every minute of the day.
Long ago, I hunted a timbered island on the Iowa side of the Mississippi River near Oquawka, Ill. We couldn't see far, so all of the long calling we did was four- and six-note hen calls to attract ducks to our hole in the timber. We clucked and chuckled, and shot limits virtually every morning. We were surrounded by excellent callers in nearby blinds, but we were where the ducks wanted to be, and then used calling they wanted to hear -- sounds like real mallards coming from the timber, inviting them to come down for a drink and a water-soaked acorn.
The recent trend has been to ultra-loud calls made from acrylic. Driven by contest callers who want to out loud the other competitors, they are great on the contest stage. An excellent caller can tone them down, but for others, calls on the softer side are probably the best way to call ducks.
Neither my favorite single-reed wooden call nor my double-reed call is especially loud. I can ring both like on the contest stage, but both will tone down and sound like pure duck. They're old-style calls made using 1970's parameters, but I put my trust in what these soft-sounding calls do in the blind. Wooden calls have less edge to their sound. They are mellower, and I think, overall, do a better job of calling ducks. That's just my opinion. Too, my calling style lends itself better to those calls. Many callers carry two calls: a sharp, loud acrylic and a mellow wooden call for close-in work.
Still, it is what you say that really matters.
Working a Flock
Use your highball when ducks are far off, a quarter mile or more. The repeated high notes are about all they can hear at that distance, but it will attract their attention.
Once the ducks are interested, tone it down, keep them coming with four- or six-note hen calls. Vary the tone from high to low so they sound like different hens calling. Don't become repetitive. Keep the hen sounds different and spaced apart.
After the ducks are close, use the cluck, "ka, ka, kuk€¦ ka, ka, kuk" to keep their interest. Throw in some chuckle as they swing overhead -- not the rolling rattlesnake chuckle heard in a contest, but broken bits "tuck-a, tuck-a, tuck-a." Use three or four chuckles, just like the ducks sound when they're overhead.
One mistake callers make is to blow the chuckle without adding some gruffness. Circling ducks make the chuckle, but it retains the basic hen sound, so rather than just blow a sterile chuckle, add some throat -- some depth -- to the sound.
If the ducks begin to lose interest, pour on the hen calls, and then go back to the short stuff.
Never waste the early dawn hours talking about last night's ball game. Rather, use the daybreak to listen to the ducks -- they're the best teachers.
John Taylor of Lorton, Va., has competed in calling contests, as well as for the attention of many ducks.