December 02, 2015
Louisville, Kentucky, isn't exactly a hotbed of duck and goose hunting. But for two young brothers who didn't know any different, it was about as close to heaven as you could get. Clay and Field Hudnall had no idea tens of thousands of ducks circled over rice fields and green timber just a state away.
They'd never heard of the Mississippi Delta or the dry field hunting in the Dakotas or any other place that harbored swarms of ducks and geese.
Just 8 and 11 when their father Dale introduced them to duck hunting, the brothers were thrilled to watch a few birds work the decoys in front of them on the Ohio River. They also had no idea how much of an impact those first hunts would have on their future.
To understand the origins of Field Proven Calls, though, you need only glimpse into the Hudnall's past.
Dale Hudnall was a two-tour Vietnam veteran, a product of the 101st Airborne and, says Field, "a tough nut." He instilled his military ethic in his kids, teaching them marksmanship, boating safety and gun safety at an early age. Dale was adamant about saving ammo and making swift, one-shot kills.
Above all, he taught Clay and Field how to be good to each other. Dissent wasn't tolerated. Boyhood spats were settled with words and finished with a hug and an "I love you," or, Clay says, "Dad said he would put a boot where the sun don't shine."
That military discipline also shaped them as adults and businessmen. However, it was their time on the Ohio River that laid the foundation for the company they would later found together.
Ducks and geese were a scarce commodity, so the brothers quickly learned that every opportunity might be the last one.
The one thing they could rely on was their ability to blow a duck or goose call. Field and Clay became adept at coaxing passing birds into shotgun range out of necessity.
They got even better when Clay turned 16. Along with a driver's license, he got the keys to his mother Micki's Dodge Dakota and the blessing of both parents to search out new territory.
With Clay behind the wheel, Field next to him and a 20-foot SeaArk johnboat hitched to the bumper, they found new waters and honed their skills calling ducks and geese in different settings.
The Hudnalls also gained some other life experiences during those early solo excursions. They jack-knifed the boat trailer on an icy ramp, left the plug out a time or two and Field even fell out of the boat into deep water while wearing chest waders.
He warmed up in the truck and went right back out after the ducks.
"I think our father would have killed us had he known some of the things we did back then," laughs 34-year-old Field.
Dale may have shaped their character and instilled a sense of right and wrong, but Micki played an equally important role in their future professional lives. She drove Field to his first calling contest when he was 17, critiquing him as he blew on a call the entire four-and-a-half-hour drive. He placed second.
"She was my biggest supporter and the reason I got into the hunting industry," recalls Field.
All of those early hunts and road trips to calling contests helped shape their future, but the most influential day of their professional lives came during a brief stint at Western Kentucky University. (Clay spent time at a local community college before enrolling in WKU the same time as Field.) College, they both realized, wasn't what they needed.
"It just didn't feel right," says Clay, 37.
The Hudnalls spent a few seasons guiding in Texas and they worked for custom callmaker Karl Lausman for four years, traveling the country as they gave demonstrations and sold calls at outdoor shows.
Field started entering major calling contests, and has since won or placed in the top five in 92 of the 104 contests he has entered. He earned four world titles and two international championships.
Field eventually became Fred Zink's first employee, designing, building and tuning calls while attending video production classes at night in downtown Dayton, Ohio. Clay was Zink's second employee.
After an eight-year stint with Zink, Field, who longed to be back in the Kentucky hills, returned home and started a video production company, focusing on duck and goose hunts. He planned to include the occasional wedding because they paid well. He did one and never considered another.
"I did hunting videos for a year-and-a-half. Then one day it hit me. My heart was in duck and goose calls. I missed interacting with the customers and doing the shows," says Field.
The hills of Kentucky were also calling Clay. He returned home, too, and in 2010 the Hudnalls emptied out their savings to design and build molds from scratch for duck and goose calls. Field Proven was born.
Success came quickly, due in part to their skill with a call and ability to connect with other hunters. Like any business partners, though, Field and Clay don't always see eye-to-eye. They've occasionally disagreed over major decisions and bickered over some petty ones.
"If we don't agree on the bigger decisions we talk about it. Those are the easy ones to work out," says Clay. "When we do argue, it's really a product of a bunch of little things and they usually pop up during duck season when we are tired and we have short fuses."
But brothers can't quit on each other, and every disagreement ends just as they always have. They walk away, cool down and then settle differences as their father and mother taught them.
"There might be a box or two kicked, but being family allows you to do that. We blow off steam and then we work it out, even if it takes a few days," says Clay.
In some ways, running a business with a brother is beneficial and it's one of many reasons the Hudnalls built a thriving business. They think alike and both know exactly where they want to take the company.
Although they have had offers from marketing experts to help expand Field Proven Calls, both agreed they aren't ready to grow simply for the sake of growing.
See the full story of Field Proven Calls in the September Issue of Wildfowl...