January 17, 2023
By Chris Ingram
Since the heyday of the 1990s when Canada goose hunting was on the rise and the short reed goose call was born and the early 2000s at the peak of contest calling in North America, participation and interest have faced a downturn. Trade shows and retail events have become less popular and replaced by social media. The social media surge of new ‘Snap’ and ‘Gram’ waterfowl hunters now mostly turn to YouTube videos for instruction instead of a one-on-one lesson from a call builder at a trade show, and TikTok and Instagram reels for entertainment rather than attending events. And don’t even get me started on the Pro Staff pageantry….
A sucker punch to a scary trend, the COVID-19 pandemic shut down many calling contests, several of which will never return. Thankfully, longstanding contests like Game Fair, Easton, and World Duck, and many state events continue to hold their ground. Some retail events have shifted their activities and no longer include calling contests. But this story doesn’t end here with head in hand. Nope. We’re waterfowlers, we thrive in adversity and always find ways to make new opportunities and keep our traditions alive.
It’s Your Call
I’m guessing your first or initial thoughts on stage calling sound like, “That doesn’t sound like a real bird,” or “my judges have feathers, I don’t need to compete on stage,” and while you are right, competition calling is not always meant to sound like real birds. There are several styles and formats of duck and goose calling contests, some are meant to recognize the caller who has mastered control and creativity on their call. Many ardent callers also argue that comp calling is as much a part of the history and culture of waterfowl hunting as are waxed cotton, wet dogs, and leaky waders.
Competition calling has origins in the 1930s in the mallard mecca of Stuttgart, Arkansas. The first National Duck Calling Contest was held on Main Street in November 1936—after a dispute about who the best duck caller was—and provided the namesake of the familiar format of ringing highball hails and machine gun feeding chatters that have become synonymous with stage calling. Comp calling has since evolved over the years into a variety of styles and formats. For callers of all levels and abilities, there are local, state-sanctioned, and regional contests for all of the duck and goose formats with contests for individuals and teams of novice and experienced callers alike. There are also a growing number of youth events and if getting up in front of a crowd makes you nervous, a whole new extension of virtual/online calling contests are now emerging.
A New Era for Contest Calling
Not wanting comp calling to slip away in the post-pandemic world, a brotherhood of committed callers has recently banded together to create the International Callers Association (ICA). With a mission to preserve competition calling, as well as to advocate for effective calling for all hunters, the ICA has catapulted the sport to new heights.
Kile Jones, founding member of the ICA, got his start on the stage back in 2007 and has been involved in the waterfowl industry and calling circuit since. “We thought COVID was going to kill contest calling altogether, so we scrambled to put something together to keep it going,” Jones said. “We’re on an uphill climb now with lots of new waterfowl hunters and a renewed interest in comp calling. ICA is here to educate about what comp calling is, provide resources for event organizers, and ultimately, preserve the culture of waterfowl hunting and contest calling for the future.”
Looking to compete in or attend an upcoming competition? Contests are happening now and throughout the year from coast to coast. Check out ICA on social media and visit www.callingducks.com for more info.
Answer the Call
Contest calling may not be for everyone. Getting up to quack and cluck in front of an audience may be scary, or just plain silly. And while the main motivation for our community is to add more hunters to the marsh, we can support contest calling by attending events and trade shows, purchasing calls from call makers, and giving a nod when our buddy starts up a stage sequence in between the morning flights.
If taking to the stage is not in your future, practicing your calling in the offseason will still pay off on your next hunt. Learning how to make duck and goose sounds will only enhance your enjoyment and successes in the field. Take the extra time to learn how to operate and maintain your calls, for as Nash Buckingham once said, “A duck call in the hands of a novice is one of the greatest conservation tools known to man.”