October 05, 2023
It never hurts to be a whiz kid on the ole duck or goose call, but the ability to make the right sounds is only part of the picture. The little-known calling skills that lure birds in close enough for the kill are not just about blowing the right series.
Successfully using a call to attract waterfowl requires a more subtle understanding of the birds themselves and how they respond to others of their kind. It's not enough to know the sounds birds make, a successful hunter needs to understand the big picture of luring birds in close.
Timing is Critical
Being successful with a duck or goose call in the field isn't as much about the sound quality as it is about making the right sounds at the right time. Timing, as they say, is everything. Knowing when to call and when to wait quietly is perhaps the most overlooked skill required to fool waterfowl into going feet down.
Consider an example: Hunting conditions are perfect. There is a steady wind, a little nip in the air and a lot of birds trading around. You spot a passing mallard near your blind, but before you can grab a call, the bird has passed by and is now directly downwind and heading away fast. You hit the bird with a pleading comeback call, but in order for the bird to comply, it has to turn around and fly straight into a biting wind. What are the chances the mallard is going to put forth the energy needed to fly straight into the wind and land in your spread?
The answer is most birds aren't going to cooperate unless it's easy to do so. Waterfowl are like every other creature on Earth, in that they are looking for the course of least resistance. Give a bird an opportunity to avoid you and that is exactly what's going to happen. Waterfowl don't have a death wish and they are not like puppets on a string just because a guy can play sweet hen music on his favorite duck call.
The best time to hit a duck or goose with a calling sequence is when the bird or birds are at a bit of a distance, but approaching. When a duck is out 200 to 300 yards and coming in your general direction is the ideal time to get the bird's attention.
Let's say you hit an approaching mallard with a few quacks and it responds by flying directly toward you. You have likely done all of the calling required to get the bird into shotgun range. Hitting the duck with friendly sounds at the right time is more important than the sounds used or the quality of those sounds.
Getting the drop on waterfowl (seeing them before they see you) requires hunters to maintain a constant vigil. A clear view of the surrounding sky in necessary so you can spot birds before they end up downwind or in another position that makes it difficult to attract them. Being blindsided by ducks limits calling success.
Reading Body Language
Nearly as important as timing is the ability to read the body language of passing ducks and geese. Some birds make it very obvious by their body movements that they are interested in landing, while others are just as obviously not going to land anytime soon. Calling to birds that are showing no interest in staying in the neighborhood is almost a waste of time.
Sure, every duck hunter has a story of the guy who blew his lungs out at flock after passing flock, only to be rewarded with one flock that decided to drop down from the heavens and commit suicide. In the real world of duck hunting it rarely happens, and in fact, most of the birds that respond to calling are already in a gregarious mood.
Waterfowl likely to respond to calling are obvious and easy to spot. Usually, call-friendly birds are not flying in a steady, direct route, but rather slipping around, changing direction, circling, speeding up and slowing down while surveying the water or ground below. Watch the wingbeats of waterfowl and you'll quickly notice that most birds are determined to get someplace quickly, and your decoy spread isn't it.
Birds interested in decoying are going to show it in how they are flying. Gliding ducks and geese are obviously looking to land. Others that are flying, then periodically gliding, are also searching for a place to sit down. In a lot of cases, birds that want to land or rest turn their heads from side to side. These same birds are also more likely to be vocal. Concentrate on calling to them.
If a duck's body language suggests it is interested in landing, any capable caller has a fighting chance of killing that bird. If the bird doesn't show any signs of slowing down, even the most skillful caller isn't likely to change that bird's mind.
It's unfortunate, but calling at high or fast-flying birds as they rocket past usually doesn't put much meat in the gumbo. Calling non-stop at birds that have no intention of landing also stems to discourage the caller and other seasoned hunters within earshot. The best advice is to learn to read the body language of waterfowl and call to birds you have a fighting chance of killing.
Mix Up Tempo and Cadence
Every duck or goose caller practices by blowing specific series of notes to form basic calling sequences or cadences. Over time, these call sequences tend to become second nature with the caller. Every time he picks up a call, he tends to blow the same sounds in the same sequence and tempo. This is exactly why every AC/DC record sounds similar.
Humans are creatures of habit, so it is natural that once we learn something, we do it the same way every time. The calling cadence and tempo have a strong impact on how waterfowl will ultimately respond. For example, a fast tempo suggests a more excited bird, while a slower tempo suggests a content bird. On any given day, one approach might work better than the other.
Mix up the cadence and or tempo from calling sequence to calling sequence. Carefully watch the birds you are calling to while changing tempo, and the birds will communicate what they want at the moment.
Force-feeding the same sequences and tempo is only going to work part of the time. By varying the notes and tempo, you will be able to influence a greater number of birds into taking a closer look.
I learned the tempo lesson from Jan Elhert, who has competed nine times at the World Duck Calling
Championships in Stuttgart, Ark. Besides being an expert competition grade duck caller, Elhert has an uncanny knack for fooling mallards into flying within gun range.
Sound Like Multiple Birds
Elhert taught me another calling trick worth sharing. He changes calling pitch within a sequence in order to sound like a flock rather than one bird calling.
"By exaggerating a particular series of notes using two or more different pitches, it's easy to sound like several birds within a particular calling sequence," Elhert said. "I accomplish this by blowing a series of quacks with a very low and raspy pitch, followed quickly by a similar series of higher-pitched notes. The effect sounds like two different birds on the water calling to passing birds."
Sounding like different birds has another advantage. For reasons only the ducks and geese understand, on certain days, they respond better to higher- or perhaps lower-pitched sounds. Mixing up the pitch increases the chances of hitting just the right notes the birds like.
By the same token, switching up calls can also help change the sound and pitch. For example, wooden calls tend to have a lower-pitched sound, while plastic and acrylic calls do a better job of creating high-pitched or ringing sounds. The most successful callers typically have two or more slightly different sounding calls hanging around their necks.
How loud a caller blows the notes also plays a huge role in attracting ducks and geese. Sound carries better over water than many hunters realize. Calling too loud is perhaps the most common mistake.
To better understand how sound intensity impacts calling success, consider taking an analytical approach to volume control. Ideally, the volume of the call should always sound natural to approaching birds. Calling too loudly can put birds on alert. Call too softly, and the birds might not even hear you.
Keep in mind that the birds most likely to work a decoy spread are going to approach from downwind where sound carries well. Tone down the volume when working downwind birds. When the birds circle upwind, increase the volume a little to stay in contact. For distant birds, more volume is essential to ensure the birds hear the calls, but as the birds approach, softer sounds will produce better results.
I've noticed that when hunting in public areas where others are also calling, volume can play a huge role in holding the attention of nearby birds. Louder, more forceful calling tends to work better than more subtle calling when two or more groups are calling to the same birds.
Unfortunately, the situation often gets out of control quickly. Screaming at birds because they are favoring a different decoy spread isn't the answer. I handle the situation by calling aggressively while the birds are obviously working my location. If I start to lose the birds to another rig, I tone down my calling and let the birds work the area they seem to favor.
In the world of duck or goose calling, location will almost always prove more important than call sound, quality or volume. Of course, the hot setup is to be in the right location using the ideal calling sounds.
When competition from other hunters is not an issue, softer calling typically puts more birds in the bag than loud, aggressive calling.
Putting it all Together
The art of calling ducks or geese isn't learned in one season. It takes time, practice and experience to master the finer points of working a duck or goose call. After a hunter becomes comfortable with making the basic sounds, he quickly realizes not every passing bird is going to decoy. Maximizing success becomes a game of experimenting with timing, cadence, tempo and volume. Putting it all together is what makes calling waterfowl such a rewarding experience.
"Only about 25 percent of the birds you see on a particular day are likely to respond positively to calling," Elhert said. "Of those birds, if you can get 10 percent to work your spread and approach close enough to kill, you've had a successful day calling."
A 10 percent success rate might not seem good, but in the unpredictable and constantly changing world of waterfowl hunting, those numbers aren't half bad.
Mark Romance of Tustin, Mich., is a fanatic waterfowl hunter. He also hosts Fishing 411 with Mark Romanack, which airs on The Sportsman Channel.