An American Art
November 03, 2010
Tracing the waterfowl call back to its grassroots
Calls are truly an all-American art. In form, shape and history, calls are something we can truly call our own. Decoys, firearms and the fine arts all have their roots elsewhere, but calls are solely American. An 1854 Currier print, called Wild Duck Shoot, depicts two hunters with dogs, decoys, bagged ducks and their boat. One is standing loading his muzzle-loading shotgun, and hanging from his lapel is a tongue pincher-style call.
These earliest calls were called tongue pinchers because their construction, similar to a modern crow call, caused a sympathetic vibration that felt like an electric shock to the tip of the tongue. This style call lent itself to being made by backwoodsmen, and first commercially by Elam Fisher in 1870; others like the Hansen Broadbill came along in 1917, and Redduck was advertised as late as 1924, by which time the duck call as we know it today was fully developed.
In 1863, F. A. Allen of Monmouth, Illinois, began making a call that collectors refer to as an Illinois-style call. This call had a round barrel (initially of metal but in his "improved" version of wood) that contained the tone channel, reed and a wedge all held together inside a cylindrical metal insert that went into the barrel. C.W Grubbs of Chicago made a similar call beginning in 1868. Other calls of this era were made by Illinoisans Charles Ditto, Charles Perdew and others. They used a curved reed that vibrated against a flat tone channel, and became the basis of Reelfoot-Style calls.
The most famous maker of Reelfoot-style calls was Victor Glodo. Glodo's father was an Ã©migrÃ© from France, and the family settled near a large marsh in the Grand Tower area of southwestern Illinois. There, Glodo and his family hunted ducks for the market, but as "progress" evolved, the marsh was drained for agriculture, and Victor and his wife Vada headed south to the banks of Reelfoot Lake in Northwestern Tennessee.
A selection of calls made in Illinois. Although calls are often described a Reelfoot, Arkansas or Louisiana, Illinois was rightly the cradle of duck call making.
Here, in about 1880, he developed a duck call that set the standard for every Reelfoot-style call that followed. Glodo's call used a flat tone channel or insert with a curved metal reed. Perhaps not the very first to do so, but Glodo, who made his calls using nothing but hand tools, began checkering the barrels of his calls, adding folk art-style decoration.
Although Glodo left Illinois, call development did not. In 1904, Illinois River duck hunter Philip S. Olt released his first commercially made call, the B-4 Adjustable, quickly followed by his most famous call, the D-2 Regular Duck Call. Olt had previously made wooden calls, but because of the propensity of wood to swell, causing the call's tone to change, he settled on a new material, molded hard rubber. Throughout the Olt Company's near 100-year history, their bread and butter calls were all made from molded hard rubber, although later calls were made of plastic.
It is interesting to note that Olt's earliest D-2 duck calls had a round hole at the end of the insert. Later calls had a square notch at the bottom of the round exhaust hole that was thought to impart a better tone quality. In truth, this square notch was due to a change in the molding technique, and was there to accommodate a mold-release device and had no particular acoustic properties.
A small collection of Olt calls. In the foreground at left is the Olt Big Water call, which adjusts for bluebills, red heads and canvasbacks.
However, the shape of the tone channel was different from the production model of the 1950s and '60s, and that made the difference in sound. So popular were these calls that Olt began making them again in the 1980s as the D-2 O. S. or Old Style. I would conjecture that perhaps more D-2 calls were made and sold than any other duck call ever made. Sadly, the Olt family had a family squabble as to how the business should be managed, and closed the plant in the 1990s.
Not only did the Olt D-2 outsell every other call, but those duck calls are attributed to setting the design standard for all of the Arkansas-and Louisiana-style calls that have followed. With a curved insert and flat hard-rubber reed, this style call is widely made throughout the United States and Canada.
Although the metal-reed Reelfoot-style call is a highly effective calling instrument, when it comes to duck calling contests, Arkansas-style calls are the rule. So distinctive are the differences that any skilled judge can pick out a metal reed call from nearly the first note.
Arkansas-style calls have a more mellow sound and produce, to the human ear, more duck-like sounds than the metal reed call. However, the Arkansas-style call diverges into two paths; the contest stage and the blind. The popularity of the Olt D-2 O. S. for calling ducks came from the raspy quality of this call. Calls for the contest stage need to be butter smooth and are best compared to a musical instrument that can be played by a true artist.
The influence of the Illinois-style call is also seen in calls made of native cane in Louisiana. Calls carried by visiting hunters to Gueydan, Port Arthur and Lake Charles were copied by local guides using the abundant cane that grew wild in the vast marshes, making their reeds by carefully filing down the back of a hard-rubber Ace comb.
Prevented from splitting with a wrap of string or the head of a high-brass shotshell forced over the cane, the Louisiana call is pitched high, and the best can make the whine and squeal of the hen mallard, but the design came from Illinois.
Historically, goose calls have not enjoyed the panache of duck calls. For one reason, prior to the late 1950s most goose hunters called by mouth. To be sure, call makers like Lohman and Olt made goose calls and sold them to hunters who occasionally hunted geese, but guides called solely by mouth.
alls pictured above are from the Stuttgart area except the Jake Gartner call at far left, which was made in Memphis, Tennessee.
In the 1950s the late Ken Martin, who was born and reared near the then goose-hunting Mecca of Horseshoe Lake near Cairo in Southern Illinois, began making his Horseshoe Lake model goose call. My Ken Martin calls are especially dear to me, since I knew him from when my father bought one of his earliest calls for me, and we kept in touch over the years. North of Martin a few miles in Union County, Illinois was Paul Morgan, who commercially hunted near the Union County Refuge, and who began modifying Olt A-50 Canadian Honker calls to fit his calling style.
From that start the manufacture of goose calls has bloomed.
First came the resonant cavity-style call exemplified by Martin's call, then the flute call developed from the modified Olt A-50, and then in the 1970s the short-reed goose call, that is today's most popular call. With the proliferation of short-reed calls, many of duck-call makers have begun making goose calls, and today catalogs devote pages and pages solely to calls; the selection is enormous. Through the 1970s and into the '80s outdoor catalogs showed two or three duck calls and perhaps the same number of goose calls, and the advertisements in the back of the major outdoor magazines also offered two or three calls that were commercially available.
Historically, major outdoor stores offered calls, mostly made for them by regional makers. Perhaps most famous were the duck calls made by Charles Henry Perdew for Van Lengerke & Antoine in Chicago. Marked VL&A, these were available and advertised in the sporting press in the 1920s and '30s. In the 1970s and '80s, Ken Martin's goose calls shared a similar spotlight in the L. L. Bean catalog, but those were but the tip of today's call iceberg.
Building a call collection is fun, informative and can be as expensive as you wish. There is a joy in having a certain call; perhaps one that belonged to an ancestor, or one that is very rare.
Perhaps more important is the connection with the history and lore of wildfowling. While early duck hunters relied on decoys and abundant ducks, the call, from its beginnings, has shown how the sport has evolved.
From the days when hunters had one shotgun, one canvas coat to which their one call was permanently tied to the button hole in the lapel, to today when we have shotguns to match any situation and lanyards that will carry six or more calls for any species and situation, calls have pointed the way.
When I began writing about calls and call collecting in the early 1970s, collectable calls seemed to be everywhere, especially along the Mississippi River Valley. Many elderly hunters who owned Glodos, Beckharts, early D. M. "Chick" Majors, Cecil Leekers, Clyde Hancocks and many, many others were willing to sell their calls that had been retired to cigar boxes and dusty drawers. Today, it's far from those easy days, but there are many more call makers in places where waterfowl calls were virtually unknown that can lead to concentrated local collections.
Collecting can be broad or general, from collecting any call one finds, to very specific collections limited to one call maker. Another could be exclusively early calls from Glodo, Olt and others, but this would not be for the faint of wallet.
Here are two calls from Minnesota. The call at left if from Oscar Quam, and the other is from N.C. Hansen Company.
In a recent auction, a Kinny & Harlow, a tongue-pincher-style call shaped as a mallard duck's head with a shotshell clasped in his bill and completely leather covered, sold for $65,000; Glodos and other sought-after calls went for only slightly lesser five figures, so to compile a collection of these early calls requires considerable financial resources.
One of the most impressive collections would represent the entire Olt production, but again, a B-4 Adjustable does not come cheap. For the beginning collector, perhaps a wider Illinois, Tennessee or Arkansas call collection might be more approachable; or on a broader basis, perhaps a regional collection.
When I began writing about calls, there were no reference books. A few magazine articles such as the late Nash Buckingham's The Neglected Duck Call, or books such as Earl Dennison's booklet Duck Calling, Olt's Hunting Handbook and Calling All Game by the late Burt Popowski, four-and-a-half pages in Eugene V. Connett's Wildfowling in the Mississippi Flyway and the bilious copy in the Herter's Inc. catalog were about all there was. All of these addressed how to, but none really mentioned the historical aspect of calls and calling; if they did it was merely in passing.
Today, there is a tremendous library of references that can guide a novice collector and help him identify calls he might find in his travels. In fact there are so many that I will mention just one, Duck Calls An Enduring American Art, by Howard L. Harlan and the late W. Crew Anderson. Howard Harlan is not only one of the world's great gentlemen, but he has by far the most impressive collection of calls and wildfowling artifacts in the world.
He founded the Call Makers & Collectors Association of America, and this organization through its quarterly newsletter and numerous meetings at established waterfowl festivals has brought call collectors together to trade calls, information, history and good cheer.
Although decoys and calls have become very expensive auction items, there are still calls out there for the collector. Elderly hunters still have their calls, and often they turn up at yard sales, gun shows or gun-club swap meets.
Old-time sporting goods stores may still have some surprises, and although historic calls get the big bucks, there's nothing wrong with collecting the work of contemporary call makers. The history of calls is rich and even becoming familiar with them without actually owning a Glodo, Perdew or B-4 Olt is a reward in itself. I have a few real goodies that I just like to admire from time to time and think about who made them and the hunting they enjoyed.