April 19, 2023
Okay, you probably don’t really suck at calling, but you do want to know how you can do it much better and more effectively. Waterfowl hunting demands a lot of work and even more patience once it comes to working birds. It’s no walk in the park and the amount of gear, logistics, regulations, and identifications are just a few factors that keep many hunters away from becoming fowlers. Those that do soon learn the difference between the things you can change and the things you cannot.
When it comes time to hunt, there’s nothing you can do about the weather, the conditions, or the phase of the migration. It’s at this time when the things you can control become much more important to get right to stack some chips on your side of the table. If you’ve done your homework and scouted birds, set a convincing decoy spread, and properly concealed yourself, your chances of success are starting to look real good, but one last piece is paramount to finishing this puzzle.
The birds are coming in. You’re right where they want to be, and your decoy deceivers have done their job well. After the first circle the birds slow down and work in lower and closer, and then … you blow it. Not just your duck or goose call but the opportunity to bag those birds. They busted you and flared away because you did everything right but left something wrong with your calling. Something that could have been avoided and something that if remedied, may help to save you on your next hunt.
Practice Makes Perfect
Sounds simple enough. If you want to become a proficient duck and goose caller during the hunting season, then you’re going to need to spend some time during the offseason to work on your quacks, clucks, honks, and moans. Yet for some reason, waterfowl hunters are not making the time to do this.
If you’re a first-season fowler, don’t stop your forward progress and fall off like many seasoned hunters who simply plateau and become complacent once they start killing a few birds. Making the most of the offseason is the smartest way to ensure that you’re comfortable and confident with your duck and goose calling long before opening day. There’s plenty of time to rid yourself of any insecurities in your abilities and the spring and summer months also provide ample opportunities to get together with your buddies to run calls and share helpful feedback.
Practicing your calling throughout the year will prime you to be ready once the migration kicks in. Whether you carry your lanyard in your lunch sack, run through sequences during your daily commute, or wait until the wife and kids vacate the house to haul off on your high-ball hails, take the time to become familiar with your duck and goose calls to start the season off the right way. If you don’t touch your calls between the last day of the previous season and this year’s opening day, you might be in for a rude awakening … which leads me to my next point.
Out of Tune
Just like your duck boat, if you ride hard and put your calls away wet, you could be in for a heartache on opening day. The same elements that wear away at your waders, duck boat, and shotgun all season long, can put stress and strain on your duck and goose calls during your hunts. Along with the environmental conditions, all of the spit, food crumbs, and tobacco flakes that you put through your calls can wreak havoc on the internal components. If you can make the time to prep your boat, shotgun, and other gear, you can certainly spend an extra minute checking in on your calls before, during, and after the season.
Wood calls shrink and swell with changing temperatures and humidity over the course of the season as well as going between the hot truck to the frozen blind and back inside the truck/trailer/home/camp. Acrylic, delrin, and polycarbonate calls can become very brittle in the cold, and freezing temps are no friend to sticky reeds. Duck call corks wear out over time and need to be replaced. Reeds can split or move around and turn your short reed into a party horn if the reed slips over the tone board. Any of these aforementioned follies can turn a fun morning into a mild annoyance or a complete disaster with a call that is out of tune or damaged.
Take the time to inspect your calls in between hunts. You can completely dismantle your calls to allow for a full air dry, but pulling the inserts out of the barrels at a minimum can help dry things out and hopefully prevent future problems. Be sure to take a close look at your calls inside and out. Look for cracks, chips, rotted out corks, and damaged O-rings. Also check to make sure all duck call corks/reeds and goose gut assemblages are set nice and tight. Unless you want to fumble with tuning a call in the field and risk dropping parts into the mud, make it a practice to check things at home where you and your calls will be warm, safe, and dry.
Wrong Way Waterfowl
I am of the mindset that ducks and geese don’t use their precise vocabularies to communicate with each other as much as they respond and react to the emotion and energy behind their notes and sounds. The takeaway from this is two-fold: One one hand, I don’t think hunters should be hell bent on memorizing and perfecting each and every note in the waterfowl dictionary, and secondly, they can learn to put emotion into their calling to better communicate with birds in the air. When done properly, even a few wrong notes and imperfect calling can still convey the right message and bring the birds down into gun range.
We’ve all been on a hunt when someone in the blind tears into a stage sequence of hail calls at the first glimpse of far of wings. Somehow, they manage to find enough air and continue this crazy cadence the whole time the birds are working in toward the spread. The flock may even circle a time or two, but at the 70-yard mark peel off and away leaving the group wondering what happened. Nine times out of ten in this scenario, it was the calling, and using the wrong notes.
You don’t need to qualify for the World Championship Duck Calling Contest to earn your merit with your buddies or be able to bang on birds, but having a basic understanding of duck and goose vocabulary will help you carefully pick and choose the notes you’ll use in your hunting scenarios by matching the sounds and energy levels of the birds you’re working
The more versatility you can cram into your avian vocabulary can help at times, but most often, simple quacks, clucks, honks, and feeder sounds will seal the deal with birds time and time again. And along with choosing the most appropriate notes at the right time, you should be sure to get the volume dialed in right to get the birds feet down into the decoys.
Your Volume Is Off
There’s more to properly using that emotion and energy in your calling. Not just using the right note at the right time, it’s also about using those sounds at the right volume. Many would-be layup volleys don’t happen simply because hunters are calling too loud or too soft, so here are a few considerations when thinking about calling volume.
Too Loud: Oftentimes, hunters call too loudly when birds are coming in quietly on cloudy, overcast days or when you’re setup in or need the woods where your calling is bouncing off the trees. Another time birds get blown out is when they are working in close and making that final pass around the decoys. If you’re still ringing at a highball hail volume, it’s going to be much too loud and unnatural, causing birds to flare.
Too Soft: Calling too softly may not be a fault of many fowlers, but there may be a few things to keep in mind to keep the odds in your favor. If you take the time to observe real birds feeding or swimming at different times of the year, you’ll notice how much noise they really make. Even a few dozen honkers will make a ruckus in a grain field. If you deploy five dozen decoys and only make the calls of one lone honker, the incoming flocks may not find your setup to be realistic enough. Do your best to match your calling to the amount of decoys you have in front of you to convince the birds in the air that you’re the real deal.
Everything else before this part has been fairly straightforward and follow sound logic, but sometimes the simplest of common senses and best practices goes out the window when the whistling of wings takes over hunters’ brains. More birds have probably flared up and down the flyways to too much calling than any other fowl folly.
Waterfowl are indeed vocal creatures, but that doesn’t mean they’re always audible or are communicating at high volumes with each other, or will respond to your boisterous banter. There can be times during the season or instances in certain weather conditions when they become less talkative, and as such, respond better to soft, subtle, low-volume calling, or even no calling at all. And don’t forget the auditory piece of your deceptive plot to bring birds in is only one part, you also have your floating or field fakes, flappers/spinners/swimmers, and flags to “do the talking” for your decoy set.
The easiest way to know if you’re doing too much calling, (or really to identify any other previously mentioned shortcomings), is to visit your local park or wildlife refuge and observe live birds. You’ll notice that even in the largest of concentrations and high-decibel disputes, the natural volume of live birds is well below what you may have been using on your last hunt. Make the time now, don’t wait. If you make the most of the offseason to maintain your calls and clean up your calling, you’re sure to cash in on more successes next season.