WILDFOWL Spotlight: Fred Zink
July 30, 2014
People, like ducks, can be divided into divers and dabblers. The divers are guys like Fred Zink, who plunge into things, while most of us dabble around, avoiding risk and sacrifice. Others talk plenty about having drive, but in the case of a guy like Fred Zink, you can see it in everything he's ever done.
A flashback to his childhood days tells a lot about the guy who would launch a successful decoy company (Avian-X), sells 65,000 calls a year, is a ground-breaking goose hunter and has won so many calling contests he lost interest. Zink was born in Clayton, Ohio in 1970, to a line of hunters and guides who did it for both work and food.
Memories from elk camp and watching his father guide trace back to three years old. A kid's life was good on the family horse farm, where you could walk out the back door and hunt small game, deer and upland birds. He was busy running a trapline before school, calling foxes, and declaring war on blackbirds. It is the blackbirds that provide the insight. His dad would not let him use a firearm in the offseason, so Fred made 300 blackbird silhouettes with wires and dad's construction company leftovers.
Next, he built a primitive layout from a discarded bay window, covered it with grass, and spent days laying in there shooting blackbirds out of it. He shot 27 birds with a BB gun, all in one day.
He was 10, and the art of hiding and decoying hooked him. He'd gone after ducks many times with dad, but his first time carrying a gun was in a draw blind on Indian Lake in Ohio. A drake blue-winged teal landed in the decoys and went swimming past the blind, and he shot with a 20-gauge Fox side-by-side. "Hey, at 9, all you can see is blood," he said.
His father, Fred Sr., always a big game and upland guy with a half-dozen bird dogs, also snapped over waterfowl at the time. The duo started hunting all over with Fred's cousin Craig, son of uncle Steve Zink, heading clear to Kansas at age 15 for ducks and geese at Thanksgiving.
"Seeing the country through waterfowl hunting inspired me," Fred says. "I am a guy who always tries to make stuff better. I painted all the decoys, and we built a two-man pumpkinseed Lake Erie-style layout boat, patterned on the kitchen floor."
Mallards, redheads, canvasbacks, bluebills, and black ducks all fell to the layout, out on Grand Lake St. Marys. Fred sprung for an Ithaca Mag 10 with money from trapping and haying at age 15 in 1985 (he was already 6-foot-2). With the monster shotgun stuffed with Federal Premium 3.5-inch lead BBs, "man, if geese even looked anywhere near your spread you could kill them."
Not so with early steel shot. "It was so bad, shooting was just a means to get them to the ground, then you had to finish them off. Pellets would sometimes not even break the skin."
Suddenly you had to become an expert decoyer to put birds on the ground. He turned 16 and would never deer hunt again. He got his driver's license and became a 100 percent 'fowler around the time the first early goose hunts (formerly called nuisance season) were formed as huntable populations started to appear in Ohio in the mid-80s.
"Lots of geese and nobody hunting them, and that is all I did. We shot seven one day and it made the newspaper, because they were still rare," he said. At 17 he made his first calls, flutes fashioned in dad's woodshop. Zink heard about calling contests, and eyeballed his Knight & Hale Double Clucker optimistically.
His uncle Steve said: "little kids will blow better than you in that contest. You will never be able to do it."
Exactly the way to motivate Fred. He and dad took off fishing to Lake Michigan and checked out the Michigan City, Ind., U.S. Open Goose Calling Championship, hobnobbing with all the world's best, "people I'm still friends with nearly 30 years later. Tim Grounds, Al Dagger, Randy Bartz (the flag man), David Hale, Harold Knight, Sean Mann'¦every good caller. I'd just sit and listen."
He bought Grounds' flute in '89. He was 18. That fall, he won the Ohio state contest with that call, and proceeded to win 26 championships in the next eight years. Fred finished third then fourth in World Championship Duck Calling Contest in Stuttgart, but soon focused mostly on geese.
"Duck calling was fun but as soon as you qualify for the Worlds they make you stop until Worlds," he said. "With goose calling you can keep right on winning."
Prowess and reputation grew as he took first or second in virtually every contest, almost always winning the contests held outside because he's loud. Competing again around 2000, he felt the challenge was gone. Calling originally took up the void left by sports. A Division l all-state catcher, he tore a bunch of muscles and his college career was over before it started. "When sports are gone you have to find something to fuel your madness," he said.
The next challenge? Business, starting with a mail-order catalogue in allegiance with Grounds, setting up at shows to sell chokes and calls, Outlaw Decoys, and Jeff Foiles' goods. They did very well in those days, when there was not a Bass Pro or Cabela's in every town. Zink Outdoors catalogue launched in '98 and for the next three years people asked him for a call with his name on it.
The Paralyzer XR2, a duck call, quickly sold out at the DU spring festival in Memphis, Tenn., in 2000. Next he made a goose call, and sold 500 of them. "At that point I realized making calls might be a good thing. I was working construction, and you start to sell 500 calls at $150'¦and you are like hmmm," he said. "Then Mack's called and I was in there in 2001."
Filling the Void
Zink worked with Avery to develop one of the first ground blinds, the Finisher, and the layout blind revolution was on. He had used Eliminators (Final Approach) since the mid-'90s as part owner of Final Approach Outdoors, before that. In 2002, while trying to perfect the Finisher with overseas manufacturing, he was distressed to see some blind samples came in with lots of issues. So a redneck hunter from Ohio stepped on a plane and flew to China, he said, and got it done and shipped 'em.
Soon, he worked full-time for Avery, and Finisher sales proved it was one of the top blinds ever made. Right up to 2009, Zink had poured his soul into designing Avery blinds, flags, decoy bags, and Greenhead Gear (GHG) decoys, designing and carving geese and texturing the ducks, with carvers like Dick Rhode and Charlie Prinz.
In 2004, he spent 157 days in China for Avery. He learned a lot about perfectionism at Avery, and ran Zink calls on the side in the moonlight. His first full-time employee was Field Hudnall, and he realized it was time to do something more.
"I have a daughter and a son who would rather hunt than eat, and I wanted to make a family business," he said. Some challenges can be a little overwhelming, and Avery's wild success, though partly a result of his own work, intimidated him a bit to take on the waterfowl giant. So he started Avian-X in the spring of 2010 by selling turkey dekes.
"I saw a void there," he said. "I had done my very best at Avery and needed time to figure out how to compete there, but I saw turkey was wide open. The products sucked." He took decoy prototypes to Cabela's and they said they could sell 200 to 300 a year.
"I was like, are you kidding me? I said you guys are either wrong or I have to get another job." They sold 2,500 turkey decoys and it went on to become the top decoy. Up next: Canada goose dekes under Avian-X, and Cabela's opted for the exclusive in fall 2011. "They ordered all my production for the year, we had no investors, so our balls were on the line big time."
The rest is known to WILDFOWL readers, who have seen Zink's ad presence rise steadily as his own duck and goose dynasty unfolds. Call sales have seen a 30 percent increase every year since 2000, and with 25 full-time employees, 65,000 calls a year go out the door. A few early decoys had problems with the foot bases, but Zink always improves product, never resting.
"In our market category there is good, better, best, and we are the best. We are trying to build something that is more durable, realistic and functional, and a game-changer. My goal is to kill 20 at 10 feet, not a hundred at 80 yards. I don't make things stingy, I make them for me. I have to make a living, but when I look at a product I don't look at it as dollar signs, but as a way to be a better hunter so people want to go more, be more successful and preserve the sport so it flourishes and grows."
Motivation? "We do everything we can do to be more successful and that's what drives me. To make a better product and win."
Peeves? Tall, handsome, affable Fred Zink frosts over at that question. "I do have a chip on my shoulder when people talk crap on the Internet. People who sit behind keyboards, who don't know jack squat and mess with your life'¦we do this for a living."
Most of us think of The Zink in association with goose hunting, but his happy place is blasting greenheads.
"Anywhere I can go shoot greenhead mallard ducks in the sunshine on the water and on public land, if possible, that's what I love," he said. "I like to compete, hence the public ground, and be anywhere I can go with my buddies, my dad, son and friends."
It's tough to be that competitive and still likable. In the gossipy world of elite waterfowling, there are a few people you never hear anyone say bad things about, and Fred manages to stay in that small group. He is an includer, and graciously mentions making early snow goose films with Tony Vandemore and Tyson Keller.
Talk to him much and you'll see he carefully goes out of his way to pay tribute to people like Jim Ronquest, Buck Gardner, Wendell Carlson, Tim Grounds, Al Dagger, Allen McCree and others that brought him along as a beginning caller, oh so long ago, long before anyone handed him a check and a trophy.
"Those guys treated me well," he said simply.