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.
Banded Honey Badger
Honey badgers are downright nasty, just like this aptly-named single-reed. Compact, ferocious, ultra-realistic, and tough, the Honey Badger
is an Arkansas-style, medium volume meat call. One of the smallest calls in the Banded line packs a lethal tone.
Banded Dark Magic
Extremely unhealthy for any Canada within earshot, Dark Magic
is a super-smooth short-reed that conjures up a devilish tone. Easy to blow but extremely versatile, the call puts dark geese in the hole, simple as that.
Big Guys Best Drake Brake
If names put ducks on the strap, the Drake Brake
would be fillin' limits in all four flyways (it might anyways). BGB's taken a top-shelf tone board — the Smoke-n-Double — opened up the exhaust, and put it in a short barrel. With an O-ring design, this call, single- or double-reed, is fast, loud, and as real as it gets.
Big Guys Best Widowmaker
No doubt the Widowmaker\'s
easy-to-blow short-barrel, short-insert, shaved-reed will cause lots of goose funerals this fall. It's the perfect blow tube for hail calling sky-high migrators into your spread.
Field Proven Hybrid Double Shot
When Clay and Field Hudnall combine traditional call-making techniques with state-of-the-art technology, the result is a legendary call like the Double Shot. The Double
is now available in a hybrid, consisting of an old-school Osage mouthpiece and hand-tuned thermoplastic polymer tone board.
Field Proven Raptor
Designed by two-time world goose calling champion Field Hudnall, the Raptor
is an advanced short-reed that's easy on the egos of beginners. The modified straight-bore mouthpiece provides lightning-quick response, and allows for an incredible goose vocabulary.
Flambeau Arctic Fury
Built for the blue-collar '˜fowler deadly serious about goose hunting, the Arctic Fury
features a specially redesigned end piece for increased built-in back-pressure. This allows the Fury to break over with very little effort, producing incredibly realistic sounds.
Flambeau Ice Box
Made for rice fields to tidal marshes, the Ice Box
gives novice and veteran waterfowlers alike an entire orchestra of avian sounds at their fingertips. 'œIt's pure duck all the way from the earth-shattering hail call to that last deadly feed chuckle,' said world champion caller Richie McKnight.
Flextone Hail Mary
Call long with the Hail Mary
, a darn nice blow tube available in single- or double-reed. The call features the company's unique Soft/Hard Technology that duplicates the natural sound of, in this case, a mallard duck.
Deliver double clucks and soft moans Canadas can't resist with the Supernatural
. The shorty uses Flextone's Soft/Hard Technology to give you the authentic clucks honkers want to hear.
Foiles Raizin Cayne
Never lose your insert again with the Raizin Cayne
. With a simple quarter-turn, it's locked tight. With two distinctly different tone boards for the single and double, the RC embodies versatility: loud, raspy bark on the top end; soft and clean on the bottom.
Strait goose, the Redemption
short-reed is tapered — small to large — inside the bore, blasting the caller's air over the reed and creating a super-fast pop. And a flared insert gives the Redemption a built-in buzz.
Fox Pro Super Snow Crow Pro
The Super Snow Crow Pro
will deliver spiraling flocks of white devils in the spring, and you can make a pile of those marauding black birds too (check game laws in your state). Equipped with 50 Fox Pro sounds, the SSCP can store and access up to 1,000 sounds. It also comes with two speakers and allows you to connect up to four external speakers.
GK Molded Call Girl
The Molded Call Girl
is an old-time J-frame featuring the company's innovative and exclusive counter-bored technology. The hardened polymer and seamless design create a unique sound mallards are sure to flock to.
One of the most versatile calls ever produced by the folks down in Bossier City, the Stout
features both shortened and enlarged-diameter barrels, along with a modified sound tunnel to create an instrument that's loud, dark, and as Rod Haydel so rightly puts it, full-bodied.
Hayes Last Rights
Make your feeder chuckle the last thing a flock of greenheads ever hears before you and the boys light'em up over the decoys. The single-reed Last Rights
is at home in the timber or open water and boasts wide range and volume.
Snows are hard to put on the ground anytime, but with low-end grunts to high-pitched cackles, the Snozone
has a wide range of sounds that puts wary white geese in the kill zone.
Knight & Hale Flight Control
Knight and Hale's Flight Control
series of singles and doubles cover all the duck hunting bases. The single-reed is perfect for creating raspy quacks across a range of volumes. Her partner in crime, the double, fills in when a more mellow, subtle approach is called for.
Knight & Hale Magnum Clucker
The Magnum Clucker
makes goose calling easy — well, as easy as it can be. It's an excellent call for young hunters to start their waterfowling careers, and at this price, it's tough to beat, especially for novice callers.
Primos Mean Mallard
The Mean Mallard
is manufactured with a shortened wood barrel, machined aluminum collar, and a threaded acrylic insert. An extremely responsive call with a rich authentic sound, the Mean Mallard uses precisely positioned ridges and ditches incorporated into the sound board to create a reed system less prone to sticking.
Primos Shock Caller
The Primos Shock Caller
is a short wood barrel, machined aluminum collar, and polycarbonate insert combine to provide deep, throaty honks, murmurs, and clucks. Patented ditches on the sound board help prevent reed-lock and moisture build-up.
RNT Daisy Slayer
Bred from the same DNA as the Daisy Cutter
, the Slayer
features increased back pressure, thanks to its shorter insert and unique bore. This design creates a loose fit on the bottom, allowing for incredibly natural-sounding quacks and clucks without sacrificing potential aggressiveness of the Daisy Cutter.
80 (bocote); $
RNT MicroGoose SS
RNT removed the stock muffler on its nationally-recognized MicroGoose
. Champion caller Jim Ronquest called the SS
'œthe new field legal hot rod of goose calls,' and the man's right. The call has also been put to the test by goose guru Shawn Stahl.
GK Composition Slayer
Engineered and designed by world champ Wade Walling, the Composition Slayer's
short barrel allows for unsurpassed speed, volume, and tonal range, all while offering the ultimate in air control and versatility. Built for the stage and afield.
Goey Swamp Laundry
The double-reed on the Swamp Laundry
does everything but put drakes belly-up in the decoys — that's on you. Popular with beginners and veterans alike, it goes from whiny feeder chatter to a convincing comeback call.
Roughly half the size of a standard short-reed, the Trainwreck
packs a wallop; honks, clucks, moans, spit notes, quick spits — they're all there. Fast and responsive, the call features a threaded barrel and insert, so it won't fall out.
Haydel's Shorty Cut-Down Speck
Back by popular demand, Haydel's reintroduces the Cut-Down Speck
. A shortened barrel and hand-sanded reed were designed to facilitate air flow. The Shorty positions the caller's air closer to the reed, allowing for maximum control and sweet sounds.
Knutson's Sporting Goods
If it has anything to do with waterfowl, Knutson's
will certainly have it. Knutson's carries a full line of entry-level and high-end duck and goose calls, including such legendary names as Buck Gardner, Zink, Carlson, and Tim Grounds.
Wing Nutz Deuce
Eastern Shore legend Sean Mann
delivers a shortened barrel, translating into an ultra-raspy sound, and tons of attitude. Available in open water or timber models — and either single-reed (the Ace
) or double-reed (the Deuce) — these calls will have ducks landing in your lap.
Wing Nutz Wing Mann
The Wing Mann
sports a shortened reed, barrel, and insert, along with the company's well-recognized hex-nut. Don't let the size fool you; the Wing Mann offers an almost infinite tonal variety. One hand or two, it doesn't matter. This one simply sounds perfect.
Sure-Shot Yentzen One
A duck-call debate would not be complete without mentioning the Yentzen
. Recognized as the inventors of the double-reed, the folks at Sure-Shot set the waterfowling world on its ear again with the Yentzen One
. Great low-end like a double, but with fantastic highs like a single, you'll want this call on your lanyard.
Zink Green Machine ATM
Designed as a companion to the popular PH-2
, the ATM
double-reed features the same smooth mallard sound callers have grown to love, but with greater volume and a radically improved bottom-end feeder chuckle. Featuring the Z-CUT no-stick tone channel, you'll get a huge range of tones while virtually eliminating irritating reed-lock.
Zink Call of Death
Developed for ultimate power, volume, and top-end speed, the COD
offers a nasty low-end perfect for finishing wary birds. With its straight bore mouthpiece, slender end piece and worn-in tone channel, the COD looks every bit as good as it sounds.
Sean Mann Ma Barker
Bark-style calls cut through the nonsense and tell fickle birds what to do. The Ma Barker
was developed to provide power and volume with very little air. You can bark at '˜em, yell at '˜em, even whisper to '˜em. And you'll be amazed at the results.
Sure-Shot Speckle Belly
The Speckle Belly
call duplicates the laughing, wawa sounds and cackles of the white-fronted goose. So if you're chasing a trophy speck for the wall, this is the call for you. Made of durable plastic for a long hunting life.
Sean Mann Shoreman XP-1
The Express, a hand-tuned molded version of the iconic Eastern Shoreman, afforded callers world-champion sound in a no-nonsense style. In a similar vein, the XP-1
resembles its predecessor, with performance-enhancing features like proprietary material construction, CNC machining, unmatched resonance, and a poly-cylindrical bore that allows for more natural sound production.