March 24, 2015
When the north wind blows through the Gulf Coast of Texas, James "Cowboy" Fernandez is a happy man — it means the ducks are in trouble. At age 12, Cowboy, who earned the nickname because he was the first member of his family of Spanish immigrants to be born in the Lone Star state, would grab his sack of marbles, slingshot and one decoy tied to a string, and head out to his favorite reservoir. He would stand in the water or on shore, tugging that cord, giving ducks confidence to land in the decoys...er, sorry...decoy.
"I never killed a bird, but I did hit a few of them," Cowboy says. "I must have raised the water level in that reservoir an inch-and-a-half with the number of marbles I shot at those ducks."
His father finally bought him a single-shot Higgins 12-gauge to terrorize the mallards, but it wasn't until he returned from the military, after joining up as a 17-year-old, that Cowboy began to blow a call. Soon he would meet the iconic George Yentzen, who took the young apprentice under his wing.
"When I learned to use a duck call, that's when it was curtains for so many ducks, because I could get them in close," Cowboy said.
Yentzen showed the young man how to build calls, and Cowboy brought over a strap full of teal as often as he could, more interested in George's ducks over rice than the call-making business. In the early 1950s the two men patented the first double-reed, but Sure-Shot would not take off until the next decade, after Cowboy won the World Calling Championship in Stuttgart and made an appearance on Johnny Carson's "The Tonight Show."
Before Sure-Shot came to fruition as a company, Yentzen died. George's wife said she didn't want anyone but Cowboy to take the reins. He remembers getting off work one evening, going to the garage and tooling all night with the Yentzen to perfect it. His wife hollered at him time and again to come in the house and eat, take a shower, go to bed. When he finally came in for the night, he said, "I believe I'll have that supper now." And she responded, "nope, you gotta go to work."
Cowboy was a hustler and still is, even into his 80s. He worked a marketing job for Gulf States Utilities, finished an engineering degree and squeezed money out of buying and selling surplus decoys, running a guide service and even refurbishing old refrigerators. At night he made sales calls and jumped a plane every weekend to peddle his sought-after Yentzen.
"I was working, going to school and making duck calls. I was always busy. With a wife and five kids, one job just wasn't enough to take care of everyone," said Cowboy, who paid for the college educations of his two boys and three girls.
The first few years were lean, as they can be for most fledgling businesses. Cowboy made 35 calls in his garage the first year and 55 the second — each by hand — selling them all. In Sure-Shot's third year, the order was 555, and he was still holding down the job at Gulf States, running a duck club and more or less doing whatever he had to do to make ends meet.
"There's one thing about me," Cowboy said. "I never give up."
His litany of stories could be cataloged in an anthology similar to Encyclopedia Britannica. He's traveled the world (at one time you could buy a Sure-Shot call in seven foreign countries), taught Chicago Bears running back Walter Payton and actress Jane Fonda how to blow a duck call, and once shared a duck camp with Babe Ruth, though the Great Bambino had been over-served the night before and could not be rousted to chase a few ducks in the morning.
By the time he was able to solely focus on Sure-Shot, Cowboy's calls were in all the box stores. The Yentzen was one of the first products Cabela's sold in its mail-order catalog. He got into Wal-Mart after a demonstration in an employee bathroom after the buyer told him there was no place to have the meeting. After his first cadence, someone in a stall hollered out, "sounds like a Yentzen to me."
Cowboy had taken Sure-Shot far beyond George Yentzen's dreams. From the late '50s to the early '70s it was one of the hottest calls on the market, right next to Olt, Faulk, F.A. Allen and the rest.
"I told him once how impressive it was that he ran that business solely for 52 years," said Charlie Holder, who bought Sure-Shot from Cowboy in 2011. "Yes, he had help and had employees, but to be a single proprietor for that long...it's a pretty huge milestone."
But Sure-Shot began to slowly fade as Cowboy's health deteriorated and with the passing of his wife. He was shrinking orders and pulling back from the box stores. His grandson Curtis Arnold was there to watch it all. He started folding boxes and brochures at 12, Cowboy paying him out of his pocket.
At 14 he moved over to the big shop and started putting reeds together and sweeping up sawdust from the lathe. He began running some of the machines by 16 and when he graduated from college, was soon put in charge of the every day operation of Sure-Shot.
The only problem was with few orders to fill Sure-Shot was struggling, and he watched as long-time employees left and the shop nearly shut down.
"We only cared about Cowboy's health. We wanted him to get better," Arnold said. "People would call and ask us about orders and we just had to tell them there were bigger things on our plate."
Cowboy did recover, but revitalizing a call business for a man in his 80s wasn't going to happen. He couldn't make those sales calls, the long flights, even longer days: enter Charlie Holder.
Holder started his first senior care facility at 21, had two outdoor radio shows, a TV show affiliated with Gander Mountain and currently owns a drug-testing business.
He knew and had a relationship with Cowboy from his radio days, and Cowboy had offered him a sales job years ago, which he was thrilled to get, but had to turn down with the new senior care facility coming online and a baby on the way. In 2005-06 Cowboy offered to sell the company to Charlie.
"It was just never the right time," Holder said. "Cowboy approached me about buying, but every thing else was going in my favor with the other businesses."
Then in 2011 a mutual friend told Charlie he should go check in on Cowboy. The two men hadn't seen each other in a few years.
"He didn't look good," Holder said. "I called him a few days later and asked 'you thinking about selling?' He said 'you need to come and get it.'"
Holder met his longtime friend at the shop. The doors were locked and lights were off in the middle of September, prime time for callmakers. They ironed out a deal and over the last few years Charlie has brought the Cowboy hustle back to Sure-Shot.
He's courting companies like Nissan to sponsor major industry trips at exclusive lodges where country music stars gather with outdoor writers around the fire. The hunts gets bigger and more exclusive every year, which is kind of an oddity considering you can still buy a Yentzen for $50 or less. It's starting to pay off. Online sales were at an all-time high last year, and Sure-Shot is showing up in more regional stores by the day.
"I didn't know what an uphill battle it would be to get back into the box stores," Holder said.
What Sure-Shot has going for it is innovation. Arnold sees a lot of room in the call market to expand, and not just with more calls, as Sure-Shot already has not only duck and goose calls, but deer, predator, squirrel, hog and turkey calls.
"I'm really excited about some of the new innovations we are going to make," said Arnold, who runs the shop and helped develop the Yentzen One.
The One is comprised of a composite found in heart pumps and the nose piece of nuclear submarines. It does not absorb sound, so it's a loud call, but what's most interesting is the composite is three times the cost of acrylic, yet Sure-Shot is still able to price it reasonably. It's just the first of many cutting-edge developments to come.
And Cowboy is still with the company. Still the face of Sure-Shot. Still teaching. On a recent trip to Saskatchewan he sat at the dining room table each day at lunch and dinner with a new victim/student.
"Blow the call," he would say. His student would oblige. "Why would you blow my call like that? That doesn't sound like a hen mallard."
This "lesson" would go on until you could give him a good three-note cadence, which for most was until the next hunt or bedtime.
"My wife and I are both in the health care industry, so we see and deal with a lot of older people," Holder said. "I've never seen a man his age that sharp. If you try and battle wits with him, he'll rip you to shreds."