By Bill Mays
Waterfowl hunting windows of opportunity often open late and shut down early, so today's waterfowl hunter has to be on top of his game. The duck blind has to be well hidden and blended with the environment, the decoys strategically placed, and one has to be good at “fowl language” to successfully meet the challenge of modern waterfowl seasons.
It's not necessary to be a world champion duck caller to have success in the field or the marsh. If you have been to a world class calling competition, you know what I’m talking about. To prove just this point, many of today's duck calling championships have added "straight meat" calling to the competition. Straight meat callers are trying to simulate a group of mallards coming to a decoy spread.
The callers must greet the incoming ducks, lose them, bring them back, and then finish the birds exactly as if it were a hunting situation. Yes, to be considered a good caller in the field, the caller must be able to know when and how to use fowl language, including a high ball, comeback, greeting, and finish call.
This article covers how to choose calls that are cost effective and user friendly to the beginner, the basics of calling, and ways to learn how to become a better duck caller.
Cost effective and user friendly
First of all, when purchasing a duck call, it’s not like buying a new vehicle or other sporting goods equipment. A high-dollar duck call does not mean it will sound better or be easier to blow. On the contrary, in most cases the higher-end duck calls are extremely difficult for beginners to blow. Every hunter is different in the way he or she blows a duck call, and before purchasing a duck call, make sure it has a sound close to something that is workable.
Haydels Game Calls has donated product to youth promotions at the International Sportsman’s Expositions over the years. One year they donated a DR-85 duck call that has an excellent sound, is user friendly and very inexpensive. The children at the youth fair took the calls right out of the box and within a few minutes had sound good enough to compete in the duck-calling contest. That call has been on my lanyard ever since and used in the duck blind with some excellent success.
When purchasing that first duck call, don’t look at the price tag. Try it and make sure the call is user friendly for your style of calling. Don’t be like so many other waterfowl hunters and have a gear bag full of calls that sound terrible.
The basics of fowl language
A great place to learn to duck call is in your vehicle driving to and from a hunt, work, or just running everyday errands. While practicing in the vehicle, there won’t be barking dogs in the neighborhood, or complaining neighbors or wives. Just place an instructional tape or CD in player and start practicing.
A duck call is just like a musical reed instrument, it has a reed and the only way to achieve the desire tone is through reed control. Do not blow into the call; the air must come from the diaphragm or stomach. If your stomach is not moving in and out the air is not coming from your diaphragm.
Remember not all ducks sound the same, yet good callers can make all of them work. It's the cadence and when and what to say to the birds that really counts. Sit on the bank of a pond or a park that have mallard ducks on it and just watch and listen to how the ducks communicate with each other. You won’t believe how bad some of the hen mallards will sound. The key is to try and sound like a duck.
When the call starts sounding close to your observations and the sound of the training recording you are using, it's time to bring your talents to the blind. When the hunting is slow, ask your partners to let you call along with them. In the blind is where it all starts coming together. Once you start to sound like you're getting close, eventually the blind partners will let you know you're ready to start calling ducks to the decoy spread.
Don't start calling live ducks too early or the phone may not ring next duck season! It's normal to be nervous and the first couple of flights the sound of your calling won’t sound as good as the practice sessions. Stay with it and you’ll start sounding better thanks to the experience. Experience brings confidence...and ducks to the decoys.
Give them what they want loud and clear
I carry four Haydels duck calls on the lanyard at all times: the DR-85, Red Leg Mallard, Timber Cutter, and Dirty Rice call. Why would a duck hunter have four different styles of mallard calls and not just one on the lanyard? Each call has a different pitch and sound for different hunting areas. For instance, the Timber Cutter was made to carry well over woodland ponds.
The Dirty Rice call has been the most effective call in the rice fields of the Sacramento Valley and the pot holes in the Klamath Basin where I venture to hunt from my home in Northern California. The Dirty Rice Call has a soft tone and won’t echo in the pothole or insinuate in the fog in the valley rice fields.
I use the other calls on clear or windy days in the rice fields or stormy days in a pothole and which one to use hinges on what sound the birds like that particular day. Birds can react and change from day to day depending on what sound gets their attention or settles them in for that final approach.
Be a whistle blower
Some days, usually towards the end of the season, the birds do not want a mallard call and it’s time to switch to the whistles. Haydels Magnum Pintail whistle is actually four calls in one, pintail, widgeon, teal, and the mallard drake.
It's good to carry extra whistles in the gear bag for hunters that aren’t proficient callers. Within minutes they are easily taught to blow the whistle and it gives them the chance to participate in the calling. This really works well with youth hunters in your blind; it allows them to participate in the hunt even if they are not old enough to pull the trigger.
Keep getting better
Good waterfowl hunters are constantly looking for new ideas and ways to improve their hunting techniques. Hunt with as many waterfowl hunters as possible, and you will learn something from everyone that steps into the boat or blind.
Outdoor writer Bill Mays is an expert waterfowler and judges duck-calling competitions. You can find more tips on hunting in his newsletter, Wing and Clay Online.