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Am I Really That Bad … At Calling Ducks?

Teaching anybody to talk to ducks can be easy or it can be the most frustrating thing in the world. The talk itself isn’t rocket science, but when and how to use it properly is a lifelong pursuit, one that many will attempt, but never master.

Heck, folks can win duck-calling contests — yes, there is such a thing and it’s very competitive — and they will drive hours to compete against each other and hear the hot-shot rookie call. While there are many fine callers in said competitions, they all will say the same thing — calling in a contest isn’t like calling in a blind.

There are two types of calling — contest and meat — and today we will discuss meat calling.

I have been fortunate enough to call both in many contests and even judge a few. There are many lessons one can learn by listening to other callers call. I’ll let you all in on a little secret. Get your butt off the couch, drive down to the lake or pond where ducks hang out, sit back and listen, and, for goodness’s sake, leave your calls in the truck. No need to practice on the real thing and get them used to your calling. That will come back and bite you. Drop the tailgate and sit, watch and listen to ducks as they communicate with each other.

Take note of how and what they say to each other when they are on the water, feeding, and when other ducks fly over and the ducks on the water communicate with the ducks in the air. We are so lucky where we live. We have plenty of ducks that will teach us before opening day.

The range of sounds replicable with a duck call can be overwhelming. While more advanced calling sequences can work, the easiest sound is grossly underrated: the simple quack. When a single hen is allowed to land in your spread, you’ll usually get to hear her raspy, guttural quack. It’ll be slightly urgent, as if she’s lost from her friends. Yet that sound is often overlooked in modern calling routines.

Start at step one and learn to quack. Doing so will often bring ducks to the spread when seemingly nothing else will. On still, calm days, or in areas with heavy hunting pressure, a single-note quack in repetition is deadly. Don’t leave home without it.

Your hunting partner is a pretty good duck caller and he firmly believes his $150 acrylic call is the best one made. But when you try his favorite acrylic masterpiece, the sounds you make, well, they’re not good. Regardless of your buddy’s instructions, you simply can’t make a decent sound with his duck call. When afield, the ducks sure aren’t buying it.

As one that has designed and built duck calls for a couple decades, there is a reason there is a wide selection and style of calls. Everybody has their own style and most importantly lung capacity or “air.”

Find a call that fits your “air” not the one that looks pretty, or your buddy likes best. Call manufacturers that offer calls with a variety of reed, barrel and end-piece designs. The best way to determine your best fit is through simple trial and error at a dealer with several different calls.

Information abounds these days, including information about duck calling. The source for much of that information is provided by folks in the contest calling realm. Now, almost without fail, those guys are good at calling ducks. But a contest-calling “routine” can sound absurdly over the top, particularly if you haven’t learned the basics yet.

Here’s something else you’ll notice if you spend time in a duck’s world: you hear many more sounds than those of hen mallards. You’ll hear teal peeping, and wigeon and pintails whistling. Drake mallards make a gweeb sound that really gets your blood flowing, and gadwalls are vocal with a soft, distinct quack of their own. You’ve never tried any of those sounds while hunting.

Many companies produce calls to mimic wigeon, pintails, drake mallards and gadwalls. Give them a try, especially on calm days when calling can be tough. Late-season mallards can be real suckers for a good drake whistle, as the males seem to be more vocal when pairing with mates for the spring.

Everyone knows it’s wrong to “blow” into a duck call; doing that simply produces kazoo-like sounds. So, you grunt, deep from within your gut. Occasionally, the noise you create sounds like a duck. More often, it leaves you out of breath and sounds like a guy grunting on a duck call.

While it may come as a great surprise, the more advanced callers become, the more they actually blow into the call. Veterans learn to “play” a duck call like an instrument, using forced air that is pressurized in the throat or roof of the mouth, rather than in the stomach. A tell-tale sign of proper technique is the ability to produce ducky sounds at all volume levels, down to a whisper. Again, start with a single quack to learn proper air pressure. Worry about the other sounds later.

So, you’ve done some practicing, and can make pretty good sounds on a duck call. Yet, you still suck at calling ducks. You’re baffled by how often the birds simply ignore you, or even flare away. But while hunting with a veteran, chills go down your spine while you watch him turn birds into the spread with a single hail call at just the right moment. He says something about “calling on the corners,” but you’re not really sure what that means.

Learn to watch and “read” ducks. Only give hail or greeting style calls at birds when they appear to be leaving the area. If they are approaching, or any single bird in the flock is coming into the decoys, stay quiet, or at most, use single quacks and some feed calls. If the birds circle over and then pass by as if looking for another destination, hit them with a hail call; that’s the mysterious “corner.” When they turn back to you, tone it down again.

You’ve heard ducks make a variety of noises, and duck callers make even more. It’s apparent that the en vogue method of calling is to use a loud hailing call, followed up by machine-gun chatter once ducks begin circling. Ask yourself: how often do real ducks do that?

Ducks make different sounds in different environments. Hundreds of ducks in a marshy refuge make different sounds than a group of birds feeding in the timber. Many call methods are intended to overexaggerate a natural occurrence, like high-ball hail calls and super-aggressive feed chatter. But such sounds might be overkill when hunting over a couple dozen decoys.

Approach duck calling with a naturalist’s perspective and duplicate the sounds based on your surroundings. Remember, for the most part, a mallard feeds a maximum of a foot below water, or 16 inches above ground. Feed chatter doesn’t sound natural if your decoys are set in 3 feet of water.

Calling is one of the most enjoyable aspects of duck hunting. So, it’s easy to want to call every duck you see. But sometimes it’s as if the ducks purposely turn away when you call. You’re hidden well and the decoys look good, so you conclude it may indeed be the calling. But how does that make sense? Real ducks call at each other all the time.

Don’t call approaching ducks. If you have to make noise for things to feel right, keep it to a minimum. In situations where ducks receive a great deal of hunting pressure, they may actually avoid areas where they hear calling. There are a few signs you are calling too much. That happens if ducks approach without any calling and decoy immediately, or if ducks fly over, likely downwind from behind you, and one series of greeting calls turns them on a dime.

While live ducks may have different tones and pitches, they all have a very similar cadence. Not matching that is the surest way to make your duck calls sound fake.

As nature reveals, the pitch of a duck’s call varies from bird to bird. Young, immature hens are supposedly higher pitched than older, raspy hens. So, a caller can have a varying degree of pitch without worry, but matching the cadence and rhythm is critical. Aside from single quacks, a hen’s most common sound is a five- to seven-note greeting. The first or second notes are often the most stressed, and then they tone down.

Most novice callers err on the side of being too aggressive. You’ve heard that over and again and have tried to avoid it. And still, you’re watching ducks light out of range or fly right on past you.

In some situations, loud, aggressive calling works. One example is when ducks are about to land in a nearby location, but not directly in your set. Right before they touch down, loud calling will often “bounce” them back up and bring them into the decoys. Aggressive calling can also work when traveling ducks are flying past your spread without intentions of landing there. Many veterans refer to this as “running traffic,” and it’s often the situation you’re in when you’re not hunting the X. In that scenario, it can be best to call hard at the high birds to start them down, then tone down to more realistic calling once they circle.

Then, there are days when loud calling is just the most effective method. Only the ducks can tell you that. If they respond to aggressive tactics, but turn away when you slack off, try hammering on them all the way until you shoulder the gun

That’s yet another way of summarizing duck calling’s most important tip of all. Figure out what the ducks want, and give it to them. Welcome to a lifelong journey and learning experience.

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