Duck Talk

Three world champions weigh in on the science and spirit of calling waterfowl, and on the meaning of being a duck hunter on the Grand Prairie.

Three-time duck-calling world champion John Stephens bought into Rich-N-Tone in the 1990s and is now its president.
Photo courtesy of Jim Spencer.

Call it a rule of thumb: If you expect your company to succeed, you'd better have a deep and abiding interest in the thing that's the focal point of your business. If an insurance agent doesn't like people, he's going to fail. A farmer had better like dirt. And a duck call company? Well . . . quack, quack, quack.

To say that the folks at Rich-N-Tone Calls, Inc., have a deep and abiding interest in ducks is like saying that Dale Earnhardt Jr. can drive a race car: Both statements are true, and both fail to convey the essence of the enterprise. Junior doesn't just drive a car -- he masters it, bends it to his will, wrings every drop of performance out of it. Running in heavy traffic at 170 m.p.h., he does things that the rest of us can only dream about.

And when John Stephens, Butch Richenback and Jim Ronquest get their hands on a duck call, they, too, do things that the rest of us can only dream about.

Those are familiar names to serious duck hunters not just in Arkansas but from coast to coast and in Canada as well. The 62-year-old Butch Richenback, founder and senior member of Rich-N-Tone, was a protégé of duck-calling icon Chick Majors. He more or less grew up in Majors' Dixie Mallard call-making shop in Stuttgart in the 1950s and '60s and learned the dual crafts of making and blowing calls at the master's knee.


You want to impress them, too, sure -- but you don't do it by pretty calling." --Jim Ronquest
 

He learned well, too, winning the 1972 world-championship title and the coveted Champion of Champions crown in 1975 before retiring from competition calling and starting his own company in 1976.

John Stephens, a three-time world champion, was in his turn Richenback's protégé. Now 36, he more or less grew up in the RNT duck call shop, bought into the company in the 1990s and is now president. And Jim Ronquest, a two-time U.S. Open winner in the late 1990s and the 2006 world duck-calling champion, worked part-time for the company for more than a decade before joining the full-time RNT staff a few years ago as media director.

All three men are active in the company on a daily basis, each with his area of responsibility and expertise. Butch Richenback tunes all the custom calls -- every single one -- before they go out the door. He's an on-the-spot instructor for walk-in customers --"I won't sell somebody a call if they can't blow it," he said -- and conducts annual kids' duck-calling clinics at the store. He is also the company's unofficial but highly effective resident curmudgeon, dispensing earthy advice, keeping things grounded, minimizing nonsense and in general making sure that everyone keeps leaning into the traces. Once, he bopped the then-teenaged Stephens on top of the head with an acrylic wand after the youngster told him he couldn't perform some now-forgotten task.

Ronquest handles most of the media-relations chores for the company, taking outdoor writers, customers, sales reps and assorted other VIPs hunting. He is also the highly-talented producer of the company's video series and cable network outdoor show -- a fact that he finds vaguely surprising, and more than a little amusing.

"Man, 10 years ago I could barely operate a VCR, and I didn't even know how to turn on a computer," he said through his patented bushy-faced grin. "Now look at me: Of all the things I never dreamed I'd be, I'm a television producer." The company's award-winning show, RNT-V airs weekly on satellite TV, and the video series now boasts multiple titles.

John Stephens, bopped head and all, is the company's visionary and major source of energy. "I guess that whack with the wand took," Richenback said of his counterpart today. "John can do anything he sets his mind to."

Stephens is forever designing new products and trying to make improvements to old ones. He's anywhere and everywhere in the RNT shop. You're likely to find him elbow-deep in a balky, high-tech call-making machine, or designing a new product or product logo on the computer screen in his rear-of-the-building office. Or fitting duck call components together. Or discussing the next season's TV show schedule with Ronquest. Or asking Richenback's advice on just about anything under the sun.

This combination of talent, work ethic, energy level and love for both contest calling and duck hunting has taken Rich-N-Tone from a corner-of-the-garage hobby shop to the front of the custom duck call industry. RNT now has dealers in every state, and the list of calling contest wins by contestants using RNT calls is staggering: more than 70 assorted world-champion titles (nobody seems to know exactly how many, but at least 15 of them were men's world-champion titles) and more than 320 regional, state and local contest wins. Since 2003, RNT calls have chalked up more than 1,200 Top 5 contest finishes nationwide -- more than 200 per year.

As impressive as those numbers are, most hunters would agree that calling contests don't really have much to do with duck hunting -- right? Maybe yes; maybe no. As you might expect, the three world champions who are the faces of RNT have some opinions on that, as well as on many other subjects relating to duck hunting and duck calling.

"In contest calling, you blow a specific routine," Richenback explained, "and everything is exaggerated. The long, multi-note hail call, the long, complicated feeding chatter, all that -- it's all based on duck sounds, but it's stylized to appeal to human ears, to the judges' ears."


"A duck call is a musical instrument, and you're a musician; you're playing a song for the ducks. And if you don't play the right song, you ain't going to get him." --Butch Richenback
 

"You're calling to impress the judges when you're on the stage, but when you're in the woods, the judges all have feathers.

Stephens agreed. "You can call ducks successfully with a contest call," he said, "but you have to change your style of calling to do it. The basic difference is a hunting call won't have that high ringing note, and the contest call won't have the deep, raspy bottom. But the biggest difference to me is t

hat in a contest you're trying to show what all you can do with a call; you've got to have realism in it, but you're showing out with it. When you're hunting, you're not showing out; you're trying to figure out whatever works. Sometimes that means showing out, but usually it's something less flashy."

"I call it gymnastics," observed Ronquest. "Like Butch said, you're calling to impress the judges when you're on the stage, but when you're in the woods, the judges all have feathers. You want to impress them, too, sure -- but you don't do it by pretty calling; you do it by figuring out what the judges like and then giving it to them."

That sounds easy enough. But how do you figure out what all those feathered judges want to hear?

"By trying different stuff," Richenback offered. "If this bunch of ducks comes by and you hit them with a loud hail call and they don't respond -- well, maybe you ought to try something a little different with the next bunch. It's not all that hard; it's just trial and error. It's a guessing game. And the longer you hunt ducks, the more times you go, the more ducks you try to work, the better you're going to get at guessing.

"The thing to keep in mind is that a duck call is a musical instrument, and you're a musician; you're playing a song for the ducks. And if you don't play the right song, you ain't going to get him."

Every hunting day is different, as all duck hunters know, and not every group of ducks will react in the same way to a particular style of calling, even on the same day. All three champions agreed that this is one of the most fascinating and compelling aspects of duck hunting -- this process of figuring out what type of calling the birds want and how they want it presented.

"One bunch of ducks you try to work might be mostly young birds fresh in from a long flight, and they're tired, hungry and inexperienced," Stephens said. "That's probably going to be a pretty easy bunch of ducks to get in. But the next bunch may have been in the neighborhood for a month, and they're led by an old hen that's been up and down the flyway two or three times. Chances are you're going to have to work a lot harder to get that bunch into gun range, and that doesn't necessarily mean you've got to call more at them. Actually, you'll probably do better on smart, experienced ducks by calling less, not more."

Ronquest seconded that view. "This is probably not a very good thing for somebody who sells duck calls for a living to say," he added, "but sometimes the best calling you can do is shut up and kick the water."

"They call that 'finesse,'" Richenback noted dryly, waving an arm at the two younger men. "But I don't see how in the world anybody could look at these two guys or listen to them blow a call and think either one of them has any of it."


"There's so much more to duck hunting than killing a limit. Don't get me wrong: It's the reason we all get up and go. But to me, the real joy of it is watching 'em fly. If you can call in a bunch of mallards without it lighting your fire, then, buddy -- your wood's all wet." --Jim Ronquest
 

Evidently, though, they do have some of it. Both Stephens and Ronquest have many years' experience as highly successful professional duck guides, Stephens mostly for the legendary Russell McCollum's Wildlife Acres before it went private two years ago (though he still guides there) and Ronquest as owner of RNT Guide Service, based at Holly Grove. Richenback had to bow out of duck hunting for about seven years owing to health problems, but a heart transplant two years ago has brought him back strong.

"They wouldn't let me hunt for a long time there when I was feeling bad," Richenback said, "but last season John let me go twice. I'm going to go a lot more often this season, but I expect my guiding days are over."

These days, most of Stephens' and Ronquest's duck hunting is done on private clubs and leased land, but both men have considerable experience with the abundant public-land hunting in east Arkansas, and still hunt public land when the ducks are there. Anyone planning a freelance duck hunting trip to the Grand Prairie area will find their advice worth listening to.

"First thing is: Do some advance scouting," Ronquest suggested. "Water conditions are important. There's no sense going to Dagmar, say, or Cache River Refuge if the place doesn't have anything flooded. But all that information is easy to obtain from the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission's weekly waterfowl report."

The agency's twice-weekly report is posted on the AGFC Web site, www.agfc.com, and is also available via telephone and email. "The report also lists estimates of duck abundance and hunter success rates," Ronquest said. "This kind of information is harder to keep up to date, though, and it isn't quite as reliable as the water level reports."

Luckily, plenty of other sources of information are available to the hunter seeking up-to-the-minute intelligence reports. Duck hunters have always liked to maintain informal information-sharing networks, and the influence of the Internet has accelerated and consolidated that tendency. Literally dozens of Web sites enable hunters to come together to share information; a Google search will swamp you.

By checking things out ahead of time and making or adjusting travel plans accordingly, hunters wanting a taste of the "Stuttgart experience" can shift the odds of success in their favor. But getting there when the water is right and the ducks are present is only part of it. You still have to be able to take advantage of it when you get there.

Crowding, always a problem at public hunting tracts in the Grand Prairie area, has worsened in recent years. Getting away from the crowds is a key element for success.

"There are basically only two ways to get away from the crowds," advised Stephens. "One is to go farther in and seek out those less-pressured pockets, and the other is to hunt when most other folks aren't."

The first option is increasingly hard to pull off. Several of the public hunting areas in the Stuttgart area are big: Bayou Meto WMA covers more than 30,000 acres; White River NWR has more than 50,000 acres open to public duck hunting and Cache River NWR nearly 40,000 acres. Lots of hunters use them. Therefore, the low-pressure hunting areas are getting smaller and scarcer.

"If a hunter has some flexibility in his schedule, he can avoid the worst of the crowding by hunting when most other folks are out of the woods," Ronquest said. "Weekends and early mornings are the most crowded times, but late in the morning on a midweek workday can make for some pretty uncrowded hunting, and late morning is often when the ducks hit the timber best anyway."

Ronquest, Stephens and Richenback are all unsure about the effect of recent surges in gasoline and fuel prices on the issue of crowded public land. "Duc

k hunters like to travel," Stephens said, "so you'd think it would lessen the pressure a little, because some folks would stay home. But duck hunters aren't reasonable when it comes to duck hunting. Most of the people I've talked to said they're still going to make their duck hunting trips and cut back on expenses somewhere else."

Fewer but longer trips are a possibility for traveling hunters this year, too, Ronquest believes. "Lots of folks have in the past come to hunt the Stuttgart area several weekends every season," he remarked, "or maybe every weekend. Some of the people I've talked to are telling me they're going to cut back on the number of trips but stay longer when they do come."

Richenback offered yet another take on the situation. "These high fuel prices are affecting more than just travel costs," he said. "The cost of pumping water to flood duck hunting fields is four times what it was a couple years ago, and that means farmers have to go up on their lease prices, and that means fewer and fewer people are going to lease fields. I think that might increase the pressure on public land even more."

The bottom line, of course, is that no one knows ahead of time what's going to happen this duck season. A few things are certain, though. One is that the Stuttgart area is still going to be one of the most likely places to come hunt ducks; another is that the RNT boys will be out after 'em there.

"There's so much more to duck hunting than killing a limit," said Ronquest. "Don't get me wrong: It's the reason we all get up and go. But to me, the real joy of it is watching 'em fly. If you can call in a bunch of mallards without it lighting your fire, then, buddy -- your wood's all wet."

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