Ronquest on Ducks
September 24, 2010
Get inside the mind of one of the finest duck hunters in the world as we pick the brain of this duck-calling virtuoso from Stuttgart.
With innumerable calling contest championships and thousands of ducks to his credit, Jim Ronquest is one of the planet's top duck hunters. Photo by Ken West.
By Jim Spencer
On any morning of any Arkansas duck season, you can bet your last box of Hevi-Shot 5s that Jim Ronquest will be wearing waders. If there's been enough rainfall to put some backwater in the bottomland timber of east Arkansas, look for him there, leaning against the fluted, muscular trunk of some old willow oak or water oak and scanning the sky for ducks. If the bottoms aren't flooded, he'll be hunting a timbered brake somewhere.
Ronquest, you see, does this for a living. As a professional guide and public relations manager for Rich-N-Tone Duck Calls, he hunts almost every day of duck season. In addition to the duck hunting savvy he's acquired from so much face time with ducks, Jim is a competition caller of no small stature. The 37-year-old pro has been calling competitively since age 14, and he rarely finishes out of the money. His titles include two U.S. Open championships (1998 and 1999), the 1997 Grand National Team Meat-Calling Contest title, the Illinois Waterfowl Alliance title in 2000, and several regional contest titles scattered around the country. In 1999, he finished second in the Big One - Stuttgart's World Championship Duck Calling contest, for which Ronquest has qualified twelve times - in a match decided by only a few judging points. "That's kind of like kissing your sister," he said, with the gentle sense of country-boy humor that's an integral part of his personality. "It's pretty good, I guess, but you don't really want to talk about it."
Ronquest and his wife, Rosi, co-chair the Cache River Regional Calling Contest in Brinkley each year, and he handles the detail work for the Mack's Prairie Wings regional in Stuttgart.
Ronquest has been hunting ducks longer than he's been entering calling contests. Born in Rolla, Mo., he was raised in western Kentucky, in the prime duck- and goose-hunting country surrounding the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. "Dad liked to hunt ducks and geese, and when I got old enough he started taking me," Ronquest recalled. "I fell in love with it."
Even so, neither Jim nor his father had any inkling just how big a part of his life duck hunting would become.
"By the time we moved back to Missouri, when I was about ready to graduate from high school, I was hooked," he said. "I stayed in Missouri for a few years, hunting ducks and geese wherever I could, and in 1994, I moved to Arkansas because of the good duck hunting. I guess I'm here to stay."
Too bad for the ducks. Jim Ronquest probably isn't the best duck hunter in North America, but in any listing of the top 10, his name would have to be in the hat. His opinions are well worth considering.
FAVORED HAUNTS AND SWEATING THE DETAILS Like many Arkansas hunters, Ronquest prefers flooded-timber hunting above all other types, and he prefers big woods and natural flooding rather than smaller greentree impoundments.
"The problem is the river bottoms don't always flood during duck season," he said. "Even when they do, it often doesn't last long."
That's why, when the White and Cache rivers aren't out of their banks, Ronquest hunts a dead-timber brake not far from his home in Holly Grove.
He uses 200 or more decoys in his brake hunting, partly because he hunts there a lot and can leave the decoys in place all season and partly because large spreads are more visible to distant ducks. He uses mostly magnum-sized decoys for the same reason. But don't think that just because Ronquest leaves his decoy spread out all season he's lackadaisical about his dekes.
"I have a guy who helps me put the decoys back in shape during every off-season," he said. "We clean them and patch the ones that leak, and we repaint them. Some only require a touch-up, and others get an entire new paint job." He uses latex paint, flat colors for the main body and satin-finish for the parts of the bird that have contrast and shine, such as the white neck band and green head. Ronquest also alters the factory paint job in another important way.
"Basically, we exaggerate all the contrasts," he explained. "We make the white neck band on the drakes about a half-inch - twice as wide as it is on a live duck. The white tail feather edges get the same treatment. Instead of a solid gray back, we paint them black and white to increase the contrast. The bill color on most factory decoys is too yellow, and we repaint it to get it right - sort of a greenish-yellow."
Why all the bother? Ronquest said it makes the decoys look more natural from the air, and it makes them stand out on the water. "I flew over one of my decoys spreads once, and we looked at them from all angles and several heights, getting the view a duck has. The exaggerated paint job makes them really jump out, especially on cloudy days. Decoys are your visual aids, and they're the key to a lot of your hunting success. They should be as visible and natural-looking from a distance as possible."
Ronquest said that some serious hunters even paint their decoys with Armor-All to give them a gloss like the feathers of live ducks, but, he confesses, he doesn't do it. "It takes more time than I can afford just to repaint 'em," he said.
IT'S IN THE WAY THAT YOU MOVE IT Motion in the spread, Ronquest feels, is extremely important.
"It doesn't much matter how you get it done, but movement is vital to success, especially on still days," he said firmly. "Still decoys don't look natural, and they don't pull ducks very well."
In his permanent dead-timber brake hunting spot, Ronquest uses a combination of tricks to get that desired wiggle.
"Jerk cords have been the duck hunter's friend for many years," he said. "I've got a couple of them rigged in my permanent spread, and they really make a difference."
Ronquest feels that though the many varieties of moving decoys have their place, some are more trouble, and are more expensive, than they're really worth. "The Robo-Duck and other spinning-wing decoys that have become so popular in the last few years are beginning to lose a lot of their effectiveness," he said. "You could see a difference in the way ducks reacted to them even as early as the second year they were used. I'm not saying they don't work any more - because there are days when they do still make a differenc
e - but we've educated an entire population of ducks, and the education is continental in scope. Ducks are becoming more and more wise to spinners, and the huge advantage the spinners gave hunters that first year or two just isn't there any more. I'm certainly not against spinning-wing decoys, but if the Fish and Wildlife Service outlawed them, I don't believe it would break my heart."
Ronquest also uses other motion-producing techniques. "This isn't appropriate for freelance green-timber hunting, but one thing that's very effective if you have a permanent place to hunt is to use a standard electric trolling motor to create movement," he said. "Build a 2-by-4 frame and use a sledgehammer to drive it into the bottom in your spread, paint the frame and the trolling motor black or camo, and adjust the propeller so it's just below the surface and pushing water through your decoys. It makes the decoys swim, and it's also a good way to help keep the water from freezing in cold weather."
Ever since the first duck hunter waded into backwater, we've been kicking the water to create motion. Ronquest also believes in this, but with a few cautionary words. "If there wasn't some value to it, it would have gone out of favor over the past 100 years or so," he said. "But be careful when and how hard you kick. Don't risk it when the birds are headed your way, unless you're behind a large-enough tree to completely hide your movements. I've also spooked ducks by kicking too hard and making too loud a splash. Just stir the water a little - that's all you need."
CLEAR-WATER BLUES AND DECOY SPREADS Whether you're hunting green timber, dead-timber brakes or fields, Ronquest says, you're at a disadvantage if the water in your decoy spread isn't muddy.
"Ducks like muddy water," he explained. "A muddy area makes it look like ducks have been using the place, and your decoys stand out better and look better sitting on it.
"Muddy up your shooting hole, whether you're hunting in timber or elsewhere. If it starts to settle out and clear up, get out and muddy it up some more. It's worth the effort. If I'm hunting a rice field and we've used a four-wheeler to get out there, I'll run the machine around in the spread to muddy things up. You'll shoot a lot more ducks over brown water."
As far as the spread itself is concerned, Ronquest doesn't think much of the fancy J-hook, double-oval and crossed-lines placement patterns you see in waterfowl hunting how-to books.
"Just chunk 'em out and don't try to think so hard," he said. "The most important thing is that you leave places in your spread for ducks to light. If your spread is a big one, you also need to leave a few flight lanes. Ducks don't like to cross decoys, and if you don't leave lanes for them to fly through, they'll swing wide almost every time."
Public-land hunters generally don't use big decoy spreads, if they use decoys at all. Most hunters rely on calling and kicking water, and this works fine when there are good numbers of ducks and they're in a working mood. But when ducks are scarce and/or call-shy, Ronquest believes, even a dozen or two dozen decoys can be a big advantage in green-timber hunting.
"You need a little better opening, so the ducks can see them, but they'll often turn the trick when everything else fails. Just put the decoys right where you want the ducks to be when it's time to shoot. If the hole is big enough, put the decoys from the middle of the hole to the upwind edge of it, to give incoming ducks the best chance to see them and to give the ducks a place to land. You want the ducks to light to your decoys, not land in them. Give them a place to sit."
CALLING ALL DUCKS And finally we come to the part about calling ducks. A hunter with less experience and expertise than Jim Ronquest's (and that includes practically all of us) might think that a championship-caliber caller like him would fill the woods with a barrage of nonstop duck talk. And sometimes that's exactly what he does.
"Other times, though, the best calling is no calling at all," Ronquest said. "I love to call ducks, and usually I'm pretty aggressive with it, but there are times when the best thing to do is put the call in your pocket and grab the jerk string."
But how do you know which times are which? "By trying different stuff. A lot of hunters, though, give them too much. Those loud, long hail calls you hear in the contests don't have a place in the duck woods. I like to start off to a bunch of ducks with a few loud, short licks - QUACK, QUACK, quack-quack-quack. That will get their attention, and it sounds more natural than a long, drawn-out hail call."
Ronquest also believes in trying high ducks. "Lots of hunters don't think they can break those twinklers down, but sometimes it works," he said. "You won't get 'em all, but you won't get any of 'em if you don't try."
When he's hunting in green timber, Ronquest practices a tactic he calls "trolling." "Basically, I just try to sound like a happy little hen," he explained. "I just call a little - mostly contented stuff, a few quacks, some clucks, some feeding calls. In the timber, you're not going to see all the ducks that are in hearing range of your calling, so it pays to make some duck noise even when you don't have ducks in sight. Try to sound like a duck, instead of like a hunter blowing a duck call."
Once Ronquest is working a flight of ducks, he tries to take his cues from their reaction and adjusts his calling accordingly. "If you find something they like, keep at it," he advised. "I like to keep ducks thinking in my direction. Lots of times when you lay off of them, they'll see something else, or they might hear a live hen, and a live hen will kick your butt every time.
"Sometimes I'll stay on 'em all the way down. Sometimes you get to a point where you feel like you ought to slack up on them, and then you lose them. I use a lot of hard feed calling on approaching ducks, even in the woods. I think that sounds a lot more like ducks on the water than a bunch of loud quacking."
Like most callers, Ronquest usually shuts up when the ducks make that first pass directly overhead, but he hits them again when they get past.
"I like to call 'on the corners.' When you see wingtips and tail feathers, it's time to hit them hard and get them turned. But try to let them get far enough away on that last downwind swing so they have time to line up right when they come back. You can turn ducks too quick and they'll miss you when they come back, so sometimes you have to let them carry out there a little bit so they can set up right for the shooting."
Whether or not two or more hunters should be calling to the ducks depends on a lot of things, Ronquest believes. Among those things are the experience and skill of the callers, the call-wariness of the ducks, wind speed and a few other factors.
"Even if it's the best duck callers there can be too much," he said. "It's OK for everybody to help get a flock started, but you're usua
lly better off if one person finishes them. With too many folks calling, sometimes you can blow 'em out. You have to slack off sometimes to let 'em in, and it's easier when only one person is doing it."
In the final analysis, Jim Ronquest thinks the main mistake most duck hunters make - with their calling, decoy placement, hunting techniques or other facets of the sport - is falling into a rut.
"Try not to have a consistent way of doing things," he said. "Having a favorite calling style or hunting method is one thing, but when that favorite way becomes the only way you do something, it's going to cost you. Be versatile; try new things. Sooner or later you'll hit on what's working."
For information on Rich-N-Tone Calls or on guided green-timber or flooded-timber hunting in eastern Arkansas, contact Jim Ronquest at Rich-N-Tone Guide Service, 20590 Highway 366, Holly Grove, AR 72069, call him at (870) 734-4497, or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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