Advanced Duck Calling Tactics
September 24, 2010
There are times when you need to sing special music when calling ducks. Use these tricks to your advantage!
You don't have to be a master duck caller to kill ducks.
No waterfowler would argue that being in the right place is much more important than calling. It's just a lot easier to call ducks to a spot they want to be rather than to where you want them to be. But being able to replicate even the most basic hen mallard calls can add greatly to your success. When you're not in the exact right spot - or when the birds have been worked over for a few weeks or competition is keen - is when advanced duck calling tactics really come into their own.
Hunters who have the option of resorting to more aggressive or innovative calling tactics while using a variety of calls or multiple callers to out-pull other hunters have a real advantage. Utilizing species-specific calls to lure a variety of birds into range can be an ace-in-the-hole, too.
The only way to become an accomplished caller is to practice. You can't expect to be a concert violinist when you pick up the instrument only infrequently or just on concert dates. Likewise, you're never going to improve on your calling skills if the only time you grab your duck call is when hunting season is just around the corner. It takes years of practice to become an accomplished caller, and most waterfowlers aren't willing to put in the time.
Practice on your commute to work. Stick in one of the many instruction tapes that are available and wail away. You may get some strange looks from passing motorists, but come fall you'll be a much better caller. Go to the park and listen to live ducks and replicate the sounds they make. Duck calling isn't that difficult, and with even a little practice you'll see a noticeable difference.
Your calling abilities could make the difference between just a romp in the swamp and duck dinner. Photo by Mike Gnatkowski
Knowing how to make loud hail calls, excited greeting calls, and contented feed chuckles and gabble is important, but it's just as important to know when to use each call. Accomplished callers don't blast away at every duck in sight. Instead, they concentrate on callable birds, ones that look interested and might give their decoy spread a look, and save their breath on ones that don't. I've seen guys blast away with a non-stop barrage of high balls at long, high skeins of ducks that were obviously on a mission. No amount of calling is going to change their minds.
My son gets really frustrated with me at times when we're hunting because I won't call at every duck in sight. He'll see a flock of ducks in the distance and implore me to "call, Dad, call!!!" thinking I can magically turn them toward our decoys. Once in a while when he compels me to put my special talents to the test, I'll stand up on the boat seat and yell, "Here ducks! Here ducks!" Matt will give me one of those looks and roll his eyes skyward, but my actions usually get a point across. You're wasting your breath calling to birds that obviously have no intention on coming in your direction. Instead, look for smaller groups of birds whose wingbeats are slower, more deliberate. Their necks will be outstretched, craning, looking for company. Those are the birds you can call. Pick your battles, and your calling success rate will skyrocket.
Veteran callers learn to recognize duck attitudes and adjust their calling rhythm and cadence accordingly. The typical sequence when working a flock of ducks into the decoys is to first get their attention with a loud hail call. Once they start coming in your direction, welcome them with an excited greeting call. Should the birds start to slip off or show signs of losing interest, give them a pleading comeback call. If the ducks start circling and looking for the ducks talking to them, give them some soft feeding chuckles and hen quacks to seal the deal. If everything goes as planned, the next thing you should see will be ducks with their wings cupped and feet dangling over the decoys. Not every scenario follows the same script, though, and you often need to adapt. Call-shy ducks might be leery of loud calling and you might have to resort to using more muffled, soft calls and forget the loud stuff. Other times, one elated greeting call may be all it takes. Be flexible and observant. Let the ducks tell you what they want.
Avid waterfowlers are easy to spot. They're the ones with the strings of calls around their neck. The assortment of calls does more than provide a place for them to hang their leg-band collection. To begin with, it's a good idea to have more than one call just to have a backup. Moisture and weather conditions can have an adverse effect on calls and sometimes you need a spare. But a better reason to have multiple calls is that each call usually is best in a certain situation, and has a certain quality and tone. It's rare to find one call that does it all. Some calls are super loud; others are raspy, reedy and do a perfect job of making soft calls when birds get close.
I have a collection of probably a dozen calls, but rely mainly on two or three. One is a fairly inexpensive Rich-N-Tone call that is really loud. The hard plastic call is my attention-getter. I can produce boisterous hail calls that cut the wind and raucous greeting calls with it. My hunting buddies have loud Haydel and Primos calls that perform in similar fashion. They're great in the wide-open spaces of a big marsh when you need to reach out to get attention. My other call is a little wooden Faulk's duck call that I bought years ago for less than the price of a six-pack. The call is small. I can muffle it easily and it makes sultry hen quacks and staccato feeding chatter. That call is my finisher. None of them are expensive calls.
Some will ask how you can be a expert caller and not own a least one acrylic or Cocobolo wood call complete with a gold band that costs the better part of a week's paycheck. I don't know, but my inexpensive calls do a pretty fine job of producing convincing duck talk, and a lot of ducks meet their demise every year with their help.
Another good reason to have more than one call is that all ducks don't sound alike. Just like humans, each duck has its own voice pattern. Some are raspy; some are loud; some are subtle. Different calls can sound like different ducks. I often find myself shifting from one call to another while working a flock to sound like different ducks. The tactic is usually very convincing.
One point I hear experienced callers make is to not call while ducks are directly overhead. A friend once scolded me for letting loose with an excited greeting call when a flock of mallards were directly over us. Before he could complete his tongue lashing, the entire flock had done an abrupt U-turn and was hovering over our decoys. I regrouped in time to drop two big greenheads from the flock. I didn't hear anything about my calling tactics anymore.
In my mind, nothing sounds more unrealistic than a flock of ducks that is calling from below to suddenly go silent when another flock approaches. It would seem that is when you'd want to call so the ducks can see your decoys and equate the calling with the birds on the water. Granted, you need to be careful when calling when ducks are directly overhead. You need to keep completely still. Don't look up to see where the ducks are. Make sure your camouflage blends in with your surroundings. Keep dogs from fidgeting and watch directly over the decoys. If everything goes right, that's where the ducks will appear.
One mistake beginning callers make is to not use their hand to vary the tone of their call. Your hand becomes an extension of your call and can be used to project sound or muffle it depending on how you manipulate your hand. When tolling birds at a distance, point your call in the direction of the birds and open the hand over the barrel of the call to create a megaphone effect. Opening your hand will let the sound out, create maximum volume when you need it and project the sound in the direction you want it to go. Conversely, when working birds in close, point your call down toward the water so the sounds coming from the call resonate out from your hide. That way ducks are less likely to pinpoint your position. Alternate opening and closing your hand over the barrel of the call when doing hen quacks and feed chuckles to add different inflections to your calling and to simulate more than one duck.
If one caller can sound like several ducks, just imagine what a group of experienced callers can sound like. In hard-hunted public areas there are really only two strategies. Go with the subtle approach and try to coax battle-wise birds into range or go hog wild and try to outblow everyone else. Often the more-is-better approach wins.
The advantage of a bunch of experienced callers combining their talents is that they can sound like a whole lot of ducks. Even wily ducks that have endured extensive hunting pressure usually find the lure of a lot of company more than they can stand. But the callers in the group need to understand each caller's strengths and weaknesses and be careful not to "walk" on each other. It doesn't do any good for the whole bunch to blast away with all callers doing one boisterous hail call at once. One guy usually does the long-range work and others can join in with quacks, growls, chatter and the occasional greeting call. The idea is to sound like a bunch of happy ducks.
Years ago a group of us would combine our resources and hunt a popular public marsh that bordered a refuge that held thousands of ducks during the peak of the season. Typically, the ducks would amass in sizable flocks, spiral up to dizzying heights and then head out to neighboring grain fields twice a day. The ducks usually would come back the same way, high and out of shotgun range. Newly arriving ducks sometimes made the mistake of coming down in the marsh and occasionally, if you put out a big spread of dekes and blew your head off, you'd coax a few birds into range.
We arrived early and secured a big pothole in the middle of the marsh under one of the prime flight paths one November. As we placed our spread of more than 80 mallard blocks, we could hear the chatter of the mallards overhead headed out to the fields.
It was about an hour after daylight when the ducks started to return. We spread out around the C-shaped spread we had laid out. The flocks were an endless string of specks against the blue sky and on a beeline toward the refuge when we'd open up with our barrage of calling. You could see their attitudes change. Wingbeats would slow and they'd begin a slow descent, only to dump wind and quickly spiral down for a closer look. Most would continue on toward the safety of the refuge, but occasionally flocks of 25 or 30 mallards would wheel in unison over the open water in front of us, fixed on the cacophony of quacking and clucking and pile into the hole in the center of our decoy spread. Several times it seemed to be raining greenheads. No one in the marsh fired a shot except when we'd let hen mallards flare off with raucous quacking when they realized they'd been had, only to venture too close to another decoy spread. During one lull in the action we heard the cattails rustling behind us and two hunters busted through the cover into the opening near our boat.
"Sorry. We just wanted to see how many guys you had over here calling!" said the one camo-clad face.
"Sounds like the whole darn refuge is over here!" said the other.
Apparently the ducks thought so, too.
Even novice callers can be a big help when group calling. You don't need to be too fancy. Just concentrate on the feeding chatter and hen quacks. Let the more experienced callers handle the more difficult calls. Together, you can sound like a whole bunch of ducks. The calling abilities of my hunting partner Rick Morley have improved tremendously over the past few years. Together, we now make a deadly one-two combination that most ducks can't resist. It just proves that two callers - or even three or four - are better than one.
Most ducks will respond readily to a mallard call. Most calls imitate the call of a hen mallard. Hen mallards are the most vocal and do the majority of the talking.
On an out-of-state hunt a few years ago, Rick and I were one bird short of our limit when I spied a drake widgeon heading in our direction. I gave a short, sharp greeting on the mallard call and the widgeon cupped his wings and came gliding into the set. I expected the duck to fold at any second when I looked over to see Rick fumbling with his safety. The widgeon flared at the movement and was headed away when I again gave him a quick comeback call. The baldpate did an abrupt U-turn and once again came parachuting into the dekes. This time he got dusted.
While just about all ducks will respond to mallard calls, not all ducks quack like mallards. Some peep, chirp, whistle and squeal. Widgeon make a distinct who-who-who-we-who call. Teal peep. Pintail drakes make a melodious two-tone call that sounds like a police whistle. Using the species-specific calls can help attract a variety of ducks to your spread and add a different dimension to your calling. One hunter can be doing the classic mallard talk while the other chirps and whistles on a pintail/widgeon call.
Using a whistle call requires that you be able to identify the ducks on the wing so you can make the proper call. Keys to identification are the size of the duck, silhouette, flight pattern and coloration.
Diving ducks aren't as vocal as puddle ducks, but they still make a number of hoarse quacks, growls and purrs. While duck calling is directed mainly at puddle ducks, don't be afraid to try some throaty sounds when divers are buzzing your set. I once had a flock of lesser scaup skirt the edge of my decoy spread and I heard them make a muffled growl. A few minutes later a drake bluebill was headed toward the dekes and I rolled my tongue to make a bbrrr-bbrrr sound on my mallard call.
The bluebill spotted the decoys, set his wings and ended up belly-up 30 feet from the boat. Some manufacturers make calls specifically for diving ducks.
You don't need a $200 call to become an accomplished duck caller. The main ingredient is practice - and remember, it's the singer, not the song.
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