Duck-Calling Tips From A Legend

A lifetime spent calling and hunting waterfowl has taught Mike McLemore a lot about "duck talk." And believe me, what he knows is worth listening to!

Mike McLemore works his calling magic on passing ducks to lure them in. He started hunting and calling at an early age -- and what he learned has taken him to three world duck-calling championships!
Photo by Gerald Almy.

Mike McLemore is a living legend in the world of waterfowling. He lives and breathes ducks, duck hunting and duck calling. Over the years he has turned that passion into skills that have established him as one of the most knowledgeable experts alive on the subject of waterfowl hunting -- and as a bonus, into a world-champion duck caller.

The infatuation with ducks began early for Mike. He was just 7 years old when he started hunting with his father in the marshes and flooded timber near his home.

Mike had a natural talent for calling, but he also worked hard to build on that base and take it to the highest possible level that he could attain. By the time he was a teenager in high school, everyone wanted to hunt with him, because they knew his calling could really bring in the ducks.

Decades later, McLemore's as active as ever in the world of waterfowl -- giving seminars about ducks and how to call them, writing about them, shooting them, cooking them, eating them. Some say that when Mike waddles into a blind, he looks like a duck!

Though he might take exception to that, one thing is for sure: McLemore can make with the duck talk like few other human beings. After participating in some small contests, Mike won the ultimate event, the World Championship of Duck Calling in Stuttgart, Ark., in 1973, at the age of 28. He came back and recaptured first place the following year, then in 1977 he won the award again. With three wins under his belt, McLemore was no longer eligible to compete in the World Championship.

One more possibility existed, though. Every five years the Championship of Champions is held. In 1980, he captured that final honor by belting out highballs, comebacks, feed chatter and lonesome hen calls so realistic that he sounded better, some say, than the real birds.

You can only win the ultimate event once, so Mike's contest days were over, but not his duck calling, duck hunting and teaching others about the sport. Today, he gives talks, emcees events and sells his own line of calls. That's in the spring and summer. In fall and winter, Mike mostly does one thing: calling and hunting ducks. Some contest callers may not know much about hunting ducks in the real world, but Mike knows how to put his talent to work on the water.

I was fortunate to join McLemore for a hunt a while back to see his calling skills firsthand. It was a so-so day for waterfowling, the weather warm and the sky clear, but we were determined to give it our best shot.

We rose well before dawn and, after a hearty breakfast, eased out through white shrouds of fog in the flooded timber to see what day would bring. I was avid to see how this legend's calling would stack up against the tough conditions we faced.

With help from a friend, Mike arranged the decoys carefully, so the birds would feel comfortable setting in close with the direction the wind was blowing. He made sure to leave a nice opening in which they could try to land within good shotgun range if his calling could draw them in.

Settling back, we waited silently for dawn and legal shooting time to arrive. Suddenly someone hissed, "I hear a drake."

The plaintive call of a mallard drake cut sharply through the dense white fog. Quack, quack, quack.

The sound of hen mallards came from the blind as several members of the hunting party other than Mike tried to settle the drake down onto the water. They were raspy and guttural, pleading with the greenhead to take refuge on this quiet pothole in the flooded timber. Their calls sounded good to me -- but the drake would have none of it.

We saw it start to fly away from the decoys just before Mike started calling. Then, suddenly, everything changed; it was as if someone had thrown a boomerang around the duck. The mallard immediately banked hard in the soft morning mist, turned abruptly and flapped straight toward Mike's calls. With a short half-circle completed, the duck was fluttering its wings and getting ready to land 20 yards out when one of the hunters shot twice and the drake dropped cleanly into the marsh. The Lab sitting next to me dove in and quickly retrieved the downed bird.

McLemore's modest about his skills, but we knew we'd seen a dramatic demonstration of phenomenal calling talent. In barely 10 minutes, he'd lured in a duck that really didn't seem to want to come in to the spread at all. It was almost as if Mike had a rope around the bird's neck, so convincing was his duck talk.

After that red-hot start, action slowed a bit, with dry spells between a few lively moments when one or a handful of ducks would fly within range. That gave me plenty of time to pick Mike's brain on the topic of how best to improve duck calling and hunting skills. First, though, I asked him a bit more about his contest wins.

"A lot of it is luck," he says modestly. "The thing you're after in a contest is the absence of mistakes. The majority of the guys entering these events are very good callers. The one who wins is the caller who blows three rounds without making a mistake. Yet you can't be timid. To win, you have to be aggressive with the call, really attack it, yet be smooth. It's a striving for perfection, like a concert performance by a musician."

Although he doesn't play any musical instruments, Mike does believe he was born with a certain natural talent for blowing a call. "I picked it up too easily. I know some boys who would be super if practice were the only thing involved."

But Mike says that anyone can learn to call ducks well enough to bring them into a spread of decoys. "It takes practice, though. Unfortunately, many people don't know a really good caller to get help from, or they're too shy or embarrassed to ask for criticism and instruction. I've found this especially true with older people."

If you don't have a local expert to advise you, Mike recommends, use instructional audio tapes or videos. Another good option: Visit some real ducks and listen to them.

"Go to refuges, ponds or marshes and listen to how the birds sound," says Mike. "Tape them, and then try to mimic those sounds. The main thing is to memorize exactly what the live ducks sou

nd like.

"You'll mostly be mimicking the hen mallard -- she does the majority of the talking. With her call you can bring in most puddle duck species, not just mallards."

As a three-time world champion, Mike has some strong feelings on the subject of calls. "To duplicate the hen mallard's sound, you need a quality call. Calls are like fishing rods. There are good ones and bad ones. A lot of people buy a call, practice and practice, and then wonder why they never get better. They don't have a decent call to use -- that's why."

Mike prefers high-pitched calls. "They cut the air better and carry farther," he says. "Also look for a call that quacks like a duck and feed-calls freely. If it will do those things, it will do anything else you want it to."

The main thing is to have confidence in the call and its mesh with your personal abilities. Don't try to skimp by buying a cheap model. "If you consider all the other gear you buy and use for hunting like coats, guns, decoys and blinds, the cost of a quality call isn't that much," Mike advises. "To me, a duck call is as important as my shotgun. Why should I skimp on a call when I have all this money invested in other gear that's not nearly as important as the call?"

Once you find a call you like, Mike says, "buy two of them." You might break a reed, lose the call, or have one freeze up in the blind. With two, you'll always have a spare.

Some people like to switch calls to match the type of water they're hunting. Mike believes that to be a mistake. "It's hard for even an expert to switch calls, because each must be blown differently. Instead, tune the same call to suit the habitat you're hunting. A good call is versatile enough so that you can use it loud for open water and then choke it down for timber hunting. Raising the reed will make the call raspier for enticing birds in flooded timber."

Some competitive duck callers like to make it sound as if it's a complex art form, and credit waterfowl with college-level vocabularies; Mike says it's not nearly that involved. "If you're not a great caller even after lots of practice, don't worry. I don't believe the ducks hear all that we call anyway. Think about if you're across the road and somebody yells something. You don't hear it all, maybe only one or two things they might be trying to say. It's the same way with ducks. If you make a mistake, keep calling. Don't stop, or you might spook the birds.

"A lot of guys think you're bringing the ducks in exclusively with your call. I don't believe that. I think the call mostly just gets their attention; the decoys do the work of bringing them in. Of course, if I'm in timber and don't have any decoys, then sure -- they're coming strictly to the call."

Mike listed the four basic calls that you should know: the hail call (a fast series of quacks strung together), the feed call, the comeback call and the lonesome hen call. Of these, the most important are the first two.

"The quack is made by saying the work quick or quack into the call. Bring the air up from your diaphragm and control the notes with your tongue, cutting them off sharply at the end. Use the hail call -- a series of quacks strung together in a high-pitched, fast sequence -- when the birds are, say, one-fourth to one-half mile away."

"As the birds get closer, greet them. Tell them this is where they want to be '¦ this is the feeding place, the resting place."

"The feed call is made by saying the words ticka-tooka or dugga-digga -- anything that has a guttural note. Try it slow at first, and then increase the speed later. Use this when birds are over the decoys and you want them to settle down."

The third call Mike uses is the comeback. Use this when the birds have come over your decoys, but didn't settle down and have drifted past the spread.

"Use it if you think they're going to leave. Try to turn them around in a calm way at first, but if it doesn't look like they're going to, get a little more excited. Plead with them '¦ 'please come back' '¦ get a desperate tone to the calling."

If the ducks turn around and start to come, then use the fourth call, the lonesome hen or old hen call. "This is the call the contented hen uses to settle birds on the water. Quack, quack, quack '¦ softer, slower, quieter than the hail call. Think of the word 'contented.'"

One thing Mike stresses is flexibility. "Use common sense. You can't go out there hunting every day and do the same thing and expect to kill ducks every time. You've got to be willing to change, experiment and try different things."

Mike cites one example in his own development as a waterfowler. "I used to believe that you didn't have to do a whole lot of loud calling in a blind to get ducks. But I gradually backed off that theory when hunting on public land is involved because of the pressure and the competition from other blinds and hunters calling over their spreads.

"I hunted an area a while back where there were five or six blinds within 400 yards of us. We all had about 200 decoys out. I know for a fact that if I'd just sat back and called a little, we wouldn't have gotten any ducks. They just weren't working near our blind, but were favoring the areas where the others had their spreads."

"The only way I could get them was when they'd swing wide every now and then. I'd hit them hard, real hard, then with a fast greeting and loud comeback, pleading to get their attention and get them to come over. Once I got their attention, then I could work them in."

Mike says you can decide if a duck is worth calling by how far it is. "If a duck is within half a mile, I'll call. If it's real windy, I cut that distance in half and only call if they're within a quarter-mile.

"Hit him hard and loud at first. You can tell quickly if he can be worked. If he pulls, then you know you've got his attention and can start in on him with a greeting call. Call real fast with lots of quacks -- try to make it sound like more than one duck on the water. If he acts like he wants to come in, don't call any more. The more calling, the more chance there is of spooking him.

"If the duck banks, sees the decoys and starts to turn away, hit him again to draw him back in. I mostly use the contented hen on the water at this stage, although I throw in a little feed call now at times '¦ slow and broken up '¦ tick, tick, tick."

When to stop calling also depends on the ducks' reaction. If a duck is kind of shy, Mike eases up. If the bird is eating it up, he'll sometimes keep calling until it's right on the water, just for the fun of it.

Besides recommending that you learn the four major calls, Mike has some strong thoughts on putting out decoys as well. "Set them closer than most people do. First of all, if you light 25 percent of the ducks you work, you're doing well today. That means most of your shooting is not going to be over the decoys. It will be pass-shooting as

the ducks swing in close to look."

"Even if the birds do come in and try to land, 90 percent of them are going to do so at the far edge of the decoys out of shooting range. They've learned through the years to do it for survival. They're educated. It's a natural instinct, just like quail and bass have changed their behaviors."

Because of this, Mike likes to set the decoys very close to the blind. "If they swing close, they're going to be in shooting range. If they try to light, they're going to be a little closer, perhaps in shooting range."

If you do this, it's important to camouflage the blind and hunters better than you would with the decoy spread farther out. "You have to sit real still, too, until you're ready to shoot."

Next time you're in the blind, use this legend's calling and hunting tips, and you may get that opportunity to aim at incoming ducks in short order!

FOR YOUR INFORMATION

Mike McLemore's instructional audio tapes or videos can be ordered from 244 Quail St., Huntingdon, TN 38344; or call (731) 986-3090.

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