Talking To Ducks And Geese

When you're calling to waterfowl, it's sometimes not so much what you say as it is how you say it and what you say it with. Here's your guide to...

If you've ever sat in on a championship duck- or goose-calling contest you've no doubt marveled at the dazzling array of honks, quacks and other sounds that the pros use to impress the judges.

But then, with all that showmanship in mind, walk out to a local pond to listen to the birds themselves. You won't hear the wide range of sounds typical of a competition among humans, but rather the real thing as made by ducks and geese in the wild.

When you've got to convince a flock of mallards or a pair of Canadas to bail into your decoy spread, you want to sound as natural as possible. Do as live birds do, and when live birds do it.

IT'S YOUR CALL
The first thing a good caller needs to do is to sort through the hundreds of offerings at the local sporting goods store to find something that works for him. You've got to be comfortable with the call you blow before you have any chance of convincing birds to land. If you can, ask to try out a sample of the call in the store to see if it feels right for you. If that's not possible, ask your hunting buddies to let you try out their calls until you find something you like. Choosing the right call can be a difficult process, with a variety of types to select from: double-reed or single-reed in wood or acrylic.

Novice duck callers may assume that the only difference between single- and double-reed models is the number of reeds, but there's more to it than that. The most important aspect of the double-reed call is its superior user-friendliness: The user need only bring air up from the diaphragm and shut the notes off with a "T" sound (what phonologists call the "voiceless alveolar plosive"). Also, the double reed will have one tone that can be either loud or soft.

Each waterfowler needs and wants a call to fit the quarry and the environment. If you're hunting big open water or a giant field of goose decoys, the louder you can call, the better. Remember that ducks and geese can see for miles from the air, and your field or decoy spread is just one of a hundred places they can see and could potentially land in. If it's a windy day and the birds are upwind, reaching them with a call is even tougher. Most double-reed models put out a lot of volume and so are highly suitable for this kind of attention-getting calling.

Timber-style calls are better for close-in situations, such as flooded timber or small marsh areas. Timber calls are a great addition to your lanyard, because even in expansive open-water situations they can be used as finishing calls, producing a mellow sound when the birds are on that final pass and you don't want to blast them out with something larger.

Most novices start out with a double-reed call, because that type is easier to blow, but if you really want to sound natural, you'll need to graduate at some point to single-reed calls. What you hear at duck- and goose-calling competitions are mostly single-reed calls.

Single-reed calls are the choice of most "professional" callers, because once you've mastered a single-reed call you can make yourself sound like more than one duck. The multiple-duck effect can benefit you greatly when hunting hard-to-work birds. However, the single-reed call takes a lot of practice, because you have to bring air up from the diaphragm, emit a short grunt, and stop the note with your tongue to get just the right note out.

Another decision that a prospective duck caller has to make is whether to buy a wooden or acrylic call. While wooden duck calls have been used successfully for decades, the proliferation of acrylic calls on the market now has more and more hunters using them.

One definite advantage of acrylic calls is durability. Wooden calls soak up moisture, which can change the dimensions of the barrel and thus change the sound; acrylic models don't have that problem, and a call fabricated from this impermeable plastic should last a lifetime.

START WITH THE BASICS
Once you've bought a call, you've got to learn how to blow it. Every hunter has to have some basic calls for both ducks and geese in the arsenal. We'll start with the ducks.

Ducks
As easy as the call may sound, some callers never master the basic quack, a short, two-syllable note that's produced by happy hen mallards (they do most of the talking). It's a great confidence call and is easily made by just saying the word "quack" into the call.

The lonesome-hen call can be very effective, especially when ducks are call-shy. This is nothing more than widely spaced, irregular, drawn-out quacks. You can base your lonesome hen on your basic quack, but remember to spread the quacks out and to make the call a bit lower and throatier.

Yet another standard call is the feeding call/chuckle, a rumbling call produced by saying tika-tika-tika over and over. The feeding call adds variety to the sounds you make, but shouldn't be overused.

One other good call to add to the mix is the mallard whistle. Besides being something else to add variety to your calls, the mallard whistle is easy to blow. If you venture out with young hunters, this is a great call to teach them, because they can blow it with ease, and thus feel partly responsible for bringing in the ducks. And an accomplished caller can produce all the necessary pintail and widgeon noises and chirps with the whistle as well.

Canada Geese
The standard call for goose hunting is the honk. Anybody who's ever heard a gaggle of geese fly over on a fall day has heard it. But callers often try to make it too complicated. It's made up of two notes, a low pitch -- deep, guttural -- and then a high one, the cluck or the honk. Just about everything else in goose calling is a variation on those two notes.

One sound that varies from that pattern would be the feeding growl. For this you make the reed vibrate with that low-frequency sound that contented geese make when they're on the ground and talking. Just a deep buzzing sound made with little air pressure, the wah-wah-wah of the feeding growl mimics contented geese on the ground. Throw in some clucks to add to the realism of the entire scene and create the impression of multiple geese.

The hail call is a drawn-out version of the honk used to draw geese in over long distances. You're not really going for accuracy here, just volume and excitement. If you can get that flock to look your way with a hail call, you can use your more intricate stuff as they get closer.

A simple but effective tactic is to try sounding like two different geese. You can accompli

sh that by changing the position of your hand around the end of the call. Practice until you get honks in different pitches; then, intersperse them to sound like more than one bird.

When you get birds to within about 50 yards or so, you want to finish them and get them to put their feet down. Since they're close, you don't want to blow them out of the spread, so you want to tone down your calling and start trying to make realistic goose sounds. You're trying to imitate a contented flock of geese feeding and resting on the ground. Realism comes through by mixing up the calls, but a sequence of soft feeding growls, moans and soft clucks will help you bring them in

If birds have come over to have a look at your spread but seem content to keep on motoring to wherever they were headed, you can pull out what's called a comeback call. A comeback call exhibits no set pattern: It's more about being excited and energetic than a matter of the actual sounds that you're making. Once again, you'll get sounds that aren't quite so "goosey," but if the birds are leaving, you've got to throw everything you've got at them. Basically, try to achieve a very excited and dominating calling sequence, which depending on the situation can either almost beg or practically command those birds to turn.

KNOW WHEN TO CALL
Having the right call and making the right sounds are important -- but just as important is knowing when to call and when just to shut up. The key to knowing when to call is the ability to understand how to read the ducks and geese that you're hunting. Acquiring this skill requires you to become a careful observer of the actions and reactions of the ducks or geese you're calling to or may be calling to.

First, figure out whether the birds that you're observing are callable at all. The callable ones give you some type of indication of searching for a landing site: a pause, skip or flutter in a wingbeat -- possibly, head movement that swings side to side, or suggests that the bird has begun to look down. You'll be trying to pick up on anything giving you a clue that these birds aren't just passing through.

Remember, too, that you don't have to call every bird in the group into your decoys. One common mistake is to call to a group rather than to identify the bird or couple of birds most interested in joining your spread. When you initially begin calling a flight of ducks or geese, you want to start looking immediately for the individuals in the group that show the greatest level of interest and start calling directly to them. Your goal is to find the most committed in the group and have them coax the majority to come in with them.

Don't give up calling too soon. Sometimes the leading ducks in a flock will go on, but those in the back will peel off and start working your decoys. The leading birds may see something more interesting farther on, but the trailing ducks will home in on your decoys. Unlike geese, which can be very difficult to draw out of their straight-line Vs, ducks aren't highly structured, and those that leave a flock are often not coerced back into line by their fellows, as geese seem to be. If the whole flock seems to be on a direct route to the Gulf of Mexico, there's no sense in blowing until you're gasping for air.

But don't quit too early!

CALL CARE
An important step in keeping your call sounding right and bringing in the birds is to make sure that you maintain it properly, both in the field and at home.

A major component of that is keeping the call clean. Whether you're hunting geese in a cornfield littered with chaff and stubble or standing hip-deep in the muddy water surrounding some flooded timber, something -- even if it's just dirt or water -- can always get stuck in your call and change the dynamics of the sound.

Frequently flush your call in cool or cold water from the exhaust or inset end near the mouthpiece; pull it apart occasionally, remove reed and cork, clean everything thoroughly and reassemble it, being careful not to kink or otherwise deform the reed. Most calls use a sliver of cork to hold the reed to the soundboard. If you drop your call in the water or hunt in the rain, repeated wetting and drying can cause the corks to shrink and thus hold the reed less tightly. Most of the current crop of Mylar reeds are very durable and will last a season or two -- but the corks won't.

Waterfowlers who hunt nearly every day will probably need to replace their reeds at least once a year. Reeds can crack and break or just get out of kilter. Knowing how to change the reeds in your call can save a good day of hunting if something goes wrong. Of course to be able to change your reeds, you'll need to carry an extra set.

Most call makers make replacement reeds available to their customers. The reeds come in varying degrees of thickness and are cut or trimmed in slightly different manners. Reed thickness is matched to the call. You can manipulate the reeds in a double-reed call to find a sound you like, but do so with caution: A slight modification can make a big difference in the sound produced by the call.

SUMMARY
One thing to remember above all else: Have fun. Everybody had to learn how to call at one point, so if you blow a wrong note or scare a flock off, don't worry too much. The more you practice, the better you'll get. There are other things to enjoy about hunting than just bringing home the meat -- so get out there! Happy calling and happy hunting!

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