December 23, 2015
For anyone who loves the sport of duck hunting – and duck calling too – the downtown area of Stuttgart, Ark., becomes the center of the known world for a few days every November.
As has been the case every year since 1936, the Saturday after Thanksgiving Day brings the annual World's Championship Duck Calling Contest, an event that lures in the best of the best with an Arkansas style J-Frame duck call in their hands.
If you're a duck hunter, heading to downtown Stuttgart and the annual Wings Over the Prairie Festival to hear all of the Main Street caterwauling on the last Saturday in November is a bucket-list pilgrimage, one akin to being a golfer that gets to visit the hallowed lawn of Amen Corner at Augusta National.
And if you're anybody that's anybody in the world of duck calling, you've eventually got to find yourself on that Main Street stage with a duck call in one hand and the world championship trophy in the other, just as 2015 winner Logan Hancock did this year and 2014 winner David St. John did a year ago.
During a great many of those years, the world champ hails from the nearby duck hunting hamlets of eastern Arkansas where duck hunting is a religion and calling begins virtually in the cradle.
In fact, the last six world duck calling champs – and nine of the last 16 champs – have all carried Arkansas driver licenses in their wallets.
In similar fashion, most world champs blow the standard issue J-frame, or Arkansas-style duck call, the single-reed instrument that excels in going to the top of the scale to blow ringing highballs, finding the middle ground for staccato feed chuckles and going to the bottom end of things to utter guttural lonesome hen quacks, all a part of the 90-second Main Street routine designed to call judges more so than ducks.
But every once in a while, some one crashes the party a bit, something that happened in a big way back in 1959 when James "Cowboy" Fernandez showed up in Stuttgart with a most unusual wooden contraption around his neck, a double-reed duck call known as the Yentzen.
Birthed on a back-porch band saw in the 1940s by Fernandez and his partner George Yentzen, both of Nederland, Texas, at the time, the double-reed duck call design was tinkered with for the better part of a decade before the pair settled on a final design.
Patented in 1950, the Yentzen's two riveted reeds stacked on top of each other allowed for a rich, ducky sound, one that was easier for the vast majority of weekend warriors to master. While the J-frame is a time honored design that dominates the contest stage and produces more volume, the call style is a bit more difficult to blow, for many hunters at least.
After the death of Yentzen in the late 1950s – and struggling to gain widespread acceptance for the uniquely-designed duck call – Fernandez aimed for the top rung of the duck-calling world and decided to try and become the sport's world champion.
What followed was a succession of calling contest victories in 1959, trophies that helped earn Fernandez an invite to Stuttgart for the granddaddy of them all.
By the time the smoke had cleared from the Main Street calling stage on November 27, 1959, Cowboy, as the 86-year-old Texan is known to most people, had shocked the duck hunting world by riding off into the sunset with the duck-calling world title.
Using a double-reed duck call, no less, an instrument that would go on to gain wide acceptance and be utilized by countless duck callers around the country looking for a kinder and gentler baptism into the art of calling ducks into a spread of decoys.
From the humble birth of making and selling a few dozen Yentzen double-reed calls a year to making – and selling out of – several hundred each year, Cowboy was soon a busy man making and selling calls to hunting shops around the land.
Part of that was due to the call's unique design and ease of use, part of it was due to the natural salesman's persuasive nature and part of it was due to Cowboy's building prowess on the various duck calling circuits.
In addition to his 1959 Duck Calling Championship trophy, the southeast Texas resident would also go on to win the International Duck Calling title three times, the Texas Open title a few times, a Gulf Coast championship and a variety of regional titles, all with the Sure-Shot Yentzen.
What's more, others used the call with great success including Charles Stepan of Port Arthur, Texas, who captured the 1962 world championship in Stuttgart while using a Yentzen. Meanwhile, Billy Domingue would also use the call to capture a handful of Women's World Championship Duck Calling titles, also from the Stuttgart stage.
All of this and more helped to propel Sure-Shot Game Calls and its unique Yentzen double-reed call towards the top of the heap in the duck call manufacturing market through the 1960s, the 1970s and on into the 1980s.
In fact, for years, a visit to a local hunting supply store – or a turning of the pages in a fall hunting catalogue delivered by the postman – would all bring a glimpse of the familiar yellow box containing the richly colored black walnut double reed (and eventually, even triple reed) calls.
Sure-Shot Game Calls CEO Charlie Holder has teamed with former world champ and duck-call making legend Jim "Cowboy" Fernandez to turn the Yentzen duck call back into a well-recognized name in duck blinds across the land. Above, Holder uses the new Yentzen One double-reed call to work on waterfowl flying overhead in Canada. (Lynn Burkhead photo)
In my home state of Texas, where I began waterfowling in the early 1980s, Yentzen duck calls enjoyed a cult following among Lone Star State waterfowlers tossing decoys out on a variety of habitat types ranging from Panhandle playa lakes to North Texas reservoirs and stock tanks to East Texas river bottom sloughs to Gulf Coastal marshes.
If the narrow on both ends and plump in the middle cylindrical shape was easy to spot in a Texas duck blind, so too was the familiar raspy sounds that tumbled forth from the Yentzen, duck music that even a beginner could master in short order.
That's especially true when the energetic and likable Cowboy was your calling coach, something I got to experience firsthand last fall on a duck hunt in Saskatchewan where the aging duck-calling legend – he was inducted into the Legends of the Outdoors Hall of Fame in 2014 – was holding court around the dinner table.
"Here, let me hear you blow this," Cowboy said to one of those in camp as he handed out a Yentzen One, the modernized version of the 501 Classic, a redesigned call made out of a proprietary space-age material that features a screw-lock design and duck sounds that are second to none.
"Ok, that's not bad, but let me give it a try," he followed, taking the call and making the same kind of duck music that won over Stuttgart judges more than 50 years ago.
With a few pointers on the proper sounds to make, the amount of air pressure to exert into the call and a heavy dose of smiling encouragement, Fernandez handed the duck call back to his student.
Noted shotgunning expert and Iowa-based waterfowl hunting enthusiast Phil Bourjaily uses the Yentzen One double-reed duck call to lure in a flock of mallards working a decoy spread in Canada. (Lynn Burkhead photo)
And sure enough, the dose of instruction, encouragement and one of the best new calls on the market were more than enough to cause another stream of good mallard music to pour forth and fill the room.
Filling the airwaves over duck blinds around the country is something that Cowboy Fernandez – and Charlie Holder, the young, energetic and likable CEO of Sure-Shot Game Calls – hope to do once again.
That dream comes after the company declined over the last few years as time took its toll on Cowboy and the business, a trend that was aided by the proliferation of brightly colored acrylic duck calls that now fill hunting shops, catalogue pages and Internet business sites.
Such calls have dominated hunting camps and the contest stage in recent years. And they have readily dangled from lanyards of celebrity duck hunters filming television shows and hunting videos too.
But while many younger hunters have flocked to the idea of filling their lanyards with acrylic calls, Fernandez and Holder have been hard at work to reenergize the company that once dominated the duck call market.
Texan Harrison Lindsey mans the call and country musician Darryl Worley waits as a flock of early-season ducks swings by a blind in Canada. (Lynn Burkhead photo)
From modernizing the process of cranking out the wooden Yentzen 501 Classic to coming up with the Yentzen One redesign (an incredible sounding call that is as tough as nails), the names of Sure-Shot, Yentzen and Cowboy Fernandez are once again being talked about in duck blinds across the four flyways.
And for good reason too since the names are synonymous with the rich history of the sport, not to mention being a part of a born-again company once again making some great duck calls that deserve consideration for a spot on any duck hunter's call lanyard.
Even if that lanyard finds itself in a duck camp located deep in the heart of Canada where early season mallards, gadwalls and wigeon beckon.
A Canadian waterfowling wonderland where duck calling's onetime Cowboy King from deep in the heart of Texas has shown that he can still make some tremendous mallard music with a Yentzen double-reed in his hand.
And that he and the company that he helped drive to duck calling prominence have no intentions of riding off into the sunset anytime soon.