Experience and credentials — and the ducks to prove it: These Natural State experts have it all. Do you suppose that they might be able to teach you a thing or two about duck hunting?
By Jim Spencer
They come from different generations, backgrounds and occupations. John Stephens is a young businessman. Bill Erstine is a middle-aged manufacturing plant supervisor. Tommy Aycock is a rice, soybean and wheat farmer who, though still actively farming, is approaching geezer status.
Aside from living in or near Stuttgart, possibly the only thing all three of these men have in common is they are accomplished duck hunters and duck callers. Their shared hometown is probably the reason. When you grow up around Stuttgart, you are bombarded with so much duck propaganda you either ignore it or embrace it fully. These three chose the latter route.
I've hunted ducks with all three, and I want to set the record straight from the beginning: Even though I'm a Stuttgart native, too, I don't consider myself anywhere close to their skill level in calling, wingshooting or just plain old duck savvy.
John Stephens was born into a farming family and started hunting with his father at age 5, and called in his first duck that first year - a spoonbill. He started taking calling lessons from world champion Butch Richenback at 9 and started entering junior competitions at 10. He won the Junior World Championship when he was 12, at 13 became the youngest person ever to qualify for the World Championship contest, and has only missed two annual installments of that that August competition since then, when he was in college. Since 1993 he's finished no lower than fifth, and he won in 1995 and 1998. In 1999, he bought the Rich-N-Tone Company from his mentor Butch Richenback, and has since grown the company and significantly expanded the product line.
Bill Erstine, now 53, hunted ducks a little when he was still in grade school, but didn't start seriously hunting until age 16, when he was old enough to drive and could reach the flooded rice fields of his cousin's farm. He was addicted from the first, and learned the basics of calling from his state-champion and runner-up world-champion cousin. He now has more than 35 years of experience hunting rice fields, swampy lakes, dead-timber brakes and flooded timber, both public and private. He's never tried the competition circuit, but he's good enough to compete.
Tommy Aycock started duck hunting as a grade-schooler during the years of World War II, using the rag-tag, hand-me-down gear common to farm kids of that era. He has lived all his life farming in the duck-rich country between Stuttgart and DeWitt, and during his 60-plus hunting seasons he's been within easy striking distance of the sort of duck hunting most of us can only dream about. Being around that many ducks for that long opens the door to an advanced education in the finer arts of duck hunting and duck calling, provided you pay a little bit of attention. Tommy paid attention.
With something like 120 years of duck hunting and calling experience among them, it's not surprising that these three veterans have formed some definite opinions on the methods relating to the sport. What may be surprising is they often diverge from one another's opinions - as on the topic of the relative merits of field-calling and timber-calling, for example.
Tommy Aycock cares little for competition calling, but he's killed far more ducks than most champion callers will ever see. Photo by Jim Spencer
"Calling ducks isn't as easy as it used to be," said John Stephens. "The ducks have more pressure on them, and they're smarter. I call less and less as the years go by. That's probably not the best thing for a call maker to be saying, but it's so."
Stephens doesn't call as loud or as much to field ducks as he does when hunting the timber. "I want to get their attention, of course, and for that I'll hit them with a short, snappy hail call, five or six notes, and then switch to a chatter and other softer stuff. I try not to call any more than I have to in a field, because it's open and easier for them to pinpoint the sound. In the timber you have trees and brush to hide behind and for the sound to bounce around on, and they can't pinpoint you as well.
"So I tend to be a lot more aggressive when I'm hunting timber. I try to sound like a lot of ducks, because in the timber you've got to get their attention and keep it. Because even if you're using decoys, the ducks can't see them all the time. I don't call constantly, but I do call quite a bit, and I use the chatter a lot in the timber, too."
Bill Erstine has a slightly different take. "There's not a lot of difference in the way I call between field and woods hunting," he said, "but there's a lot of difference between the way I started calling and the way I call now. When I started, I used the 'Stuttgart' style, with lots of long, ringing hail calls. But I married a DeWitt girl and started hunting with her daddy. He was an old P.S. Olt shaved-down reed customized-type duck caller, and he was without a doubt the best duck caller I've ever hunted with as far as being able to pull flocks of ducks in. I don't know if he had a philosophy, but he hammered at 'em from the git-go.
"He had a unique approach to far-off ducks that consisted of the first three notes of a hail call - ack-ack-ack; then, stop. And you felt like you were falling off the table when he stopped, waiting for him to finish. He'd do that continuously. And you'd be surprised how many ducks it would attract. Once he got 'em thinking his way, then he'd tone it down and break into his other stuff.
"I don't do that, but it's similar. I call loud to distant ducks, but like a duck. A duck's highball consists of five or six notes, so I do a lot of short notes, changing pitch and volume and trying to sound like more than one duck. It's not fancy, but it's loud, and it works."
With more years of hunting under his belt than the other two veterans combined, you'd think Tommy Aycock would have taken a position on this pretty basic subject, and sure enough, he has. In a nutshell, his opinion: He's not sure.
"You can't just say ducks are harder to call than they used to be," Aycock said. "You can't say field ducks want softer or louder calling than timber ducks, or late-season ducks are tougher to call than early-season ducks. Sometimes all those things are true, but sometimes they're not.
"The difference between field-calling and woods-calling is hard to explain, but it really depends on what the ducks want you to do, and the only way to learn what that is is to try things. I usually call louder in the fields than in the timber, but that's mostly
because most of the ducks you see in fields are farther away at first and you have to get their attention. In the woods, a little chatter is, lots of times, all in the world you need, because they're closer when you see 'em.
"If you're talking about early season versus late season calling, sure your calling techniques will change. Normally it doesn't take near as much calling to convince early ducks as it does the last week of the season, except for those lone drakes and small bunches of drakes in late season. If you get some of those birds within hearing distance, they're usually a lot easier to call."
Aycock believes it's important to not get so caught up in calling that you don't let the ducks come in. "I've been guilty of it a lot," he said. "You get ducks working, and it's fun, and you keep calling too loud or too much and they keep circling and won't come in and eventually they leave. Sometimes you have to let off on them to let them come in. It's pretty easy to tell by their body language if they want in or not. If they give you that sharp, steep wingover, it means you hit the right button. You've already won half the battle. Don't mess it up by overcalling."
Aycock also believes that becoming an expert caller is overrated. "I never have been one to practice a lot at my duck calling, once I learned how in the first place" he said. "I knew I could blow it, and a day or two before the season opened, I'd blow a little bit to make sure everything was working right, but that's about all. Unless you're a contest caller, you're going to get as good as you're going to get, and then that's where you stay. It doesn't take a lot of practice to get back to that level - it's like riding a bicycle. You don't really forget how to do it, and it doesn't take much practice to get back to that level. You can practice a little and get pretty good, but then it takes a whole lot of practice to get any better.
"Anyway, your accent doesn't matter so much as what you say. I'm not a contest-level caller and never wanted to be. I'm a duck hunter, and as long as I can sound like a duck, that's good enough."
The use of decoys is another area in which there's considerable agreement and disagreement among the three. Here are their individual takes on the subject.
Erstine: "I like to have my decoys fairly close to the blind or to where I'm standing in the timber, but even in open water I don't use as many decoys as I once did. Sometimes a lot of decoys can be a problem, If you put out a couple hundred, and water levels or something else changes, it's a chore to pick them all up and move them. So lots of times you end up leaving things the way they were, and that always costs you.
"The last couple years, since our seasons are ending later, we have lots of ducks that are well into pairing up. I think the decoy spread ought to reflect that, so I put the decoys out in pair groups. Whether that actually helps or not, who knows, but it gives me something to do and gives me more confidence in the spread.
"Hunting in the woods, I've killed them with and without decoys. I used to hunt timber almost exclusively without decoys, but with the new flexible foam decoys they've come out with in the last few years, it's just too easy not to carry a dozen. They're light and compact and a dozen will fit into a little daypack. They might help improve the hunt, and they never hurt anything.
"As far as motion in the decoy spread goes - I've been moving decoys since I started hunting. I've used some complicated systems, with pulley lines running from the blind and crisscrossing the spread, bungee cords and jerk cords. I've used barrel rings on a jerk cord to make whole groups of decoys move. I've painted trolling motors black and set them to move the water through a decoy spread.
"All those things are for decoy and water movement, not wing movement. The spinning-wing decoys like RoboDuck are usually effective very early in the season on young ducks, but after a week or two they don't give you much of an advantage. In fact, they can hinder you because they'll pull a young bird or two out of the big flights and make them come on in while the main body of the flock hangs off out there and waits to see what happens. And you can't not shoot the close ones and wait for the main flock; that almost never works."
Aycock: "We used to use 500 or more decoys in one field I hunted a lot. If it's a good big field, the more the merrier, but they need to be in good shape, with the colors bright and with no sinkers or leaners. If you have decoys in poor shape, get them fixed or get them out of the spread.
"I don't think decoys are near as important in green timber, but they can still be of some help if you're in a big enough hole or the timber is thin enough for the ducks to be able to see them. But if you're hunting brushy timber where visibility is poor, they're probably not worth the bother.
"Motion in a field decoy spread is very important, especially on still days, and it's worth whatever trouble you have to go through to create it. I never did fool with a RoboDuck, though; by the time I decided I'd get one, everybody was telling me they'd quit being so effective. I'm a country boy anyway, and I'm more comfortable with a plain old jerk cord."
Stephens: "Motion is extremely important in a decoy spread, but I don't get too fancy with it. I usually use plain old bungee jerk cord. There are lots of other options on the market, or you can make your own - splashers, swimming setups, all sorts of things - but it's really hard to beat a good old jerk cord, because you can control it better. I hate to say it, but if I had to choose between a jerk cord or a duck call, most of the time I'd almost rather have the cord.
"I'm not a big believer in the spinning-wing decoys. I used them the first year they were out, but I haven't since then. That's mostly a technique for young, inexperienced ducks, and it's very effective early in the season in Canada and in the northern states, but by the time the ducks get down here to Arkansas, they've already been shot at over spinners for six to eight weeks, and the young ones are both thinned out and well educated."
CAMOUFLAGE AND CONCEALMENT
So far, our three veterans of the duck wars have agreed on some things and disagreed on others, but this next topic gets universal agreement from all three. It's the subject of camouflage and concealment.
Aycock: "I spent a lot of years hunting from a cane blind that stuck up 5 or 6 feet out of the field, and a lot of time hunting from a pit blind that was only a few inches above water level. Both of them worked very well, but only if they blended in with their surroundings. I'd much rather hunt out of an above-ground blind that was well-camouflaged than a pit that wasn't."
Erstine: "Avoid hard edges, whether it's a pit blind or a cane blind. I spend a lot of time and effort making my blinds look like big hay piles or brushpiles, depending on where I'm hunting. And wear good camo on your body, especially face and hands. I use a face mask and a pair of mesh gloves, a
nd it really makes a difference."
Stephens: "Don't move any more than absolutely necessary when ducks are working, and don't talk, either. Ducks can see and hear almost as well as turkeys, and most hunters don't realize that."
There are many more topics these three veterans agree and disagree on, but one thing they have in common, without question, is a deep love for duck hunting. If you ever are fortunate enough to find yourself sharing a hunt with any of the three, pay attention. You're bound to learn something.
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