Mississippi Duck Calling Masters

Even if the ducks are flying, success will still depend on your getting the birds into range. Listen as these local experts share tips on making the chore easier.

By Robert H. Cleveland, Jr.

The shrill burst was deafening, originating as it did less than a foot from my left ear. It was startling, and it shook me out of what had been a moment of hibernation in the corner of the duck blind.

I opened both eyes, but to my credit, I didn't overreact. I peered to my left to see where Keith Quayle was looking. When my eyes found his, we were about eyeball to eyeball.

"Six ducks, to your right, looking," he said. "I got their attention. They're coming."

Then, as an afterthought: "Get a good nap?"

Actually, it had been a pretty good sleep there inside the thatched walls of the blind in a corner of a brake near Lake Washington in Washington County. Tucked warmly in my down jacket and insulated waders, I had taken advantage of a tip from our host, "Dr. Bob" (who, for fear of poachers, prefers anonymity). He had told us that he had ducks in his brake, but not ones that were early arrivers.

"Get there by daylight," Dr. Bob had told us. "But you can sleep once you get set up, because it will be 8:30 or 9 before they come in." He then passed along the most important tip of all: "Keep your calling to a minimum. It's late in the season, and they've heard it all."

That was good news to me, especially since Quayle had shaken my bones with that first, short hailing blast. There would be no more calling.

"Now let's see if the good doctor is right," Quayle whispered, dropping his call back around his neck and craning to see around the corner of the blind to follow the six ducks coming from the north.

Sure enough, they made the circle, coming around the back of the blind and appearing next from our left about 200 yards south of us. Quayle never went for his call.

"Tough, ain't it?" I said, kidding him, because I know how much he loves to blow his calls. "You're dying to toot - aren't you?"

He answered with an abrupt elbow to my rib cage.

Photo by John N. Felsher

It was Dr. Bob who finally broke the silence from the far end of the 15-foot-long elevated blind. He broke into one of the prettiest, lightest chattering calls I've ever heard. It was barely audible 15 feet away, so I wondered how it sounded to the ducks that were still circling, now 100 yards straight in front of the blind.

I didn't have to wait long for my answer. On the next circle, when the birds came around the south end of the blind, the lead duck, a greenhead, turned into the wind and flew right toward the decoy spread. The other ducks followed in formation. I could feel a slight shake to the bench as Dr. Bob and Quayle inched forward and prepared to get into shooting position. No other calls were needed; the next sounds I heard were those of two men rising, boards creaking and two shotguns blasting.

Three of the mallards fell in the water before I had my hands on my shotgun - naps can be costly - but I was able to get one of the other three as they tried to escape.

"Four's not bad," Dr. Bob said. "That's a start."

It wasn't the end, either, as more ducks made their late visits to the brake. Over the next 90 minutes, we had several groups check in with fewer checking out. The hunt didn't produce limits, but it produced a lesson: You don't always have to call a ton.

"Especially late in the season, when the ducks have heard it all," Dr. Bob said, pointing out that it was the last week of the season. "Think about it: These ducks started flying this way about three or four months ago, beginning either in Canada or the Dakotas, and have come through thousands of blinds and hundreds of duck calls. They get spooky. They don't want to hear a lot of calling.

"To me, calling plays the smallest role in late season hunting. We kill a lot of ducks in this blind without ever uttering a single call. We let the brake do the work for us, and we pretty much stay out of its way. All you have to do is get their attention and then shut up."

Is it always like that? I asked

"No," Dr. Bob replied. "Early in the season we have to do more calling, a lot more calling. And sometimes late in the season, when it's been a wet winter and there's water everywhere in the Delta, you have to be more vocal. When ducks have more choices, you have to be more vocal. We still kill a lot of ducks, because this brake is so darn good. But we have to work harder."

Quayle, a former hunting guide and a long-time duck hunter, takes it a step further. He is, by his own admission, call-crazy - he loves to blow his calls. But he's quick to lay them down when the ducks don't want to hear it.

"The most important thing I ever learned about duck hunting is reading ducks, and how they react to every facet of the hunt, especially calling," he said. "Every day can be different, and every hour of a day can be different as weather and sun conditions change. You better be getting a read off every duck that passes, from the first one on, and see how they react to call. Do they run from a hail? Do they like light quacking? Do they want to hear multiple calls? Do they like a lot of chatter? Eventually you will find a pattern that will work."

The strategy of using multiple callers is a favorite of a lot of hunting partners, who learn to team up on ducks. Number brothers Bill and Barry Thomas of Southaven among that group. They've hunted together most of their lives, amassing over 40 years of experience. A hunt with them, which is a rare invitation outside of their extended families - it's a large family with only so many weekends in a season - is an education.

Both are former competition callers, but that ended decades ago after each one earned trips to the world championship in Stuttgart, Ark. Now they just call ducks.

"We used to think we were great callers when we were winning contests and all that, but if you think calling in an auditorium and calling in the wild have anything in common, other than the tools of the trade, you're nuts," Bill Thomas said. "Ducks don't score you -they either like you and come in or hate you and take off."

In the case of the Thomas brothers, it's usually the former.

"We kill our share," Barry Thomas offered m

odestly. "And we do it on public and private land, in timber and in fields. We team up on them pretty good."

"Team-calling" - a general name for the technique of multiple callers working simultaneously - is as old as the sport. "It's effective all year, but it really works good for us late in the season when we get the seriously educated late migrators," Bill Thomas said. "You better be ready to offer them something different, or at least attractive enough to do two critical things - first, fool them and, second, pull them away from other callers."

On our hunt in flooded standing timber at the low end of a cornfield, it was fun watching the two gray-headed men work the ducks. They had calls in both hands, which meant four different calls were being used on every pass. Bill would hail on one call, while Barry would chatter. Then Bill would chatter on his other call while Barry would quack on his second call. Their interaction required no communication - none was needed.

"We just know by listening to each other, what we need to do to compliment our calls," Bill said. "That comes from years of experience. I can tell by the way Barry opens up exactly what he sees even if I can't see it. But that doesn't mean that team-hunting can't be done by people who don't always hunt together.

"It is based on the principle that four or five different calls coming from one hole provides the illusion that there is a bunch of ducks down here having a lot of fun. Passing ducks hear it, and it's like they feel they would be stupid to pass up such an opportunity. They have to come see.

"Now, it can be overdone," he continued. "We prefer that nobody else calls when we're hunting together because it's like anything else, two's company, three's a crowd. The more callers you have, the more room for error there is. Somebody will get excited and hit a loud or off-key note and that's that. Plus, with too many folks looking in different directions, you can end up working two or three different groups of ducks at once."

An important factor, Barry said, is that once the duck or ducks commit to checking out the decoys, the calling that attracted them should not change.

"That's a mistake a lot of hunters make," he said. "Now I'm not talking hailing calls, which got you the first look. What I'm talking about is the quacking and chattering that lured them in for that second, closer look. How many times have you been hunting and heard hunters calling loud and then reducing their volume when the ducks get closer? Why do you do that? Ducks don't do that - so why should hunters? Bill and I carry out the same calling right up until it's time to shoot - same volume, same cadences, same variation. When you think about it, it just makes sense."

Bill quickly added that the most important factor is the volume that is used at the onset. "Once we've got a duck's attention with a hail call, if one was needed, then we come back with a lot less volume," he said. "Once we've turned ducks, we wait until we know they are close enough to hear the light chattering and quacking that ducks do in nature, and that's what we give them - light chatters and light quacks. That way, we don't have to soften our calls once the ducks are closer. We're already light and soft. Ducks can hear calling at a lot longer range than you think."

Still, it's not as simple as it sounds.

"No - every day is not a mallard-only hunt," Barry observed. "Which we all wish it was. Late in the season, when we have the largest variety of ducks in the Delta, ducks are coming in and expecting to hear other kinds of ducks, especially when you're hunting fields. We're always watching and identifying the different duck species we see, not just when we're hunting, but when we're scouting or just driving around. If you don't know how to use a pintail or widgeon whistle, you need to learn. It also doesn't hurt to throw in some wood duck whistles and even the faster cadences of teal.

"You need to offer a variety," Barry chimed in. "Bill may be quacking and chattering and I'll throw in a pintail or woodie whistle out of the blue. And it makes a difference."

Different hunting habitats require different calling techniques. John Griffing of Jackson spends about half his season hunting flooded timber in Mississippi River oxbow lakes and the other half hunting his Delta lease of flooded fields. The calls he makes in timber today he won't make tomorrow in a field.

"Two different things entirely," Griffing pointed out. "In timber, you can be loud and aggressive even when there aren't ducks in sight. They may be there, but because of the canopy, you may just not be able to see them. If you can see them, they may not be able to see your decoys. You need to get their attention and get them to come look.

"Another thing about timber is that you can call ducks all the way to the water. You can stay aggressive all the time with timber ducks.

"While we're on the subject," he added, "hunters need to learn the definition of aggressive calling. It does not mean loud calling, at least not 90 percent of the time. Mallard hens are aggressive in their calling but they are not always loud. We've all had mallards land outside our decoys and swim to a different corner of a field or timber and had to sit there and listen to her. I use her as a gauge to how loud I need to call. Aggressive calling means just that, staying on a call to keep their attention."

According to Griffing, field-hunting requires a lot more technique and a lot more coordination between hunters. "The field of view is so large that you can be looking at one group of birds 500 yards out, and I can be looking at a pair of greenheads cupping up at 50 yards committing to the spread," he said. "You blast away on a hailing call and my two mallards are likely to flare and escape. A wrong call at the wrong time is a disaster.

"In a field, I let the birds dictate how aggressive I need to be. If they've got 50 or 100 acres of flooded grain to choose from, they're pretty much going to go where they want to go, and it's up to the caller to make them want to come to his spread. You can pretty much count on getting a fly-by to check it out, but that doesn't mean anything. After you've called them in and gotten them interested, you have to back off a bit and become more of a traffic controller. It's so easy for them to choose a different path, and it's up to you to get them back on the right one that will put them inside your gun range."

That's when, Griffing asserts, watching and learning is critical. "You have to watch every bird for every reaction they make to your calls and to the calls of other ducks that are already down on the water in other parts of the field," he said. "You need to pick out the call that is evoking the best positive response in the ducks. If it turns out to be that you can't beat the duck on the water - which is nearly always the case - then you have to stop competing with it and its calls and find something else that works.

"I don't care how good you are as a caller - you aren't as good as any hen mallard out there. So don't waste your time trying

to beat her at her own game: Invent something else. Throw in some other species calls. When she quacks, you chatter. When she's not, and you hear a lot of chattering, you quack. Whatever happens, don't get discouraged. There are going to be days that no matter what you do, or how many tricks you pull out of your bag, ducks are simply not going to respond. That's the nature of hunting. And, heck - if it were easy, everybody'd be doing it."

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