Working for a lawn care company as a teen, I learned the hard way that more isn’t necessarily better when it comes to fertilizer. Thankfully the homeowner and my boss were forgiving, but I cringed with embarrassment every time I drove by the lawn that turned a shade of brown I’d never seen.
And after 30 years of duck hunting, I’ve come to the same conclusion for duck calls. This doesn’t mean that I won’t buy the newest, latest, and greatest calls when they hit the market every year, but when I place my lanyard in my blind bag, I try to keep it simple.
Here are the three calls that I use on every hunt and why they’re must-haves for any waterfowler.
A single-reed duck call is like the Swiss Army Knife of the duck call world—from ringing hail calls and five-note greetings, to subtle feeding chatter and contented quacks, this call can do just about everything. For me, the versatility just makes life easier. I don’t want to be fumbling with a lanyard full of calls trying to grab the “right one” when ducks are working my decoys.
You can narrow down your choice of a single reed from the sea of calls by considering where you spend most of your time. Need a call to carry over big water or work passing ducks while hunting migratory traffic? Go with a competition-style single reed turned out of acrylic or similarly dense material. This will help you get the volume you need for those hunts. A cut-down style call would also be a solid choice.
Single reeds turned out of cocobolo or other very hard woods produce subtle sounds suitable for hunting a small timber hole or backwater pond where a soft, five-note greeting can be enough to coax birds into range. However, with enough air you can still use this call to snap a comeback at a flock of departing mallards, before toning it down again on their final approach.
Polycarbonate and other molded-plastic single reeds don’t cost as much as calls turned from hardwoods or acrylic, but don’t let the price tag fool you. A good number of greenheads have found themselves belly up in the decoys after being fooled by a “cheap call.”
I keep an acrylic single-reed call on my lanyard that also has a ported insert, which adds another layer of versatility by allowing me to mimic different ducks. If I keep a finger over the port, I can string together a roll of duck chatter that’s killer on late-season birds. When I lift a finger to open it up, I become the nasally, raspy hen that is pure music to a greenhead’s ears.
If you pick up a double-reed duck call after blowing a single reed, you’ll immediately notice it takes more air to make the double reed sing. Spend a little more time with it and you’ll find that the double reed doesn’t have the same range of sounds either. So, if a single-reed call is easier to blow and more versatile, why have a double reed on your lanyard? A double reed just sounds more ducky.
Remove the call insert from the barrel on a double reed, and you’ll see a pair of plastic reeds held in place by a small piece of cork or rubber. In some cases, the top reed is cut just a smidge shorter than the bottom reed. The end result is that when air moves over the reeds, they vibrate together in a way that produces a duck-like rasp that simply isn’t possible with only one reed.
The double reed on my lanyard is made of Delrin, which gives me a volume level somewhere between a traditional plastic and turned acrylic call. Granted, I don’t use this double reed to reach out to ducks flying a mile over my decoys. But when that flock of mallards drops and circles behind me, I know that the double reed is going to make five, nasty, ducky notes that can get the birds to hook into my dekes.
It also pays to have a double reed on your lanyard when other hunters in the blind are blowing single-reed calls and you want to add a new sound to the mix. Throwing in a series of raspy quacks or feeding chatter from a double reed when ducks are on the edge of committing adds a bonus layer of realism.
The third duck call on my lanyard isn’t a traditional duck call at all, rather it’s a whistle that I use to imitate the sounds of a drake mallard, wigeon, pintail, and green-winged teal. In some ways it may be the most effective call I own.
I became a firm believer in using a whistle several years ago on an early season hunt in the Great Plains. I found a big group of ducks loafing on a flooded creek in a cattle pasture, and set up the following morning with dreams of decoying pintails, mallards, and more. It’s not unusual for ducks to be less than responsive to calling early in the season, but for the first hour I tossed every combination of quacks I knew at passing birds to no avail. It all changed when I traded the single reed for a whistle on a flock of pintails. The birds turned on a dime and I shot two nice bull pintails out of the flock. I’ve had amazing success with the call ever since that educational morning.
There are many models of whistles available, but my preference has several holes to help produce multiple pitches. If you just want to experiment with a similar call, a dog whistle can make many of the same sounds if you turn it upside down so the pea inside doesn’t vibrate.
Over the years, I’ve come to use a whistle in the same way that I would a single- or double-reed call. It’s my way to be aggressive when ducks are on the corners or going away and I just want to get their attention. It’s also great for helping ducks commit that are just on the edge of shooting range.
When it comes to duck calls, one minor detail or sound is usually all you need. But don’t confuse quality duck calling with quantity of duck calls. There’s no reason to weigh yourself down with a lanyard full of calls when these three can do it all.