What You Need to Know as a New Duck Caller

What You Need to Know as a New Duck Caller

As a duck hunter whose enthusiasm regularly outweighs their actual skill, the calling aspect of the sport has always baffled me a bit. I seem to get two different answers—one from what I’m told and another from what I witness firsthand. Generally, I’m told that “less is more” and “don’t even pick up that call if you want to kill birds.” Then I head out into the field and it’s a cacophony of waterfowl imitation; the marsh is filled with quacks, yips, huts, and other noises I can’t even seem to recognize.

With that in mind, I feel like it could be helpful to clear the air around calling. As duck hunters, what do we actually need to do to call in birds? What do we not need to do to call in birds? I’m not qualified to answer this question (I’m fairly certain I’ve seen mallards literally roll their eyes at my calling), so I reached out to three people who are: Duck Unlimited’s Joe Genzel, and MeatEater’s own Tony Peterson and Max Barta. They were kind enough to join this little round table for a discussion on the truth behind duck calling, duck killing, and how you can bring the two together.

Interestingly enough, all three described themselves as “not the best caller,” which is a good sign in my book. Because, as we’ll learn soon enough, the best caller does not mean the best duck hunter—and these three sure as hell bag a lot more birds than I do. Time to put down that call for a minute and listen up.

Don’t Be Fooled

Let’s start out with a little bit of truth from Tony. It’ll come as no surprise that hunting media is not always a reflection of reality (shocker, I know), and duck hunting is no different. You’ll see all sorts of videos of hunters calling dozens of birds into their spread, and the fact is that those birds were probably coming in regardless.

“Hunting is full of ego. If you consume a lot of duck hunting media, whatever that is, it's the same as any other pursuit. The amount of people I see who blindly rattle and grunt for deer hunting because they see it on the Sportsman's Channel all the time is insane,” Tony said. “We’re exposed to a lot of media where hunters have a larger margin of error. You can overcall, and those birds are still going to come in because they’re hunting a flooded cornfield that's set up specifically to bring in a shitload of ducks.”

So, first things first, let’s all recognize that hunting media isn’t designed as reference material. It’s entertainment. That’s not to say that some aren’t more authentic than others, but you wouldn’t watch Top Gun to learn how to fly a fighter jet. You need to actually get into the cockpit.

You Don’t Have to Call

If there’s a lesson to be learned from this article, it’s that you don’t have to be a pro duck caller (or a caller at all) to kill ducks. It’s simply another tool in your quiver. To Tony’s earlier point, you also don’t need to rattle antlers or bring your grunt call along to kill a whitetail—plenty of people get it done without. In fact, as Joe pointed out, it should not be your primary strategy in just about any duck-hunting scenario.

“It’s more important to read birds and see what they want and what they don't want. It varies by situation and species. I don't really call that much to anything but mallards. I'll use my whistle for teal and pintails on occasion, but they're either going to come in or they're not. I have several holes where I can just tell by the bird's flight pattern if it's going to come in or if it's going to the neighbor's property.”

We can all admit that there’s an allure to duck calling. It’s cool. Having that lanyard around your neck creates a temptation to start ripping out calls at first light, but as hunters, we need to know when to be quiet and when to call. If you get those scenarios mixed up, then there are really only two outcomes:

“If you don't see ducks in the air, you shouldn't be calling. It can be annoying,” Max said. “And then if they're cupped up and coming in, just let 'em do their thing. If they're over top of you looking straight down, I tend not to call. You're just giving away your position.”

It’s a high-risk, high-reward game. You’re either going to bring in those birds or spook them away while annoying the other hunters in the area while you’re at it. And that’s why this next point is so important.

Test and Analyze

There’s absolutely no substitute for the real thing. After all, if you’re trying to imitate real ducks, you need to be around real ducks and hear what they actually sound like in the wild. Your buddy showing off on his tailgate is not the real thing, no matter how much he wants to be. Get out in the field and start listening. You may be surprised at what you hear.

“It’s a trial and error thing,” Max said. “For example, when I’m out hunting I start really soft. If the birds aren’t paying attention to me, I’ll get a little bit more aggressive. If that isn’t working, I might just throw the calls in the bag.”

And it’s not quite as simple as that, either. Max believes that the type of land you’re hunting and the time of season can also greatly impact his strategies for calling in birds. Are they in their mating cycle? Or are they looking? If the drakes are looking for a hen, then that may affect how and when you utilize your call. Or, if it’s towards the end of the season, birds may associate a duck call with a loud noise and the sting of steel shot in their backside.

“It really depends on the situation,” Max said. “Some of those boys down in Arkansas, they don't change one thing from the season opener all the way to the last day. They're just wailing away on the duck calls. For other hunts, they’re wondering is it sunny out? Is it cloudy? My best advice is just go out into the field and try something on one flock. If that doesn't work, try something else.”

When it comes to “here’s what to do and why” the answer is so difficult in duck hunting because you really just need to be there. Once you spend some time working birds in hunting scenarios, you’ll learn to recognize what “workable” birds tend to look like, and that is the key to being a successful duck hunter. It’s a combination of knowing what the birds are doing in a given area and then recognizing if those birds would most likely be receptive to a duck call.

“That location has to be money and you’ve got to understand the wind. How are they going to approach it? I’ve got to be right where they want to be,” Tony said. “Or, I need to be in a situation where they're like, ‘I would not mind landing there.’ I'm not going to talk then in from two miles away to get them to go do something they don't want to do.”

In other words, the best duck callers tend to be the best duck scouts as well, Joe told me. If you’re willing to put in the work to find the right kind of birds for the given situation, you’re setting yourself up for a calling situation that could actually work. It’s the icing on the cake, not the cake itself. Then, when you’re in the right location, it’s much easier to read birds that are workable or not workable.

“I'm not the greatest caller in the world and I make up for that in my scouting. Being where the birds want to be is the number one thing that I can recommend for any waterfall hunter out there. If I know the birds want to be there, I'm barely doing any calling,” Max said. “If I'm hunting big water or running traffic on a field, you can really get aggressive with it. That's when the really loud hail calls, trying to get those ducks' attention to come check out your spot, can be very proficient.”

That confidence goes both ways. Once you know where the birds want to be, it’s not just you who’s confident—the birds are too. “If I get birds that swing in tight and they're checking out the situation, those are the ones I'll work. I'm trusting my scouting,” Tony said. “The calling is just a component of being where I have the most confidence and where they have a lot of confidence, too.”

Call Like a Duck, Not a Duck Caller

I mentioned this before, but it bears a deeper dive because this is one of the most common mistakes in duck hunting. Given the media and culture, there’s a bit of an echo chamber where hunters tend to mimic how other hunters call, and so on and so on. It’s like a waterfowl version of the telephone game. After so much dilution, you’re left with a faint echo of what a duck actually sounds like.

“It's not like stage calling,” Joe said. “Everybody sees these super talented guys that can blow a duck call and that's what they want to emulate, but those guys don't blow their call like that when they hunt. Just it's a long process to figure out what birds want to hear and what they don't.”

As Joe alluded to, part of this could come from competition calling. This subgenre of duck culture tends to get a lot of attention because it’s pretty damn impressive, which is the entire point. But, when a real duck is out in the wild, their goal isn’t necessarily to impress.

“In competition calling, you're not calling to ducks,” Max pointed out. “You're calling to five people sitting behind a wall. You're trying to impress them and with all the different variances, with your ‘Cajun squeal.’ It’s about how many unique notes you can hit. But when you're out in the field, you don't need all that. I can still kill ducks and have successful hunts if I'm hitting that five- to seven-note quack. Sometimes ‘crappy’ calling actually works really well.”

If you’ve hunted for any amount of time, you’ve probably noticed this phenomenon where the “perfect” duck calls sounds like duck hunters, and the calls that are kind of messy sound like real ducks. I’ve even seen first-timers put out some of the most natural-sounding calls because it was messy and organic. Sometimes I know just enough to sound like a robot duck, which real ducks can pinpoint in a second, I’m sure.

“If you listen to a lot of mallard calls, if you're saying ‘hi’ to a mallard, it's almost producing its own echo. It tapers off. It's the same thing when you yelp to a turkey. Everybody makes a one-note yelp, and it's too fast," Tony explained. "A mallard call tends to be loud and progressively softer. We don't necessarily think of it that way, but when you listen to actual ducks, that's what they do. And so you have to learn to actually listen to what a duck sounds like. Not just what we think they sound like. There’s no better teacher than real ducks.”

Now we’re getting to the point I hinted at earlier, that these three are not the “best” callers out there, which paradoxically may make them some of the best callers out there. It’s not about being impressive. It’s about being realistic.

Just Do It

At a certain point, you just need to get out there and sound like an idiot. I do it all the time. It’s second nature at this point. Tony said that it’s worth spending some money on a decent single-reed call. While it’s a little bit tougher to learn, you’re going to have a lot more in your arsenal once you do so, and a quality call will last you for years to come if you take care of it. Then, go out in the field and put it to work. At first, hunting solo may be the best idea—not so much for you, but more so for your hunting relationships.

“Hunt by yourself,” Tony pointed out. “It's the same thing working dogs. You think you have your dog trained really well, you go hunt with a bunch of other people, and you fall apart and so does your dog. It just changes that dynamic. So if you want to learn to call ducks, I think you’ve just got to practice, and you've got to spend some time by yourself so you're not afraid to make that mistake. You'll see it instantly. You've got birds working in, you say the wrong thing, and they flare and take off. Maybe they saw you, but a lot of times you just screwed up, and that's how you learn.”

Or, if you’re more of the social type, hunt in a group setting, but just be sure to do it the right way. Max noted that a group-calling scenario can be highly effective in bringing birds in because it sounds more dynamic and more realistic. The novice caller can tackle the simple quacks to start and work their way towards the hail calls and feeding calls. There’s less pressure when you’re part of the choir, as opposed to a solo performance.

“If everyone has a hen mallard call, pick up a drake whistle and do something different. Or if someone has a really high-pitched call, maybe you should have a lower-pitched call just to sound like a different duck.”

Or, you can always contribute in other ways and just soak up some knowledge. “I feel like everyone works as a team on a good duck hunt,” Max said. “If you're not the best caller, maybe you can contribute by running the dog or pulling the jerk rig and you're letting the head honchos do the calling.”

This is a very long-winded way of saying that there shouldn’t be so much pressure to be a professional-level duck caller. I’ve hunted with folks who have nailed the simple quack and kill plenty of ducks using it. I’ve also hunted with people who don’t even bring a call along with them because they generally do better without—and maybe I should take a note from their playbook on that one.

But, if the call is calling to you, just know that what you may see and what you may hear are no replacement for hard-earned experience. Once you realize that, you’ll be well on your way to talking more like a duck and less like a hunter.

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