Personally, I used to be that guy out there squawking at the flying birds. I bought some cheap calls, listened to a few tapes, and of course got the "excellent" advice of some comrades in the field - "Make 'er sound like this, Boy!" On certain days, my quacks made those greenheads fold their wings and drop right in. On others, my calling had no effect. However, out in the marsh, some guys just hit their calls and pulled birds that no one else could - often the birds that had been circling my spread.
A few years later, I saw an ad for duck calling classes, and figuring I had a few things to learn, I signed up. Here, I met 1996 World Duck Calling Champion and C.E.O. of Carlson Championship Calls, Jim James. Jim and Wendell Carlson put together a unique instructional method that put some thought behind the calling instead of just mimicking a few quacks heard on an audio tape. The Carlson System of Call Operation© puts a premium on understanding how the sounds are created.
How do you get good at calling waterfowl?
For a bit of refresher course, I called James up and talked ducks for an hour or so. When I asked him what it takes to call waterfowl, he made it simple, "Calling ducks is easy. It's learning to play the instrument that takes time. Everyone wants to do it, but they want that easy fix. Unfortunately, there is no "easy fix". It takes three things to successfully call waterfowl: 1. A call that actually works...a functional call. 2. The ability to properly operate that call. 3. The ability to read waterfowl."
That sounds easy enough, but what makes a call really work?
James added, "A call has to be consistent in its design and stable in operation for someone to be able to learn. You can't learn on a call that is 'all over the place' in its operational characteristics. A stable call eliminates the other variables and allows a novice caller to focus on learning proper operational techniques." When I pursued this further and questioned Jim about what made up a good call, he replied, "You simply can't get sounds out of a call that are not designed into it." He added, "Unlike musical instruments, no standards exist for the manufacture of duck calls. It seems every duck hunter with a lathe is turning out calls, all with their own idea of what sounds right. However, if certain notes, such as the low register ringing sound that makes up a majority of duck sounds, are not designed into the call, you can't get them out."
So, after you pick a good call that blows stable notes in a full range, how do you learn to properly operate that call?
James believes that callers need to be involved in meaningful instruction rather than just constant practice. "Everybody always says practice is the answer; if that were true, we'd all be better callers. You need to practice with a purpose. Without a purpose and good instruction, callers are only further ingraining old bad habits, such as growling, grunting or humming into their calls. These are habits that are very hard to break in the future. Most professional musicians did not learn to play by ear - that is listening and repeating - yet most waterfowlers think they can learn that way. You need to get the right instrument (call), get the right instruction, practice with a purpose (such as mastering a certain note). Record yourself to see how you really sound. Mastery comes in steps, same as learning notes on a musical instrument. You can't play Mozart right away." He concluded, "Nobody will ever be better than their instrument AND instruction will allow. They go hand-in-hand and are so closely interfaced."
Now how do you learn to read those ducks?
In his classes, James uses video taken in real hunting situations to show how birds respond and when to adjust your calling. You begin by looking for telltale signs such as the one duck that starts to turn or slightly change his wing beats. James says time in the field is the only way to learn here. "Only field experience will make you an expert at reading the body language of flocks or individual birds - so you know what to say and when to say it. Your learning curve on reading waterfowl will skyrocket though when you begin to make quality sounds. You will see the ducks respond and therefore learn the art of reading waterfowl. Meaningful instruction and the resulting quality sounds will result in a larger calling vocabulary - more tricks in you bag - all this will help to pull those ducks that no one else can."
Best Call to Master
For beginning callers, I asked Jim what the best call for them to master would be? "Without question, the hen mallard greeting will put more ducks in the boat - just a five, six or seven note descending hen call. With this call, you are actually talking and communicating with the ducks - in their language." In Jim's calling classes, I learned how versatile this call can be. I had used hen greetings before, but I only had one greeting in my bag of tricks - the same one that had been on my instructional tape. James showed us how you can really mix it up. "By changing the pitch, cadence and inflection of the call, you can sound like an itty-bitty hen all the way to the old boss hen. By further altering the cadence and inflection, you can also add some aggressiveness to it. This is where you really start to sound like real birds on the water and finish creating the illusion you started with plastic decoys floating on a pond. Learn to blow sounds the birds want to hear, not just the same tune over and over again."
I noted that Jim mentioned getting aggressive with the hen greeting. This was probably the most important point I picked up from his classes and have used aggressive calling to put more birds on the game strap since the class. When I questioned James about aggressive calling, he added, "This is the difference between calling ducks and just calling at ducks. You begin to tell them what to do and when to do it. When we hunt, we pound on those birds with the calls - even those high flyers that just seem to be passing through. Eventually, you pull one off and maybe he will bring five or six with him. That can make the difference between going home with a few birds or heading home with a limit."
When I asked what Jim meant by aggressive calling, he wanted to make a point, "Aggressive doesn't mean loud. You just want the right calls or sounds for the situation to be dominant and aggressive. You don't want loud, bad sounds and have those sounds at inopportune times. I also want to stay on the ducks and keep calling. Sometimes if you wait between calls to see what the birds will do, two seconds is too long and those birds are gone and not coming back. When we hunt, we have four to six good callers, and we call the birds all the way to the gun."
When Jim mentioned volume, I pushed the issue further. "You want to match your calling to the environment around you. You don't want to ring out loud hail calls with a competition call in close quarters like when hunting flooded timber. Conversely, if you are on a big reservoir on a windy day, you have to reach out and touch those distance birds with some fairly loud calling. This is why we created the VoloChoke™ call. It lets you easily change chokes and match the call volume to your environment."
The Feed Call
With that understood, I asked about the close-in work. Many callers I hunt with put an extreme amount of emphasis on the mallard feed call or chuckle. "Almost every guy that comes to our classes wants to get on the call and do that double-cut chuckle. For whatever reason they find it alluring. In the field, we do chuckle at ducks, and we may use that rapid double-cut sequence at times, but the total effect is minimal. Basically, I consider chuckling as background music or filler. It gives the caller something to do when the birds are close and it helps to keep their attention. It does, however, keep you from going silent and letting someone else possibly steal your birds."
One of the biggest issues I hear from duck hunters talking shop is, "The ducks are getting call-shy. You don't want to call too much." As I have become more confident with my calling, I have found that this just isn't true. I call at all these supposedly call-shy birds, and sometimes they cup their wings and drop right in. For more information, I asked Jim what he thought of call-shy birds. "The thought of call-shy ducks is a result of not having all the tricks in your bag. Hunters get to thinking, 'Here they come; their wings are locked; put your call away.' The point is that birds don't get call shy as much as they get shy to bad calling. If you are creating duck-like sounds, you should not have problems with late season migrants or early season locals."
Straight from the champ, calling waterfowl can be fairly easy. With a few tips, the right instruction and by practicing with a purpose, you'll soon be pulling those birds that everyone else gives up on.
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