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by Steve McCadams

    Had any trouble calling ducks lately? Maybe the ones you’re tooting at are just hard of hearing.  

    Perhaps they speak another language. Could be you’re quacking southern serenades to northern ducks!

    Odds are you’re not alone in the duck-calling dilemma.

    I sometimes whistle Dixie from my single reed Mallard Magnet but the ducks acted like they preferred a verse or two of Yankee Doodle Dandy.

    Now you see ‘em; then you don’t.

    Ducks have a way of disappearing faster than a white rabbit in the black hat of a magician. But maybe the ducks aren’t deaf. It could be you’re blowing them away from your decoy spread and instead of attracting them with sweet notes of music your symphony turns in to a repelling performance.

    Like most musical instruments, learning to blow a duck call takes time and practice. Before you solo in front of a crowd, or a flock of ducks as the case may be, you’ll likely want to log a few hours behind closed doors.

    In your quest to lure weary mallards over the decoys and change their mind on misty mornings, there are a few steps worth taking before paddling off on the wrong foot.

    I tapped two buddies to share some of the following tips for this story:

    START OUT RIGHT…”The way you practice is the way you perform. Spend time with a veteran waterfowler such as a professional guide, competition caller, or just a friend who has several sunrises under their belt,” says Three Time World Champion and Champion of Champions Duck Caller Mike McLemore of Huntingdon, TN.

    McLemore has manufactured calls for decades here in Tennessee and knows a thing or two about making and selecting calls. He has coached waterfowlers ranging from young, novice callers attempting to blow their first real note to veterans competing in state, regional, and national contests.

    “There are different calls for different situations but generally speaking, a double reed is more forgiving,” said McLemore when asked to compare single reed calls to double reed models. “Single reeds offer a higher pitch.”

    “To me a duck call is an instrument to attract ducks to decoys. I use it to get their attention and let my spread do the work,” continued McLemore. “Hunters have to experiment, however, as weather conditions and ducks change. Every day is different so you have to learn to read the mood swings of ducks and their response.”

MASTER THE BASICS…”There are three basic sounds or calls most hunters use,” says McLemore. “The hail-call or high ball, lonesome hen, and feed call or chuckle.”

    Some hunters also toss in series of single quacks to mimic a duck on the water.

    “Bring air up from your diaphragm and kind of grunt as you thrust air into the call. Basically, you release air brought up from you lungs so resist the temptation to “jaw blow” the call or you won’t have enough air to make the right tones or sequence of calls.”

    EXPERIMENT WITH A VARIETY OF CALLS…Find a call that fits you. An abundance of selection awaits you as the market has all shapes, sizes, and sounds of calls ranging from injection molded plastic models to handmade wooden versions.

    Yet it’s not the looks or appearance of the calls that matters most. It’s the person behind it and the sounds it makes.

    “I prefer a single reed call, and suggest that a beginner start with a quality single reed,” says Bill Cooksey of Jackson, TN., four-time Tennessee State Champion and winner of the U.S. Open and Grand American duck calling contests.

     “It is true that a single reed is more difficult to master than a double or triple, but once mastered the caller will be able to blow virtually any call made as well as it can be blown. A single reed has a wider range of sound, which enables a caller to blow whatever volume is needed for the conditions encountered during a hunt.”

WHAT ABOUT INSTRUCTIONAL CDs?…“Purchase one of the many fine CDs on calling from a manufacturer. I like the Rich-N-Tone calls and instructional CDs,” continues Cooksey.  “While practicing it is also worthwhile to record yourself as often a caller does not hear exactly how he sounds. This is much like the surprise most of us felt when we heard our voice recorded the first time”

    Other tips on Cooksey’s list suggest listening to the call maker or his representative blow the call. This will demonstrate what the call is capable of.

    Have an agenda when you practice. Decide, based upon your CD, what sound you need to learn at this point, and practice that sound until you get it right. Everyone learns at a different pace, and you should stick with the program you’re on until you’re absolutely certain that it will not work for you. Only then should you look for a different instructional method.

     COMPETITION CALLING VERSUS MEAT HUTING…”Many people have the misconception that contest calling has nothing to do with duck calling,” says Cooksey, who works with Memphis-based Avery Outdoors.

   “In reality, most competition callers are exceptional callers in the field.  In a contest the caller must blow a large variety of calls in 90 seconds.  If these calls were spaced out, you would find that each of them is useful in certain hunting situations, and in fact most sound extremely ducky.  Most contest callers can also tell stories about practicing their routine in the blind while there are no ducks in sight only to have mallards land in the hole during the loudest part of the routine.”


    Both McLemore and Cooksey agree that novice callers have a tendency to over blow the call. Calling too much or two loud can be a factor in working ducks.

    When hunting quiet settings of flooded timber holes or backwoods sloughs, a little dab will do you. It might be different, however, on a windy day in open water when ducks are working nearby zones but not necessarily coming to your locale.

    In that scenario getting their attention and keeping it until they find your decoys may require repeated bursts of the hail call or lonesome hen.

    There are limitations, as even the lead trumpet at the symphony doesn’t blow constant high notes throughout the concert. Neither should you do it with a duck call during the hunt.

THERE’S NO SUBSTITUTE FOR EXPERIENCE…Knowing how to blow a duck call is one thing. Knowing when to blow it is another.

    Most veteran duck hunters have mastered the sounds only after spending a lot of sunrises in the blinds where ducks were the teachers and the hunters were the students.

    Every day is a test and a challenge, which is part of the mystique of it all. Fool a bunch of mallards into gunning range with your call and it’s a proud moment for any waterfowler.

    Reading ducks will make you a better caller. Watch what they do when guides and veteran callers work the birds with different techniques or sequences. Some days the ducks are shy. Other days they love the music so you have to jack up the volume like a teenager with a new car stereo.

    Most duck calling techniques are aimed at puddle ducks, namely mallards. Widgeon, gadwalls, pintails, black ducks, and teal respond to calls but some like a whistle sound while others respond best to a light but raspy quack.

    Diver ducks are pretty much out of the equation when it comes to dramatic diversions in flight patterns by calling techniques. A blur here or a purr there but often times it’s done more for the entertainment of the caller than it is for the ducks.

    Here’s hoping you enhance your duck calling talents as the season matures. There’s a long list of reasons to enjoy the sport of waterfowling and calling is one of them.


Steve McCadams is a professional hunting and fishing guide here in the Paris Landing area. He has also contributed many outdoor oriented articles to various national publications.



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