Calling In Ducks

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Pick the right call for the right time

Hunting waterfowl is a bit of a guilty pleasure for me. I am anything but a dedicated waterfowler and my collection of waterfowl hunting gear is pretty meager. I’ve managed to acquire a few decent shotguns over the years but other than that, I’ve got a couple dozen floating mallard decoys, some decent waterproof clothing and some high-quality calls. And, truthfully, that’s all a person really needs to enjoy this great heritage. While I’ve got buddies with hundreds of decoys and even special trailers to haul them around in, the great thing about waterfowling is that you can get into it with a pretty minimal investment in gear. And, it’s been my experience that most landowners are very gracious about allowing hunters access. I’m a sheep-hunting addict and while waterfowl and sheep season almost perfectly overlap, I still make time each year to enjoy a few days of small-water duck hunting. They are definitely some of my most relaxing and enjoyable days of the season.

The past few seasons have seen robust populations of ducks and geese and heavy snowfall this winter will undoubtedly ensure an equal bounty in 2014. Thanks to the dedication of various wildlife organizations, not only have ten of thousands of wetlands been conserved in western Canada, many previously drained ones have been restored as well. Many of these wetlands are small and, in fact, it’s these tiny water bodies that are the lifeblood of waterfowl on the prairies. They are also an ideal location for the poorly equipped waterfowler to enjoy some incredible duck hunting action.

The truth is, the hunter with a dozen duck decoys can be as effective on these small ponds as the most well equipped waterfowl outfitters. And, if that hunter is a master with a duck call, the action can be downright crazy. I’ve had the good fortune to hunt with some of North America’s best duck callers and I’ve seen the ducks come in so focused on the call that they didn’t even pause to notice the decoys. I was hunting in Saskatchewan a few years ago and there were seven of us strung out in the reeds on the five-acre pond. We only had 18 decoys out and they were about 100 yards from my position. The plan was that as the shooters closer to the decoys came close to filling their limits that we’d change places and all get in on the action.

I was hunting with a fellow from Arkansas that I learned later was a several-time state champion duck caller. As the first flock of mallards appeared on the horizon, he began working his magic on the acrylic call. It was as if he had the small flock on a string and he was pulling it in fast. The ducks were on a direct course for the small group of decoys, but about 100 yards out they slowly veered off course and began moving towards us. John worked the call more frantically and the ducks locked in on us. With no decoys in front of us, the ducks had seemed confused. They wanted to land but they couldn’t see the source of the noise. They began to slowly rise as they neared the reed edge but it was too late. My auto cycled three times, as did John’s. Five brightly coloured drakes and one hen lay in the water before us. We both questioned each other why they had shot the hen and had a good laugh. And, so went the remainder of the afternoon. Even though the decoys were 100 yards away, we enjoyed the bulk of the shooting. John finally moved closer to the decoys and by the time the sun was setting in the western sky, we all had a limit of fat mallards. It was that day that I vowed to become a better caller.

If your circle of friends does not include a few duck hunting nerds, you likely have no idea how treasured a good duck call can be. Some of the better ones can run several hundred dollars and no duck nerd is complete without a lanyard filled with a half dozen calls around his neck. Some are for different varieties of ducks, but there will undoubtedly be two or three designed specifically for mallards. And like a fisherman changing lures, duck callers will switch calls throughout a hunt until one works its magic. Unquestionably, they will have a favourite, but count on them changing up if things aren’t working to their satisfaction. And just as truck owners argue the merits of Ford versus Chevy, so too will duck callers make a passionate case for their favourite call.

There are eight basic calls that most duck hunters rely on. Rather than try to describe them here, I’m going to concentrate on when to use them. A quick Google search will offer up plenty of options for listening to them.

  1. Hail call: This call is used when ducks are at long distances and it is blown at fairly high volume to attract their attention. With this call you just want the flock to know you are there.
  2. Greeting call: This is best used when ducks are close to being within range and appear to be on course to your location.
  3. Feeding call: This call is blown with too much volume by most, but when used at low volume it is a great option when ducks are close but not quite committed. At louder volume, it’s more likely to spook ducks off than entice them into your decoys.
  4. Basic quack: This is just a quick quack that’s often used in conjunction with a feeding or greeting call as a confidence call when ducks are close to committing to the decoys.
  5. Whistling call: This is an easy call to master, but one that many hunters never learn. It’s another confidence call that’s used on ducks that appear to be committed to coming in.
  6. Lonesome hen: This is a fairly low volume confidence call that is used to get call-shy birds to take a closer look at your set.
  7. Pleading call: This is a high volume call that is used when ducks are flying high overhead.
  8. Comeback call: This call is blown at moderate volumes and used to get ducks that just won’t commit or that have over-flown your set to come and take a closer look.

As important as it is to master each of these calls, it is critical that you know when to use them and equally important to know when to stay silent. If most duck hunters are guilty of one thing, it’s over calling. While this may not hurt your success too badly early in the season or when fresh flights of northern birds show up, it will dramatically reduce your success with heavily hunted birds. There is a reason that some of North America’s best callers are from the deep southern states. The ducks have seen a lot of other hunters before they reach southern climates and can be extremely difficult to call. Mastering calling techniques for any species we hunt is a rewarding accomplishment, but there is just something magical about setting up on a small pond on a frosty October morning and bringing a flock of big greenheads masterfully into a handful of decoys.

Check out this video for feeding, comeback and quack calls, as well as some holding techniques.

Go to this site to hear all eight calls listed!

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