Perhaps nothing in the hunting world is as sweet as fooling game by mimicking its voice. For the waterfowler, success in calling is about more than just sounding like a duck or goose. It's a matter of knowing when to sound like them, choosing the right location from which to call, and, quite often, knowing how to match your calling with an alluring decoy presentation. An accomplished master of wildfowl calling also knows the best call for the moment, for to paraphrase Mark Twain, the difference between the right call and the nearly right call is the same as that between lightning and the lightning bug.
Even the most eloquent, convincing recital will have little effect if a caller is not located where ducks want to land. A great degree of the intrigue of waterfowling is trying to decipher what a duck or a goose is thinking, how it perceives its environment, and what makes one bird plunge headlong toward your decoys while another doesn't take a second glance. Inside the acorn-sized brain of a duck or goose lie many mysteries destined to remain unsolved, for the moment you are confident you can predict the actions of waterfowl, a flock will come along that defies all previous notions. Indeed, there are no rules to calling ducks and geese, only theories; the longer one spends pursuing waterfowl, the more numerous those hypotheses become.
In the hands of experienced hunters, though, a duck or goose call becomes a musical instrument, a perfect blending of function and artistry. No amount of written instruction will make a novice fluent in waterfowl communication, but a foundation of fundamental calling principles can help you break the language barrier.
Imagine yourself seated in your favorite duck blind. Ahead is a spread of decoys, and you await the first flight of the day. Suddenly, a high flock of mallards passes overhead, silhouetted against a starlit sky. This is the perfect time to greet them with what's called the highball or hail call. The highball is a loud, long series of quacks that develop almost a ringing sound, tapering off after several repetitions. Though there isn't a hen mallard alive that duplicates the volume of this call, it serves as an excellent attention-getter. World champion duck caller and call manufacturer Buck Gardner likens this call to flagging decoying geese. "A flag doesn't look like a goose," he admits, "but it does get geese to notice decoys from a long distance, and the same is true of the highball."
While some callers pride themselves on their ability to rattle their blindmates' eardrums with the loud highball, distant ducks apparently do not find this call overbearing. In fact, a loud highball might be the only way to capture their attention. As a general rule, the higher the ducks are flying, the louder you will need to blow your highball. Ducks may not immediately respond to your 10- to 15-note highball, but look carefully for any deviation in their flight as a hint that your decoys have been spotted and the birds are thinking about examining them more closely. If the ducks do not tip their wings, vary their flight direction, or circle back for another pass, save your breath, as they have another destination in mind.
Should high-flying ducks break away from the flock to examine your spread, you will want to begin a series of six to eight hen quacks in different pitches to give the illusion that several ducks are calling.
With ducks approaching, you'll want to begin the lonesome hen call, a protracted series of quacks of similar tone and volume. This can be modified by faster repetitions, adding a sense of pleading or urgency. This is the kind of call you have undoubtedly heard from hen mallards at your favorite marsh. While ducks are often looking for a place to feed, drakes are always looking for female companionship and can be especially receptive to a seductive rendition of the lonesome hen.
As ducks begin cupping their wings to set over your decoys, you'll want to blow an assurance call to encourage them to continue their flight path. Many waterfowlers use the feed chuckle, a rapid series of clucks sounding like a machine gun. Hen mallards seldom use this call, and ducks can quickly become suspicious of this unnatural sound if overused. Buck Gardner prefers to use a mixture of clucking sounds, which hens commonly make when they are resting contentedly on the water.
World champion caller Tim Gesch likes to make what he calls the barnyard hen sound when ducks begin approaching. This is a soft call somewhere between a squeak and a quack, a rendition you often hear hens making as you slip quietly into a predawn marsh. Many hunters use this call until the birds are over the decoys and they're ready to shoot.
When faced with ducks that repeatedly circle out of shotgun range, you'll need to change your calling cadence or do something different to convince the birds that it is, indeed, safe to land. Many hunters attach strings to their decoys so that they can tug on the blocks to give them movement on the water-a little edge that might be enough to coax skeptical ducks to land among the decoys.
Ducks that are reluctant to approach are often gun shy from previous experiences with decoys. Remember that ducks, especially those that have made it past a gauntlet of hunters in the northern ranges of a flyway, have often seen scores of decoy presentations and have undoubtedly gotten an earful of hunters blowing duck calls. To fool these birds, you need to approximate closely the natural sound of a duck and be careful not to move or make unnatural noises in the blind.
The larger an approaching flock of ducks, the more important it is to reduce your movement in the blind, for it takes but one duck to alert the entire flock to your presence. With so many eyes and ears looking and listening for danger, there is very little margin for error in your decoy presentation and calling. If ducks look like they are leaving the area, Gesch blows a more demanding call by speeding up the cadence and increasing the volume of his quacks. This is the comeback call, perhaps the most important call the duck hunter can master.
With time in the blind, you will develop the ability to interpret a duck's body language as it reacts to the various calls. Only through familiarity with these sounds will you be able to draw on a repertoire of calls that will help lure ducks to your blind. If the birds show little interest in your calling, don't be afraid to put your calls in your pocket, for perhaps the most important note a caller can strike is that of silence.
Most puddle duck species will respond to the mallard call, but there are several other calls that specifically mimic the sounds made by pintails, wood ducks, teal, wigeon and gadwall. Scores of video and cassette tapes are available to waterfowlers who want to learn more about calling ducks, but an even better source of instruction is an experienced caller who can tutor you in the field. If you lack a good place to hunt, improve your calling skills and you'll find yourself being invited to hunt many new locations for there's always room in a blind for a quality caller.
"Reading" a duck's in-flight attitude and behavior takes considerable experience, and only time in a blind observing how ducks respond to other ducks and to calling will give you an understanding of what to expect from the birds. Too many hunters hang up their calls at the end of each season, when they could be back in the marshes in the spring practicing their calling as the birds migrate north. If that isn't practical, try venturing to a local park where there might be a flock of resident mallards. Study their behavior and practice your calling until you can closely mimic many of their calls.
Blowing Basic Duck Calls
Highball: A series of loud, long quacks that starts high on the scale and tapers off after several repetitions. This is used as an attention-getter when ducks are in the distance. The call consists of five or six quacks blown in increasingly shorter lengths: "quaaack, quack, quack, quack, quack."
Feed Chuckle: A rapid series of low grunting sounds, most commonly used as a confidence or assurance call. Rapidly repeat tick-et, tick-et, tick-et into your call to produce the feed chuckle. This call is most effective when mixed with soft clucks and quacks to convince skeptical birds to approach your decoys. To produce a quack, simply say the word quit into the call.
Lonesome Hen: A protracted series of quacks, with tone and volume remaining the same. All other calls are a variation of this sound.
Comeback: An urgent-sounding series of quacks blown rapidly up and down the scale. This call is used to turn ducks that are moving away from your decoys.
Like mallards, Canada geese are widely distributed, the most popular quarry of goose hunters across North America. They are also highly vocal birds that respond readily to calling. As is the case with ducks, to call geese successfully you must understand the synergy between calling, decoy placement, and location. The art of calling geese is an ancient one. Several tribes of North America's indigenous people still call geese with their voices. The first goose calls weren't in use in North America until almost half a century after the invention of the single reed duck call, an indication of the stronger interest in mallard hunting.
Canada geese consistently use five readily identifiable calls. The greeting, or hail, call is used when honkers spot other geese in the distance-often several hundred yards away-and attempt to get their attention. When calling geese from afar, it's important to use a call that has sufficient volume to reach distant birds, especially if conditions are windy. If geese are flying high with rapid wing beats, it will be very difficult to convince them to coast to your decoys. You are more likely to lure geese that aren't too high or that are only slightly flapping their wings. To blow the greeting call, say "to-wit, to-wit, to-wit" into your call. The "to" represents the her of the her-ONK sound made by Canadas. The louder "wit" part of the call is the accented ONK.
Many Canada geese also make a low, growling sound. To mimic this say "grrrit, grrrit, grrrit" into the call, varying the loudness until it closely approximates the sound made by the geese. The intermediate greeting call is used when geese have broken away from the flock to take a closer look at your decoys. Here, you'll want to decrease your volume slightly while increasing the speed of the to-wits to achieve an excited tone. Again, this call can be modified to re-create a variety of varying sounds; just experiment with your call as you listen to live geese. There is simply no substitute for quality practice.
The cluck, or feeding, call is used as the geese are flying directly toward the decoys to examine them more closely. This is an excellent time to add the growling sound to your call, for this will mimic the raspy sound of feeding geese, whose throats are dry and whose crops are partially filled with corn or other grain. Shorten the to-wit series blown into the call to make the cluck. The double-cluck is simply a modification of the cluck. To blow it, say twit-it in a series that begins slowly but builds rapidly.
One of the most important calls is the comeback, meant to plead with geese to return for just one more look at your decoys. It's a long, single note with a lonesome, forlorn sound and is the ideal call to use when attempting to turn birds away from another hunter along a refuge boundary. Modify your to-wit in a slow series consisting of "to-wiiiit, to-wiiiit, to-wiiiit."
The last call used frequently by Canadas is the lay-down call. This is designed to reassure the birds that they've made a good choice to land near your decoys. To blow the lay-down, stutter the to-wit calls in short, quick bursts of sound and add a growl to achieve the murmuring sound of geese feeding contentedly.
You won't always need to recite each of these calls, but having them in your repertoire may make the difference between getting birds within shotgun range and watching them sail to distant blinds. Knowing how and when to use each of these calls will heighten your waterfowling enjoyment, for you will have the satisfaction of interacting with the geese brought to the gun.
Three Types of Goose Calls
Resonate Chamber: This is the most popular call because it is the easiest to operate and usually adequately loud; however, it lacks the tonal range of the flute call. The reed assembly of the resonate chamber is part of the call's stopper, which is fitted into the barrel. As the caller blows into the call, air pressure builds until there is enough to cause the reed to vibrate against the reed base's sounding surface, producing sound. If air is blown rapidly into the call, the reed will "break" (or, hold against the sounding surface without vibrating). This produces the higher ONK sound of the Canadas' her-ONK call.
Flute: P.S. Olt introduced the first flute call in 1954, the now famous Olt A-50. While more difficult to master, the flute call possesses a wide range of tones that can be used to replicate the many sounds of Canada geese. While the reed acts much as the reed assembly in a resonate chamber call, the caller must control air pressure within the call by cupping his hands over the end of the call and by raising his tongue to the roof of his mouth while exhaling. This causes a constriction in airflow as air passes into the call and over the reed assembly to produce sound.
Tube: Though this is the simplest of all goose calls, it is the most difficult to learn to use. The tube call consists of little more than a tube fitted with a rubber diaphragm stretched over one end and held in place by a rubber band. The tube call lacks the volume of the other two calls, but legendary caller Harold Knight used one to win the world goose-calling championship.
[Information courtesy of Chris Dorsey, author of Wildfowler's Season-Modern Methods for a Classic Sport]