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T.R.'s Tips - Duck Calling
Some advice about duck calling from T R Michels

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     Hunters may not realize that communication among ducks and geese is a combination of sound, body posture and action. The meaning of a call may be more related to body posture and action than to the sound of the call. Because it is difficult to duplicate the body posture and action of ducks and geese, you need to understand the meaning of the calls in order to correctly recreate them. Two thing to keep in mind when you are calling ducks is that the pitch of the call, and the length of the individual notes of the calls of different species of ducks, are affected by the relative size of the duck. Generally speaking, the larger the duck, the deeper the call and the shorter the individual notes are. While Mallards, Teal, Black Ducks and Gadwalls all use similar sounding Social Contact, Decrescendo and Mating calls; the calls of Mallards and Black Ducks are deeper pitched than the calls of Gadwalls and Teal. Because of their larger body size Mallards and Black ducks also call slower than Gadwalls and Teal. While most puddle ducks will respond to the calls of a Mallard, if you are primarily hunting species other than Mallards, you should use the right call for the species you are hunting.

Puddle Duck Calling Sequence

     When I first see puddle ducks a long way off I use a loud, long hail or high ball call (decrescendo) to get their attention and let them know where I am. I also use loud, long calls on windy days, when the ducks can't hear as well, especially if they are upwind; and when I'm hunting flooded river bottoms, where sound doesn't carry very far. If the birds don't come my way, or if they turn off before the come in, I use a more drawn out version of the decrescendo, to try to convince the birds to come my way. While I call I watch the birds. If they respond to the call I'm using, I keep it up. If they don't respond I try something else: a loud decrescendo; a soft decrescendo; a long, drawn out decrescendo; a string of short quacks; or a chuckle, whatever it takes. Sometimes I quit calling all together, to see if that works. 

     Once the ducks get within a hundred yards or so I use softer, shorter hail calls and slow, loud quacks, trying to sound like a contented hen. Most duck hunters have heard the early morning quacks of a hen Mallard across the water, that's the sound you should imitate when your calling ducks that are in close. When the ducks are close don't blow loud, fast quacks, that's the sound a duck uses as it jumps into the air when it's alarmed. And don't over call. If the ducks are coming toward you, put the call down, grab the gun, and let 'em come. If they look like they might swing off use slow, soft quacks or the chuckle to keep them coming.

Calling Diver Ducks

     Most of the calls used for hunting diver ducks can be performed on a standard mallard call by growling into the call to produce the rrrr of the females. You can produce the scaup of the males by cupping your hand around the call and blowing a short eouuk while closing your hand at the end of the sound. I use a Haydel’s MG-84 Marsh Guide Mallard for a high pitched call, and a Haydel’s DR-85 Double Reed Mallard for lower pitched calls. Lohman offers their Model 450 Diving Duck Call specifically for hunting divers.   

Think While You Are Calling

     When you are calling ducks, think about what you are trying to do. Initially you try to get their attention, to let them know there are other ducks in the area, and where they are. If the ducks aren't coming toward you, you try to get them to change their course and come closer. As the ducks get closer you try to convince them that there are other ducks on the water, that it is safe to land, and that the area is a good place to rest and feed in safety. However, the calls you are performing are not used by the ducks for those purposes. They are used to announce a willingness to mate, used during courtship behavior, and used as a threat. So, what you have to do is use the calls the ducks use, but, use them in a way that will get the ducks to do what you want them to do.

     You can use a loud decrescendo as a hail call to initially get the ducks attention. Even though the decrescendo is a pair bonding call, it can be used to attract ducks because they are accustomed to hearing it in the fall. You can also use the decrescendo as a comeback call to turn the ducks, and as a pleading call to entice the birds to land. But, when you are calling, remember that ducks are not very big, and they have small lungs, they can't possibly call as loud as I hear some hunters blow their calls. The closer the ducks get, the softer you should call.

     You can use a series of quacks and chuckles to convince the birds that your decoys are real, and that everything is all right. Even though the inciting call is a threat and not a feeding call; it is used by ducks in a feeding situation. You can use the chuckle or a diver growl to convince the in coming ducks that there are one or more drakes harassing the hens in your spread. To add more realism to your calling you can use the social contact calls of the drakes, and the sounds of any other duck or goose species that might be in the area.

Be Adaptable

    I always carry more than one Mallard call, each call with a different pitch. If the ducks don't respond to one call I try the others, until I find one they do respond to. I also carry several calls so that I have a backup when the call I'm using gets wet and won't blow. While I really like the sound of a good wooden call, they sometimes have a tendency to freeze up on cold days. I always have a couple of non-wooden calls with me. Plastic, polycarbonate and acrylic calls may still freeze up, but you can usually clear out the ice by blowing into them hard, or by knocking them against your hand.

     To keep from sounding like every other hunter on the marsh, especially when the ducks don't seem to be responding to my hen Mallard hail calls, quacks and chuckles I use a drake Mallard call. When the ducks won't respond to a Mallard call I use a Pintail/Widgeon/Teal whistle or a Wood Duck whistle, which may be all it takes to get the ducks to respond. If I'm hunting lakes, rivers, sloughs or marshes that are big enough for divers to use I also keep a diver call on my lanyard. I include decoys of these other species in my decoy spread just in case some of them show up. After being hunted for several days or weeks the ducks often get call and decoy shy. When this happens I may stop calling altogether, use fewer or more decoys, or move to a new location.

Purchasing A Duck Call

    If you really want to sound like the ducks you've got to have calls that can produce the right sounds. There are a lot of calls on the market that don't produce the right sounds, or that can't produce a wide range of tones. If a call doesn't produce the right sounds, or is not able to produce a wide range of sounds, you won't be able to reproduce realistic duck calls with it. If you have limited experience with a duck calls stick with a double reed call, although they are more limited in their range of tones than single reed calls, they are easier to blow, and they will get you blowing the right sounds more quickly, and more consistently. After you become proficient on a double reed you may want to get a custom single reed call.

     Before you buy any call I suggest you give it a try. Blow a loud high ball, a softer quack and a chuckle, to see how the call performs. If you are one of those callers who likes to tune their own calls, ask before you start fiddling with the reed; some stores will let you and some won't. If you're looking for good over the counter calls Big River, Haydel's, Hunter's Specialties, Knight & Hale, Lohman, Mallardtone, Primos, Quaker Boy and Sure Shot all make good inexpensive calls. If you can't find what you want at your local store, Bass Pro Shops, Cabela's, Herter's, Trinity Mountain Outdoor Products, Wing Supply and several other catalogs offer a good selection of calls and instructional tapes.

     As with most things you pay for, the better the call, the higher the price. The price of custom calls made of laminated wood, cocabola wood and acrylics start at around $70. I don't suggest you buy an expensive call through the mail, unless you know the maker, because you may not be able to return it. The best way to buy a custom call is to meet the maker at a show, and try several calls, then choose the one you like. If you don't like the sound of the call most of the makers will tune it while you wait. Watching a call maker tune a call, and asking questions about how and why they do it, is also a good way to learn how to tune your own calls. 

This article is an excerpt from the Duck & Goose Addict's Manual ($14.95 + $5.00  S&H) , by T.R. Michels. 

T.R. Michels is a nationally recognized game researcher/wildlife behaviorist, outdoor writer and speaker. He is the author of the Whitetail, Elk, Duck & Goose, and Turkey Addict's Manuals. His latest products are the 2003 Revised Edition of the Whitetail Addict's Manual, the 2003 Revised Edition of the Elk Addict's Manual; and the 2003 Revised Edition of the Duck & Goose Addict's Manual. For a catalog of books and other hunting products contact: T.R. Michels, Trinity Mountain Outdoors, PO Box 284, Wanamingo, MN 55983, USA. Phone: 507-824-3296,

E-mail: trmichels@yahoo.com, Web site: ww.TRMichels.com

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