Effective duck calling

Some kids who begin hunting at a young age are raised with constant sounds of duck calls. Probably from a dad who was well versed with duck calls, maybe even an older brother who is blowing his lungs out trying to learn the skill himself. In my case, the duck call was sort of an unknown tool when I began hunting on my own.

My dad never owned any duck call that I can remember, other than a pintail whistle. He grew up in Metairie, and most of his hunts were on the levees and banks of Lake Pontchartrain where the hunting was in passing shots instead of over decoys. So, I guess there was not much need to learn the skill of duck calling.

During my younger days in the duck blind, I heard lots of “peep, peep, peep-peep” but no “kaaank, kaank, kank, kank, kank!” If the ducks didn’t appear to be teal or pintail, our blind made no sound at all to attract them. Funny thing, though, was we almost always shot a few ducks, just about as many as the other blinds hunting with us, even without calling at all to some days.

I loved duck hunting so much that I really wanted to be a good duck caller like the guys on TV and in the hunting videos. As a teenager, I bought a couple of calls and instructional tapes, and blew my lungs out. I think I am actually a decent caller now, but after a few years in the field I don’t blow it very often. I certainly don’t send a string of 10-note hail calls up to flocks of mallards in the stratosphere.

I have learned that it is a futile effort that generally produces only lightheadedness. Save those fine notes for the judges in Gueydan – that is where you get the best response to it.

Just like when I was learning about decoy placement, I spent time listening to real flocks of wild ducks sitting on ponds to learn what real ducks actually say to each other. I am fortunate I guess, in that I live near several acres of crawfish ponds that hold decent numbers of ducks at the end of the season. Although I can’t hunt it, the ponds are right alongside the roadway, so I spent time parked on the shoulder of the highway listening to the chatter and calling of ducks resting and feeding on a pond. That is where I learned most about how to call, and more importantly, how NOT TO call at ducks.

First, let me address the DO NOTs of duck calling.

  • If the ducks are cruising in the jet streams, don’t waste your breath. They will not come down no matter how good you call.
  • If they are low enough to actually see your decoys and are surveying an area, give them a few quacks, maybe a quick hail call. Generally, if they are looking to land, they respond early on to your call. If they do not, most times they will continue on, so don’t kill yourself blowing and blowing if the ducks don’t show some response to the first few notes.
  • And honestly, there are times when it is best not to call at all. If I see a group of birds flying low and coming toward my spread, I generally don’t call at all. They obviously see something they like, so adding sound to that is not necessary at that point, and has a potential to mess up a good thing. I hold the call to my mouth, ready to call, but wait until I “read” the ducks’ response. If they continue toward the pond at low altitude or cup their wings to drop, I remain silent. If they begin to turn away or flare up, then I will begin to chatter and chuckle some to reassure them. Most times, that gives them the confidence they were looking for to come in for a closer look.

Like some prescription medications, call only as needed, not in excess. Like I said earlier, when I was young and hunted with my dad, often the grays and teal would come into the decoys without us ever making a sound. Maybe they had heard constant calling from other hunters that spooked them and silence seemed safe. I am not sure the reason, but I have found that on some days limited calling is best, especially if you are not very experienced or confident in your calling skills.

I choose to use large spreads of decoys when I hunt, so when I do call I must attempt to sound like a large flock of ducks. The large flocks that I have heard sound like a large group of people at a New Year’s Eve party in a small room, if that makes sense to you. You can hear constant chatter from many people, but no particular conversation from any one person. Ducks are similar to that: lots of quick, calm quacks and chuckles with only an occasional hail thrown in. Kind of like that one person at the party with a unique loud laugh: Very few people hear his conversation, but everyone in the room hears it when that particular person lets loose with a laugh. The key component that a duck hunter needs to try to duplicate is to sound like there are multiple duck conversations going on at the same time.

I think it is best to have multiple callers in the blind if possible, but NONE of them blazing out hail calls. When I see birds that are looking over the marsh for a place to land, I give a series of calm distinct quacks, “waack, waack, waack.” Not alarmed or excited, just normal quack to let the ducks in the air know that we are there. If the ducks in flight respond to the calls, I then try to sound like many, many content ducks resting and feeding. That is when I give several quick clucks and chuckles, and it is helpful to have a second caller make it sound like multiple conversations at the “party.”

At this point, I try to sound like “kuk kuk kuk; waank wannk; kuk kuk kuk; ticka ticka ticka,kuk kuk kuk; wannk; wannk.” Lots of quick, soft but excited chatter like kids in the cafeteria line.

I only use a hail once in a while between the chatter and chuckles, and when I do it is a shortened hail. I have found that resting ducks do hail occasionally, but each note is a quick one and the whole series is much shorter than most people think (again referring to the contest calling). Instead of a 10-note loud long drawn out “WAAAAAAANNNK WAAAAAANK WAAANNK WAAANNK WANNNK” over a 10- to 12-second span, it should be “wannk wannk wank-wank-wank.” About five notes over a 3-second time. Not long, drawn-out loud notes, but more subtle and quick five-note series. This is what I have heard live ducks do on a pond, but only occasionally. I have never heard a real duck run a seven- or 10-note extended hail call.

It looks stupid in print, but I hope you can hear in your mind what the different sounds should be. Made by two or more callers at the same time, these sounds can mimic real ducks very well. Have a second caller making calm, simple quacks in the background while a more-experienced caller is making the feed chuckles and quick quacks. My son got his first call recently, and I will start letting him give simple quacks while I call. Just “kannk, kannk, kannk” to add to the mix. Again, only use the hail sparingly, and when you do, make it quick and short.

There is a big difference between “Contest Calling” and “Blind calling.” What sounds good to a judge in a competition will not convince many ducks to come to your pond. In my opinion, the biggest mistake that inexperienced hunters make is going overboard with a hail call trying to sound like the contestants they heard at the festival. It sounds great to the hunters, but the ducks don’t respond. Keep it simple in the blind.

Learn the simple, content, calm quack series first, then learn quick clucks and feed chuckles. Most of all, take some time at the end of the season to sit near a pond and hear the real ducks in conversation. It will be well worth your time.

Of course, not every duck I call to responds, but I have found these techniques to be pretty successful. I hope that you do too. Be safe, shoot straight and shoot often!