The first duck call that ever touched my lips was a Yentzen.
It was 1976 and, although I didn’t know it at the time, the company’s production line was having trouble keeping up with booming demand for their “duck caller” (not duck call).
The call was unusual in that it was a double-reed call, the first call ever built with more than one reed.
Using the call, company owner James “Cowboy” Ferdandez won the World Duck Calling Championship in 1959.
After that he entered and won the state duck-calling contest in Austin several years in a row. He also won the Port Arthur and Beaumont twice.
Several years after winning his world championship, he entered the Champion of Champions World Duck Calling contest that pitted previous world champions against each other.
He won that, too.
He soon quit entering contests, admitting to his biographer Hilary Dyer, “I thought I was maybe being a little hoggish.”
From then on, he devoted any free time (he was still a full-time employee of Gulf States Utilities) to duck and goose hunting, making sales calls to sporting goods stores and tirelessly conducting demonstrations.
Of course, I didn’t know any of that in 1976. I was new to duck hunting, but had free access to an awesome mallard spot in St. Mary Parish.
In a tradition-bound sport, I didn’t have my father or any relative to teach me about calling ducks. All my friends hunted deer and squirrels.
I had killed ducks by jump-shooting them, but the idea of making them come to me rather than me go to them had a lot of appeal. So I bopped into a store and asked about a call.
I don’t remember the store’s name, but I remember the sales person telling me that the Yentzen was an easy call to blow.
Besides, most of the calls in the case were Yentzens
I tried it in the store (they allowed that in those days), and it sounded ducky to my untrained ear. I bought it and a training cassette tape.
After a couple weeks of practice, I went to the fur-trapping camp of Pierre, Felicia and S. J. Lodrigue, set in a canal off of Wax Lake. They listened critically, and declared that I sounded just like a duck.
That began a love affair with my Yentzen Caller that lasted years. But, finally, I wore the reeds out.
I searched for another, but they were harder to find. The call I found was shaped differently, and it just wouldn’t call right for me.
After that, I spent years in the netherworld of duck calls. I went from one maker to another, searching for another magic call that rang as true as my first Yentzen.
In later years, I searched for another Yentzen —but not a store carried them.
My story closely tracked the tale of the decline of Sure-Shot Game Calls, maker of the Yentzen Caller, from its towering peak in the market.
The Yentzen story began during World War II in the Nederland, Texas, garage of George Yentzen.
Yentzen, born and raised in Donaldsonville, owned Nederland Bakery and drove a taxi, as well — but his real passion was duck hunting.
He invented a duck call entirely different than any built anywhere in the U.S. It used double reeds; every other call made had a single reed per call.
In 1946, he applied for a patent on the call. But during the Big War, the patent office issued only war-related patents, and after the war the agency was backed up with patent applications.
He finally received his patent in 1950.
Using a homemade lathe, Yentzen averaged fewer than a dozen calls a year. Then in the mid-1950s he met a young, energetic firebrand from nearby Port Arthur, Texas, named James “Cowboy” Fernandez.
Born to parents who had emigrated from Spain, Fernandez was — by his own admission — mean-spirited and handy with his fists. He was also energetic and a born salesman, his job with Gulf States Utilities.
Fernandez’s hobby was hunting, a love that started when his father Manuel handed him a 12-gauge shotgun when he was 12 years old and told him to kill some field larks for a jambalaya.
When he decided at 22 that he needed another duck call, an acquaintance steered him to Yentzen.
The two took to each other almost instantly. Yentzen asked the younger man if he was any good with his hands, to which Fernandez replied, “I tinker a little.”
Before long, he was turning out calls for Yentzen.
Fernandez applied his ingenuity to perfecting the original call, which had problems with the internal trough and the durability of the plastic reeds.
Not until 1959 was the call perfected in its modern form, the reason that the label on the call reads “Est. 1959,” even though it was patented in 1950.
Unfortunately, George Yentzen died in 1958 at age 72.
Fernandez was only 27 at Yentzen’s death. His widow passed the tools and business on to Fernandez through the estate.
In his time off from his day job, Fernandez hit the road, peddling his duck calls to Southeast Texas sporting goods store owners.
He stressed that his calls were easy to blow and the only call that would blow when wet.
It helped that others were winning contests with the call.
Charles Stepan won the world championship in 1961, and Billie Domingue dominated the women’s division of the championship for five straight years.
Soon, Fernandez was making thousands of calls a year.
The double reed patent expired in the late 1960s, and imitators jumped in from all points: Illinois, Arkansas, Texas and Louisiana.
Still the Yentzen, as part of Sure-Shot Game Calls, maintained its dominance due in large part to Fernandez’s in-store promotions and personal appearances.
In the 1980s, Fernandez added turkey, predator, snow goose and specklebelly calls, as well as deer rattling antlers to the Sure-Shot line. Bass Pro Shops, Cabela’s and Academy carried Sure-Shot calls.
On Jan. 1, 1990, Fernandez retired from Gulf States Utilities and could devote himself to Sure-Shot. He had 14 employees, and orders were coming in from big retailers around the country.
In the late 1990s, Sure-Shot was selling more than 300,000 calls a year.
But by 1997, Fernandez was feeling his age and slowing down. He still kept an eye on the business and tuned calls, but he stopped traveling to make sales calls.
No one else in the company, including his grandson, Curtis Arnold was the salesman type.
One thing Fernandez did do in 1997 was a radio segment on the Billy Halfin outdoors radio show. During that show he met Halfin’s co-host, Charlie Holder, a man who would later play a huge role in Sure-Shot Game Calls.
When Fernandez returned to the station for a 1998 spot, he invited Holder to visit the plant in nearby Groves, Texas.
Holder remembered that the place was buzzing with activity. During the visit, Fernandez admitted he was getting old and tried to hire Holder as his national sales manager.
In the early 2000s, Sure-Shot’s business began to slow down. In 2005, Holder again visited Fernandez at the plant.
Fernandez’s wife Iva’s health began to fail and he himself just had a pacemaker put in his chest.
More critically, Fernandez — who had years before become a committed Christian — began to spend much more time sharing the Gospel with others than at the duck call business.
Activity in the warehouse was much slower, Holder recalled.
Fernandez again offered to sell him the business, but only rent the property to him. Again, Holder declined.
But Holder listened. He was interested in reducing his investment in the senior-care businesses he owned.
Sure-Shot Game Calls began to seriously struggle. In 2009, Fernandez’s daughter Diana, a CPA who kept the company’s business records, retired because of multiple sclerosis.
By 2011, Sure-Shot Game Calls was barely alive. The machines seldom ran, and inventory was down to what was on the shelf. Dealers dropped the product line rapidly.
Holder recalled that, when he took the company over that year, they were down to two dealers — both in East Texas.
Holder initiated the telephone call that resulted in his purchase of the business from Fernandez. Fernandez was more willing to deal than before; he was visibly tired, and wife Iva had been diagnosed with leukemia.
Sure-Shot Game Calls had a new owner. One of Holder’s first decisions was to hire Curtis Arnold, who was by then an engineer, into a full-time position.
The now-resuscitated company has more than 100 dealers and carries 10 duck calls, three goose calls, two deer calls, two turkey calls, a hog call, a predator call and a squirrel call.
The calls also can be purchased online directly from the company.
Most popular is their Special Mallard call, an extra-loud plastic call; their Yentzen Classic, the original walnut-bodied model; and their newest call, the Yentzen One, made with a heavy proprietary material and their answer to acrylic calls.
See their full line of calls by logging onto sureshotgamecalls.com or calling 409-962-1636.