By the time waterfowl reach South Carolina, the birds have heard every call known to man. But the hunter who adjusts won’t make ducks think he’s just another quack.
To have success this duck season, hunters need to understand how to talk different to ducks.
A good place to start is with master duck-caller Barnie Calef of Rapid City, Iowa, who guides hunters to ducks and geese in Iowa but hunts waterfowl across the nation. After winning several World Duck Calling Championships, Calef has become one of the most-recognized experts on duck calling in the nation. He believes calls such as the Cajun Squeal and the Bouncing Hen, subtle calls he’s learned when hunting in the South, drastically can improve a hunter’s ability to take ducks at the lower end of the Atlantic Flyway. “By the time ducks reach South Carolina, they’ve already been exposed to some of the finest calling in the world, from Canada all the way down the Atlantic Flyway,” he said. “So, southern callers have to learn the finer points of duck calling, including the Cajun Squeal and the Bouncing Hen, to be successful.” Calef said ducks realize that pure, beautiful calls, with clean, distinctive notes like those of an opera singer, come from hunters, not ducks. But when the birds get down South, they hear different sounds — calls with a country twang to ’em.
Calling good ol’ ducks
To convince an unassuming flock a hunter is a local bird, a “good ol’ duck,” Calef recommended “spicing up” your calling with the Cajun Squeal, a five-note greeting call. But, instead of making five-distinctive notes, squeal between each note. “Basically, you ‘squeak’ the call at the end of each note, hit the next note and then squeal the call before you hit the next note,” Calef said. “This call works wonders to turn a flight of ducks into decoys. You also can dupe ducks into thinking you’re a southern bird with the Bouncing Hen call, which sounds like a hen mallard with hiccups.
“You can send “out, out, out” sounds into the duck call. Then, between each note, hit the roof of your mouth with the tip of your tongue. “The call actually has an accent on the end of the note. For the most-effective sound, slur each note, rather than making clean, distinct notes. “Mallards, the second most-popular duck taken by hunters in South Carolina, don’t hit every note clearly and distinctly like an opera singer. But instead, they slur their notes like a country-and-western singer.” Whether one prefers to set up blinds on open water, at swamps or at fields, Calef said hunters can bring in birds by making their calls “a little more country.
“I’ve had days when ducks have come to my blind but won’t respond to my greeting call. Then, finally, when I hit the ducks with the Cajun Squeal or the Bouncing Hen, suddenly, the ducks will turn, come in, lock their wings and get blasted.”
Timing’s the trick
“Timing is everything,” Calef said. “Determining when to call depends on the area where you hunt. “For instance, when I hunt in flooded timber where there’s limited vision, and the ducks can’t see decoys from far away, I want to get their attention quickly, so I’ll sound just like the ducks, kick the water to make a splash and try to simulate the sights and sounds of feeding ducks. “When I hunt big rivers and reservoirs, I call loudly to ducks in the distance as soon as I can see them. Hopefully, I’ll bring them to within working distance before they get distracted by other hunters. “Once ducks focus on your spread and fly toward you, they’ll less likely get pulled in different directions by other hunters. If I have competition at a hunting location, I’ll call any ducks I see, even from a half-mile away. I’ll give a loud, high, ringing hail call, just like the call I’ll use in competition.
“Once the birds come within 150 yards, I don’t give any sounds that don’t sound like a duck. At that point, I’ll basically give a six-note call, which I consider the best call to use in the field for ducks. “When ducks are young and wander away from their mother, they learn to respond to the six-note quack, which their mother uses to bring them back to her quickly. You can vary the six-note quack with a four-note quack. But remember this rule of thumb: the more notes you blow, the shorter the notes need to be. “Conversely, the fewer notes you blow, the longer you need to make the notes.” Waterfowl hunters can determine whether to give a four-note or a six-note quack by watching the way ducks respond when hunters call to them. Typically Calef starts with a six-note call, using short, choppy notes. If he doesn’t see the ducks turning toward him or cutting their wings, then he gives six faster quacks. If those fast quacks don’t get a response, then he reduces the number of quacks he gives, but makes them harder and much-more aggressive.
“Your ability to read the ducks’ body language and understand which calls they will and won’t respond to determines whether or not you call ducks,” Calef said. “Once the ducks tell you the type of call they prefer by locking their wings and swinging toward your decoy spread, emphasize that call. “Learn to give the ducks the calls they want and like at a time they want them.”
Taking the swingers
Most waterfowl hunters have experienced the frustration of having ducks swing away from decoys. Sometimes ducks will have their wings locked for their final approaches, then for some reason, they’ll start flapping, pulling up and swinging away from the decoys. If you hunt in a high-pressure area, you can’t wait for the ducks to swing away and then get out 150 yards before you start calling. You don’t want to give the ducks a chance to get distracted by other hunters. Instead, start hitting those ducks with calls when they’re out only about 60 yards from your blind. You want to keep them tight to the blind and interested in your decoys.
“I’ll blow the call really hard and fast to try to turn swinging ducks around and back into my decoys,” Caleff said. “Most of the time with that fast calling, hunters can at least break off one or two ducks from a flight, and those couple of ducks will drop into the decoys.
“I’ll go ahead and take them. Naturally, I like to get the large flock as much as anyone. But generally, if you wait on that big flock to come back, it never will.”
Hunters often have ducks swing around a decoy set multiple times. Sometimes they decide everything’s OK and set their wings, but more often than not, they’ll hit the after-burners and head for the horizon. “I’ve swung 10 mallards as many as six or eight times before and finally brought them into my decoys,” Calef said.
“Often if mallards are serious about lighting in a decoy spread, they’ll make one swing over the decoys then come right in to where you’re waiting. “However, if ducks circle and almost come into your decoys three times, but never set their wings and stretch out their feet, you most likely never will get a shot at that flight.
“This rule is one that can be broken, but typically I’ll follow the ‘three-swings-and-you’re-out’ rule. If you don’t take the shot on that third pass, you may not get a fourth pass, especially if you hunt in a public area where hunters battle for the birds.
“Always remember that your ability to read the ducks is your best asset. Knowing the effects of certain calls on ducks will tell you the type of calls to create and how many passes you can allow the ducks to make. “Every day and each flock are different. That’s what makes duck hunting so much fun, and why I love this sport so much.”