Let’s be honest, calling ducks successfully is one of the most rewarding experiences for any duck hunter. Some hunters describe it as a humbling feeling, a feeling that you are connecting to the bird, a feeling that you are a “duck whisperer”; you are inside their world, communicating with them.
Of course, there will be times that you scare them off, especially if you are a beginner hunter. But do not let this discourage you, because with practice you might soon become a master duck caller.
Now, duck calling is an art, and just like any other art form, you have to tune into your skills as well as intuition. You have to know what type of call to use, you have to know when to do it and you have to “feel” how loud or how soft your call should be on that given moment.
Just the same as with any other animal, ducks use a variety of different ways to communicate. Duck calls are almost like musical instruments and therefore you have to know how to play it in order to get the desired sounds and effects.
How do you call a duck? At the core is knowing how to control your air flow. And to control and maintain a steady airflow, you have to use your diaphragm. The easiest way to describe this motion is squeezing and holding your diaphragm tight, almost like when you use your breath to fog up a window.
Now, just to add more spice to your calling techniques, you should take into consideration that weather conditions play a role in calling duck. Check out this amazing YouTube video where Slayton Gearin discusses how to adjust your calling for different types of weather.
Some experienced duck hunters say 75% of their calls are made up by greeting, comeback and pleading calls. Another 20% is basic quacks and a small percentage is the feeding call.
The fact is, if you want to lure ducks into your spread, you have to master the basic quack. This is the starting point for any duck hunter, but unfortunately, some callers never master this call and consequently have less success with hunting ducks.
One common mistake made by some hunters is that they use ‘qua qua qua’, instead of a crisp, clear ‘quaCK.’ The key here is to stick to the basics. Once the basic call has become second nature to you, you will be able to master multiple-noted quacks too.
The Feed Call
The basic feeding call can best be described as a ‘kitty, kitty, kitty’ sound and is most often heard by mallards while flying. It is also sometimes referred to as a chatter. Now, it seems that when ducks are actually feeding, the sound is more stimulating and broken up ‘da-dit da-dit dit dit, da-dit dit.’
Alternatively, some hunters describe it more as a ‘tikkitukkatikka’ sound that you will use to make this call. You would furthermore raise and lower the volume too.
The greeting call can be used with great success when you first spot ducks at a distance. It mostly consists of a series of 5 to 7 notes in a descending order while maintaining an even and steady rhythm. You would mimic the sound as ‘kanc, kanc, kanc, kanc, kanc.’
Compared to other calls, the comeback call is a faster and more urgent vocalization. It is a hard sound consisting of about 5 to 7 notes and is used by hunters when ducks don’t respond to your greeting call. Additionally, it can be used to get an immediate response such as in timber.
The sound can best be described as ‘Kanckanc, Kanc, Kanc, Kanc.’
The hail or highball call is a classic long-range call which should be used very selectively both at certain times and certain places. Some hunters believe the hail call should preferably not be used within 100 yards of where the ducks are. It is by far the loudest of all the calls and should be used sparingly and definitely not when the ducks are coming in.
Examples of when to use the hail call:
- To charm migratory birds looking for a safe resting place.
- You can also use the hail call successfully to convince ducks on their way from the feeding to the resting area to short-stop at your spread.
When to avoid using this call:
- On warm, still, cloudy days.
- In the close confines of flooded timber or small marshes.
- For ducks that are alert as a result of frequent hunters.
Again, sound as natural as you can, starting with a long, strong ‘Aaaaaaink…Aaaaaink.., aaaaink, aaainkaink’ and reduce it as it progresses.
Although the lonesome hen call is somewhat undervalued, it can be extremely effective under specific circumstances, for example when you are dealing with call-shy ducks.
The lonesome hen quack is merely a derivative of the basic quack. If you have mastered the basic quack, you can easily learn the lonesome hen call.
This means you merely adopt the basic quack to be a more widely spaced, irregular, nasal, drawn-out ‘Quaaaaink’ sound. It consists of a few low, throaty and quick sounds, spaced out by several seconds in-between them.
Be careful though, not to put the sounds too close together as that will scare the ducks.
The pleading call is also known as the begging hail call and is made up by a longer first note, followed by a few shorter notes ‘Kaaanc, Kanc, Kanc, Kanc, Kanc.’ It consists of about 5 to 6 quacks that should be dragged out to motivate them to land and for stubborn ducks who refuse to come in. It is a drawn-out and faster variation of the comeback call.
This call is primarily used to get the attention of ducks flying approximately 75 to 200 yards in the air above you.
It is important to distinguish between the mallard whistle, the pintail whistle, and the wigeon whistle.
Any successful hunter will tell you that whistling works extremely well especially if used in conjunction with mallard calls. And the best part is that is almost completely failure proof!
Quick tips from the master duck callers:
- Begin at the beginning – with the basic calls first.
- Practice the fundamentals.
- Master one call at a time.
- Listen to live ducks instead of duck calling videos.
- Do not overcall if ducks are coming in.
- Lower the volume if ducks are close.
- Before purchasing a device you should do your homework and test a variety of different calls.
- Remember not all ducks respond to calling.
Devices to Use
Whether you are a novice hunter or an experienced duck hunter will inevitably determine the device(s) you use for calling. The three most important aspects of devices are the material, color, and number of reeds used in the manufacturing process.
It is important for beginner duck hunters to understand the different options available in order to know what is appropriate for their skill level.
For example, duck calls can be single-reed or double-reed, wooden or acrylic and come with a price tag of as little as $20 or as high as $200.
How to pick the right duck call:
- Single reeds make a clean, crisp sound and are extremely versatile, but they are much harder to blow, making them more ideal for experienced hunters. Double-reeds, on the other hand, are more user-friendly and often come with built-in duck sounds, making them the preferred choice for the novice hunter.
- When comparing wooden calls to acrylic ones, it is easy to see that wooden duck calls are more traditional, but lack in durability since wood can swell or shrink when exposed to moist. In contrast to this, the acrylic ones are extremely durable and can produce a variety of sounds. Their downside, however, is that they can be quite expensive.
- And finally, do not underestimate the role color plays as there is a distinct tonal difference with acrylic calls. The fact is, transparent colors cause density and thus produce a sharper and louder sound than colored ones.
- Know your species – your aim is to use species-specific calls. For most duck hunters, it is enough to use two or three mallard calls, but since there are different species and they do not all sound like mallards, it is best that you speak their individual languages. For example, use a blue-wing call for a blue-winged teal.
- Consider the weather – sure, in extreme weather conditions such as heavy winds, you might want to get more aggressive with your calls. But overall your calls should not be too loud and powerful, as that would inevitably scare ducks off.
- Adapt to your environment – this simply means that you should attempt to match your call volume to the environment you are hunting in.
The general rule is to aim for more aggressive calling when you are hunting close to large, open water or even next to a refuge. In contrast to this, you should soften your calls along a river or in flooded timber.
- Know when and how to call – the first rule of thumb is to stop calling when the ducks are coming in. However, if the ducks turn away from you, you might consider a few different options. For example, you might start off with a few short five-note calls as most often this will motivate them to turn around and decoy. If this does not work, you should merely keep doing so until they turn.
Of course, you also want to add in different tones and single quacks to imitate the vocalizations of different hens. Additionally, make sure you use the whistle as it is a powerful sound if combined with the mallard.
You might also use the comeback call to bring them back online the moment you observe the ducks exhibiting erratic beating of their wings.
And finally, the ideal is to start calling high and gradually come down the scale with no ‘start-up note.’
Understand that some ducks will simply not be ‘callable’ and also that in real life ducks don’t even call in other ducks continuously.
- Frequency and calling – realize that not all ducks are callable and that real ducks do not call in ducks all the time.
- Tones and pitches – the magic happens when you listen to live ducks, since no two sounds alike. Some make slightly deeper sounds, while others use higher pitches. Some will be faster, some slow. Mimic what you hear those ducks doing.
- Be patient – in our blog about bowhunting ducks, we mention that extreme patience is needed for hunting small, moving targets such as duck, with a bow and arrow. However, this is true for calling ducks too. Since you should not call too much (overcalling), you will have to wait in between calls – and this is where your patience will be put to the test.
Just like any other animal vocalization you aim to duplicate, duck calling is a form of art too. And since you want to master this art, you need to begin practicing well in advance. Give yourself a few months before the hunting in order to be ready when you start hunting.
Practice the basics, then practice them again. And again. And again. The idea is to start with the short, single quacks and short, five-note bursts since these are what a hen mallard will use when feeding and loafing. This call is what is used most often.
Once you have mastered this to perfection, you can move on to the other calls as described above.