Although you do not have the best duck calling skills in the woods or marsh when hunting new uneducated birds, there will be situations when knowing how to use a duck call will be the deciding factor in your success such as stale birds and public lands with competition.
1. Keep It Simple - Callers first starting out often ask what is a good routine or series of calls to use when first spotting a flock of mallards. The answer is when working real ducks there is no magical routine that many hear competition callers use time and time again on stage to impress judges. In most cases simple sounds and less not more is better in the field. An example of this is when the ducks are flying right for the decoy spread which is what you want them to do why start or keep calling? Many factors need to be considered to determine just how much is necessary and the previous example is just one of many.
2. Start Soft And Work Up - Much like working with your kids or retriever a calm steady voice will most often achieve the results expected. However in some situations a more stern voice maybe needed. This analogy also applies to ducks. Hitting them hard with excessive volume and quick cadences will turn away many mallards leaving many hunters dismissing their error thinking they were just "call-shy". Instead begin with softer sounds and then work up to louder more aggressive sounds if necessary which will help you identify what they want to hear before scaring them off.
3. Who's The Leader - When more than one person is capable of calling ducks in your group choose who will be the leader and have the others make more contented sounds. This will help to prevent over calling or too many aggressive sounds being made. The combined effort will also sound more natural as if there was a very large group of mallards on the water. Examples of contented sounds are quacks, feed chatter, and a drake whistling.
4. Forgotten Drake Mallard Whistle - Many hunters forget the drake mallard whistle. This is a great filler sound and will not spook call-shy ducks. Other times to consider using this sound are when hunting in a group, or for kids that may be along as most often they quickly learn to operate the whistle and can get more involved in the hunt.
5. Speak Their Language - Whenever possible use a duck call that's made to mimic the species being persued. Many times hunters will believe the ducks simply are not responding to a call, but the real problem is specie identification. Although gadwall and pintail may be attracted to a mallard call better results are most often achieved using a gadwall call or pintail whistle respectively. When hunting with a group mixing mallard and other species of calls can be very effective.
6. Keep'em Close - As soon as you notice approaching duck/ducks drifting off line hit them with a greeting call to get them back. This is a very important calling tip when hunting competitive situations found on public wildlife areas. If this doesn't work gradually use a quicker cadence versus becoming too aggressive right away spooking them off.
7. Nothing To Lose - When mallards are leaving your spread and not responding or it appears they may land short of your spread it's time to get louder and use a quicker or more aggressive cadence. At this point my thought is there isn't anything to lose and at times these demanding sounds will get their attention. I do want to caution against simply following this tactic with birds that are not callable in the first place as this will become quite annoying to other hunters in the area very quickly and rightly so. I beleive over calling is one of the reasons mallards become call shy so quickly on public lands.
8. Never Call At Birds Right Above - Over the years I have tried several times every season testing this rule with the same results each test. Just to clarify these are birds working the decoys and less than 100 yards high. Even when my concealment from above was believed to be perfect the results were always the same, the mallards left my spread and at times went straight up flaring from the sound. This happened even when soft subtle calls were used. I can't say I fully understand why, but have accepted this as a fact.
9. How Well Are You Hidden - When working any type of waterfowl a hunter should always consider the fact that every call they make further enables keen eyes overhead pinpointing their position and being busted. This is why the saying "Call at their wingtips" came about, meaning if their wing tips are visible their probably a good distance away off to the side or rear. This is just another reason to always make sure every opportunity to stay hidden has been taken such as camo face masks, light-weight gloves that don't effect the sound of a call, and staying in the shadows if possible.
10. Not All Will Respond - It is very important to realize that not every mallard will respond to even the best duck caller. Many times they already know there destination, or seem too simply be stretching their wings. These ducks are easily identified by their steady wing beat. It's up to you to recognize what birds are mostly likely callable versus which are not. One tip I can offer is to watch for birds dipping down for a closer look and then lifting, or erratic wing beats. With experience this skill will be mastered.
Knowing how to use a duck call is truly an art that is best developed through experimentation and careful observation when in the field. My suggestion is to have fun with it and don't let yourself get frustrated.
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