One of the greatest thrills in hunting is watching a flock of wild ducks cup their wings and drop into a spread of decoys.
Whether you hunt waterfowl on ponds, lakes, swamps, or marshes, calling not only ups your odds of success, but makes the hunt a more multi-faceted, absorbing experience.
If you you’re a beginner learning to call or an experienced hunter hoping to raise your skills a notch, few people can help more than multi-time World Champion caller Mike McLemore.
During two days of hunting in the marshes of Mississippi with me a few years ago, McLemore shared some of his vast knowledge of ducks and duck talk and his secrets for successfully calling them in to his decoy spreads.
McLemore was just 7 when he first joined his father on trips to the marshes and flooded timber of southwestern Tennessee. It was clear from the start that he had a natural talent for calling ducks. But he also worked hard, spending many hours trying to improve his skills.
That made him a popular fellow. In high school, all his classmates wanted to hunt with him because they knew they’d get the most ducks flying into their decoys that way.
McLemore eventually entered some contests for callers and in 1973 won the World Championship of Duck Calling in Stuttgart, Arkansas, at the age of 28. He won it again the next year, and once more in 1977.
He captured his last and greatest calling honor in 1980, when the Championship of Champions was held for former winners of the contest. Once you receive that award, you cannot compete any more.
If you don’t have a local expert to advise you, he recommends using audio or video tapes or going to a refuge and listening to real ducks calling.
“Listen to what the hen mallard sounds like. She does most of the talking. With her call you can bring in most puddle duck species.
“To duplicate the hen mallard’s sound, you need a quality call,” he continues. “Calls are like fishing rods. There are good ones and bad ones.”
For starters, he recommends high-pitched calls.
“They cut the air better and carry farther,” he says. “Also look for a call that quacks like a duck and feed-calls freely. If it will do those things, it will do anything else you want it to.”
He says the main thing is that you develop confidence in the call and that it works well with your personal abilities. Some people switch calls depending on the type of water they’re hunting. McLemore feels that’s a mistake.
“It’s hard for even an expert to switch calls because each must be blown differently,” he notes. “Instead, tune the same call to suit the habitat you’re hunting. A good call is versatile enough to that you can use it loud for open water then choke it down for timber hunting.”
“If you’re not a great caller even after lots of practice,” says McLemore, “don’t worry. I don’t believe ducks hear all our calls anyway. Think about if you’re across a road and somebody yells something. You don’t hear it all, maybe only a portion of what they’re trying to say. It’s the same way with ducks. It doesn’t have to be perfect.”
Four calls are essential for being a versatile duck hunter, according to Mike.
“The hail call (a fast series of quacks strung together), the feed call, the comeback call, and the lonesome hen call are the main ones you should know. Of these, the first two are the most important of all.
“Make the quack by saying the word quick or quack into the call,” he continues. “Bring the air up from your diaphragm and control the notes with your tongue, cutting them off sharply at the end. Use the hail call—a series of quacks strung together in a high-pitched, fast sequence—when the birds are about one-fourth to one-half mile away.”
When the birds come closer, it’s time to greet them with the feed call.
“Tell them this is where they want to be…this is the feeding place, the resting place,” he says.
The feed call is made by saying the words “ticka-tooka or dugga-digga.” Try it slow at first, says Mike, then increase the speed later. “Use this when birds are over the decoys and you want to settle them down,” he says.
Mike also employs the comeback call when ducks fly over the decoys, but drift past it and start to move away.
“Try to turn them around in a calm way at first, but get more pleading and desperate in tone if they don’t turn back,” he adds.
If they turn and come back, use the fourth call, the lonesome hen or old hen call.
“This is the call the contented hen uses to settle birds on the water. “Say quack, quack, quack….but softer, slower and quieter than the hail call. Think of the word contented.”
As a final bit of advice, McLemore says to be flexible.
“Use common sense. You can’t go hunting every day and do the same thing and expect to bag ducks each and every time. Be willing to change and try different things.”