Duck Calling for Beginners

I don’t remember when I successfully called in my first flock of ducks, but I do remember when I first started to learn how to blow a call. As moments in my personal history go, it was as ugly as any. 

An older teenage friend from my neighborhood gave me my first double-reed hen mallard call, a vintage piece of wood and reed that had been handed down in his family for many years. I remember blowing into it and assuming it would magically produce the sweetest duck music, only to find out that, like a musical instrument, I had to actually learn how to play it. I was crushed, and nearly banished from my hunting group. 

The short story: My “calling” was so unacceptably awful that I was strictly forbidden from even hanging my lanyard around my neck in the duck blind. You could say, and indeed my friends did say, that my calling represented the highest form of duck conservation in the Upper Midwest. Ouch. 

In time, and thanks to another neighborhood friend who was well-versed in the fine art of duck crooning (he was mentored by his father and uncle), I learned how to blow a call reasonably well – at least well enough over time to get a few ducks over my blocks and into shotgun range. 

So what’s the best way to teach a beginning duck caller? 

Scott Terning, my friend from the Delta Waterfowl Foundation in Bismarck, N.D., has taught scores of beginners (mostly kids, but not all) how to blow a duck call as part of the organization’s mentored hunting program. Here are some of his tips for mentoring beginning duck callers. 

• Call familiarity. Every newbie duck caller, regardless of age, starts at the same  point. “Most beginners don’t know a thing about calling – they’re like a blank canvas, which is good because they’re easier to teach,” Terning said. “Start out by just letting them blow the call – as loud as they can and as soft as they can. They need to understand that range of sound. Let them explore and become familiar with what the call can do.” Familiarity breeds understanding. 

• It’s not about you. As a mentor, don’t try to impress your student with your skill as a caller. Learning to call, Terning said, is intimidating enough. Make the mentoring experience exclusively about the student. 

• Make a commitment. If you’re serious about teaching a beginner, Terning said to be sure you have the time to make the commitment. Beginners are hungry for knowledge and guidance, he said, and the last thing you want to do is let them down. “Finish what you started,” Terning said.  

• Smart practice. Terning said most beginners have short attention spans, so keep practice sessions short (about 10 minutes, give or take, depending on the kid). Set reasonable goals, but keep your expectations in check. After all, Terning said, some kids learn faster than others. 

“Practice with your beginner as much as you can, and encourage them to practice on their own,” he said. “That doesn’t mean they have to call for an hour in the backyard and drive their neighbors crazy, either. Keep the sessions short but regular. Learning to blow a call is like learning how to blow a musical instrument. In fact, a duck call is a musical instrument … and the more you practice, the better off you’ll be.” 

• Start with the basics. Hand and mouth placement and learning air control are critical elements of learning how to call well, Terning said. Such basics must be well understood and demonstrated before moving forward. 

• Master the quack. The quack of a hen mallard is the foundation of all duck calls – from the lonesome hen to the feed chuckle to the hail call. 

“If you don’t master the quack, you’re just spinning your wheels,” said Terning of beginning duck callers. Pick out a word that mimics “quack” and have your pupil say into the call – over and over again. Once they’ve mastered the quack, have them put together a series of quacks – up and down the scale.   

• Use reference material. Terning said finding a good duck calling basics CD or video for your student is wise. So, too, is using Internet how-to videos on calling basics. YouTube, he said, is a great resource for instructional videos. 

• Keep it fun. Learning to blow a duck call, Terning said, can be frustrating. Keep each mentoring session upbeat and encouraging. “Positive reinforcement is really important, as is being patient,” he said. “You want to create an environment that encourages questions and one that is fun.”   

• To the marsh. There’s no better place to learn the vocabulary of ducks than actually hearing the real thing in the wild. A marsh is a great place to practice as your instruction progresses. When the time is right, set up a makeshift blind, put out some decoys, and have your student call to ducks and see how they respond. “Calling ducks in the field is far different than just practicing on your own or with the help of an instructional video,” he said.  

• Take your pupil hunting. If you have the time and dedication to teach kids how to blow a duck call, then take the next step and bring them hunting – even if they’re not hunting themselves. Kids are sponges; they can learn a lot by observation. Terning said mentors should allow students to do most of the calling and encourage them to take risks. 

“You don’t want them to be afraid that they’re going to make a mistake,” he said. “We’ve all been there before. Mistakes are part of learning. If you don’t encourage them to take some risks, they’ll never learn how to call.” 

• The right call. The marketplace is full excellent duck calls (single- and double-reed), with a range of price points. Terning said students don’t need a call that breaks the bank. “I wouldn’t advise that,” he said. “A moderately priced call is just fine for a beginner.”

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