It's been almost a month since the closing bell rang on duck season. Like many sportsmen, I tend to leave one season behind only to begin focusing on another. In my case, it's spring turkey season. Directly after turkey season, I trade the Remington shotgun for a Scott fly rod and head to the Keys for the tarpon migration, and so it goes; one season after another. Despite my affinity for a multitude of sporting endeavors, connection during the off-season is always there. I make turkey calls with my dad in his shop, where we reminisce about past seasons, discuss wood varietals and share the common love of turkey language. At night, I often tie flies, dreaming of rising trout taking a dainty dry fly or the prehistoric mouth of a tarpon closing on my offering. Although the outdoors permeates every moment of my life, including my full-time job, I've found that throughout the year, waterfowl hunting and its surrounding composition are always present. Even though your season might be finished, a few things can keep duck season alive all year long.
Retriever Hunt Tests
There is no greater pleasure than watching a good dog work in the field. It's even sweeter when it's your dog. I've had the pleasure of owning and being in the presence of some amazing gun dogs. I've also been around a few that made me cringe. Creating a good gun dog takes training, dedication and experience on the part of the dog and handler. A hunt test is designed to create multiple scenarios that are as close to hunting as possible. They're also set up to test the dog's natural ability and its training. Naysayers point out that hunt tests are contrived, and a good duck dog doesn't need a ribbon to prove its worth. I'll agree, but the aspect of testing helps fine-tune a good dog and brings the bond of owner and dog to a higher level. You are working as a team, often on unfamiliar ground and with judges setting a course that will bring out any mistake you've made in training.
I enjoy the aspect of hunt tests for many reasons. The people you'll meet are always friendly, good folks, and I know of many friendships that have been fostered at these events. As an observer, you'll witness some amazing dog work and learn far more than you would reading books or watching training videos on YouTube. Also, it will force you to not become complacent in your training. If you have a reason to train — to push you and your dog — you'll find that when the season comes around, you and your canine companion will be better off when that first duck falls. Of course, there is always the exhilaration of getting called back and getting your pass and rosette.
The American Kennel Club and United Kennel Club offer hunt tests throughout the country almost every weekend. For a detailed list of rules, test dates and all that jazz, check out the websites of both organizations.
Enter a Calling Contest
I can hear your groans now … .
Contest calling has no place in duck hunting. Yep, I agree.
I'm not good enough to win a contest. Me, too.
Why should I enter then? Well, I'm gonna tell you.
A calling contest is just that. It's a contest. What it's not is a platform on how to call a duck while hunting. A calling contest is judged on the caller's ability to drive or operate the call to its maximum potential. Hit a sour note and you're usually out. There are three types of contests in the duck world. Main street-style calling, with screaming highballs, machine-gun refuge feeds and what most people associate with not sounding like a real duck. Then you have meat contests, which are formatted similar to main-street contests without the ringing hails and machine-gun feed calls. These are more ducky. Finally, you have live duck contests. These are not really structured per se and are judged on who sounds the duckiest. Within these disciplines, you have judges looking for different elements, but one thing is constant: who is driving the call with the most authority and who is tonally superior.
You might say you're not good enough to enter, but I say it doesn't matter. I've called in several contests that I had no chance of winning. I can promise you two things. You'll never embarrass yourself, because everyone else you're calling against started at the same place: the bottom. Also, you'll find that most of the other contestant are quick to help you, answer questions and offer calling advice. You will quickly discover it's an environment like a big duck blind. There's always joking and rib poking, but it's all in good fun. Everyone is nervous on stage when their number is called, and everyone messes up — even the pros.
You'll find that after a few contests, you will begin practicing more, getting better and eventually — if you stick with it — become competitive. Like they say, the way you get to Carnegie Hall is practice. I will promise you one thing. Even if you never win the World's, after a few calling contests, you will notice a big difference in your calling next season.
I grew up in my father's turkey call shop. From a young age, I remember hunters coming from far and wide to visit with my father, buy calls and chat. I understood the value of a custom call from an early age and have always preferred a call — turkey, duck or goose — rendered by human hands verses one poured into a mold somewhere in China. There is something about a custom call that warms my heart. The warmth and soft tones of wood and, I admit, the shimmer of shiny acrylic and that unmistakable ring it creates. I like looking at my calls on the shelf, pulling them down and inspecting the craftsmanship and the file marks on the tone board, and knowing there was a lot of trial-and-error engineering that took place in a small shop much like my father's. When I blow one of these calls, it has soul. It has heart. It also, certainly, has duck.
The great thing about buying a custom call is you can get exactly what you want. Want one made from a special piece of wood? Maybe a little more hold for those whines and low-end work? You're not getting that from a blister-pack call, even if comes with a free DVD and lanyard. I really enjoy taking it a step farther and visiting the call maker to pick out a call. Sometimes, these pilgrimages involves a group of us loading up and heading a few hundred miles to spend a few hours with a maestro of the art.
Some folks say custom calls are not worth the money and a duck can be called with a $20 call just as well as it can with one that costs a hundred. OK, that might be true, but in my mind, I'll quietly disagree. If you do not appreciate the beauty of a nice piece of wood, the craftsmanship only capable by a true artisan and actually spending some time with the person who made a call for you, by all means, enjoy your plastic call that was made by machine No. 5736E.
I won't hold it against you, but don't expect me to let you blow it in my blind.