Photography courtesy of Lowell Washburn, all rights reserved.
When I was a kid, most of my grade school classmates had two favorite days — Christmas and their birthdays. The reason was simple. That was when everyone got presents.
I was different. My favorite day of the year occurred early each fall when, arriving home from school, I would discover the top half of my Dad’s duck call sitting on the kitchen table soaking in a glass of water. Although there was no wrapping paper, ribbons, or birthday candles involved; seeing that call sitting in water was the biggest present of the year. It meant that after months of agonizing anticipation, the long awaited duck season was about to begin.
For the benefit of younger duck hunters, I should explain that fifty or sixty years ago, owning a duck call was a much different proposition than it is today. First off, duck calls were hard to come by. When a hunter needed a call, he didn’t simply run to the store or order one online. Although a modest selection of cheap factory made calls could be purchased at the local sporting goods, serious duck hunters wanted more serious calls. Serious calls were hand crafted for duck hunters by duck hunters. Demand exceeded supply, and handcrafted calls were as expensive as they were scarce. The up side was that once you successfully got your hands on one, it would literally last a lifetime.
Dad had purchased his call in 1942 for the exorbitant sum of $7.50. To put that price into perspective, premium high octane gasoline was selling for 19 cents a gallon; a loaf of Wonder bread cost 8 cents. At the local sporting goods store, Carry Lite mallard decoys [complete with glass eyes] went for ten bucks a dozen. Dad was earning pretty good money at the time; fifty cents per hour painting houses, which meant it took about two days’ wages to purchase the call.
Constructed of exotic hardwood, Dad’s call was large, heavy and above all — ear splittingly loud. The call had a 4 ½-inch long hollow barrel which housed a hard rubber reed that, in a previous life, had been the handle of a Double Duck barber’s comb. The output end of the call consisted of a threaded brass fitting; flared at the end in a way that would remind you of the bell of a trumpet. The bell shape was very appropriate. In the hands of Old Time waterfowlers, duck calls were nothing short of serious musical instruments.
Classic calls did have their down side, however. In addition to being extremely effective at luring ducks, these handcrafted beauties were also high maintenance. During the off season, the call’s “guts” – the internal wooden trough and stoppers that held the reed in place — would dry and shrink to the point that the components just sort of fell apart. Soaking the call in water would quickly swell the wood until all the pieces would once again fit tightly in place. Once the reed was adjusted and retuned, the call was ready to go to work.
In the fall of 1959, I was finally allowed to fully participate in the wetland adventures. As a shotgun totin’ duck hungry ten-year-old, I was completely captivated by the call’s uncanny ability to lure flocks of wild ducks into point blank range. In my youthful exuberance, I quickly came to believe that upon hearing the call’s siren song, each and every duck in the sky was sure to be ours. This was not entirely true, of course. Here’s an example of how our hunts sometimes went.
Gazing skyward, Dad would spot a flock of migrating mallards flying so high in the air that they appeared as mere specks against the November overcast.
“Call at ‘em, Dad,” I would immediately plead.
“Too high,” he would smile.
“No they’re not,” I’d argue. “Just try. You don’t know; they might come down.” Sometimes, if I nagged long enough and hard enough, Dad would actually send a series of high volume greeting calls toward those distant flocks. But even if those high altitude fliers had been able to hear the sound, there was no way in the world that those ducks were going to come down. Looking back, I now realize that Dad blew those notes just to shut me up.
The years passed. Now an adult, I began an all-out quest to obtain an original handmade call for myself. But by now, such calls had become antique collector’s items and were harder than ever to locate. My big break finally came in 1978 when fellow Clear Lake waterfowl hunter, Bob Humberg came across an old used duck call at a gun show. It was obvious that the well-used call had been around the block. In addition to some minor nicks, the worn hardwood barrel also had a lengthy crack. More seriously, the reed tip had a large chip which negatively affected tone quality. No matter. For me, it was love at first sight. Following brief negotiation, Bob agreed to trade the call for a dozen, new-in-the-box canvasback duck decoys. We were both pleased with the deal. As was stated in that famous Dances with Wolves movie line; it was a “good trade”.
Now that I had the call, my first order of business was to repair the crack and replace the damaged reed. Fixing the fissure was simple; finding a replacement reed was a different matter. Fortunately, another local duck hunter by the name of Marshall Hein still owned a couple of old duck calls and had a few odds and ends components – including a handful of genuine Double Duck hard rubber barber’s combs. Hein graciously provided me with a comb and I began the task of shaping a new reed. Following a week of meticulous measuring, filing, sanding, remeasuring and then sanding some more; I finally emerged with a reed that was an identical match to the original. The result was phenomenal. Once I really put the wind to her, the call could almost shatter glass. The volume was so great in fact, that my daily hunting & trapping partner Ed Kotz, claimed the sound was more than enough to induce an instant and head splitting migraine. When lining up in the duck blind, I tried to stay ‘downwind’ with the call.
Final Thought: I don’t know whatever became of those brand new canvasback decoys but, thirty-seven seasons later, I do know that I’m still blowing that same old duck call – rain or shine, day in and day out. Like I said; once you get your hands on one of these old classics, it will literally last a lifetime.