Duo has duck calling down to a science

Posted: Thursday, November 09, 2000

CORRELL, Minn. (AP) -- The sounds emanating over Marsh Lake were loud and shrill and rather unpleasant.

Even to a veteran duck hunter, the sounds were unlike anything heard before in nature, or on a waterfowl hunt.

But to the mallards over this big swamp, the tones from Terry Olson's and Bob Miller's duck calls must have sounded like an enchantress, an irresistible hen demanding to be obeyed.

On a sunny late October day, when many hunters left this swamp early without many ducks, mallards readily funneled toward their boat blinds hidden in the cattails.

The screaming ''hail'' calls were deafening up close, louder than any real duck could be and louder than 99 percent of hunters would ever dare call.

''Here, try these,'' Olson said, tossing his hunting partner a pair of foam earplugs. ''I had a friend check the (call's) sound level in my office once. It was something like 110 decibels, like a jet engine. My ears are ringing all the time.''

But when mixed with softer, raspy and ringing hen quacks at just the right time -- with an occasional wheezing, quack-whistle of a drake mallard thrown in -- the ducks didn't mind the noise. In fact, they honed in on it.

If any ducks were visible in the sky, no matter how far off, Olson and Miller would call, trying to steal them away from other hunters or to keep the waterfowl from flying past the marsh.

''Two callers are better than one. Usually, the more racket you can make the better,'' Olson said.

Many times big mallards jockeyed for landing position and cupped their wings toward the boat. On a string, some hunters call it, as if the ducks were being magically pulled down in a straight line toward the decoys.

When the calling stopped and Olson said, ''Take them,'' the flock flying away was usually smaller than it was coming in. A couple of fat, corn-fed greenheads usually had fallen among the decoys.

''That's how it's supposed to work,'' Olson said as the sun glistened off the shiny green heads and bright orange feet of the drakes brought back by the retrievers. ''They didn't screw around. They came right in.''

That happened a dozen or so times that morning. And about a dozen greenheads and a single gadwall were bagged by Olson's group of five hunters, not bad considering how few mallards were in the area due to warm weather and lagging migration.

And then there were Canada geese that, like the mallards, had fed that morning on picked cornfields and were returning to state wildlife refuges at Laq Qui Parle and Big Stone lakes to rest.

Olson and Miller chimed-in with their ''short-reed'' goose calls. They made ungodly sounds -- screaming, honking, barking, gurgling -- to create haunting, pleading calls that pierced the wind and brought several groups of Canadas into range. The hunters nabbed four of them, too.

An enormous array of decoys -- 199 mallards and 62 geese -- floated in front of their blinds, far more than the 20 to 30 decoys most hunters use. Combined with the expert calling, they made many geese think they had made it back to their resting spot.

''The birds think we're the refuge,'' Olson said. ''Nobody else ever uses this many decoys.''

Olson, 37, and Miller, 36, are among the virtuosos of Minnesota duck callers.

Olson, manager of Duluth's Gander Mountain sporting goods store, was the 1995 duck-calling champion in the Minnesota hunter's division. He took third in the state master's championship in 1996, his last year of competition.

Miller, a Minnesota Department of Transportation highway design engineer who lives in Brainerd, was the 1996 state champion and won the title again this year.

In November, Miller will travel to Stuttgart, Ark., to compete in the world duck-calling championship. He's practicing about 20 minutes a day, five days a week.

''Everything I blow in a contest, I blow in the blind. The difference is, you get 90 seconds to do it all in the contest, to simulate a real hunt,'' Miller said. ''Hunting calling can goof you up a little (for competitive calling) because you are watching how the ducks react and not following a routine. But, otherwise, it's the same .... Most people don't believe we call that loud in the blind, but it works.''

To be good, either afield or in contests, requires practice and patience.

''You can't pick up a golf club once a year and be good at it. You can't play the piano without practice,'' Olson said. ''I'm amazed at how many people will spend all the time and money to hunt ducks, train their dogs, buy expensive guns ... but they won't take the time to learn to call right.''

Those callers often start by blowing wrong -- the worst offenders puffing out their cheeks -- while others huff too much from their gut.

''They're trying to blow from their stomachs,'' Olson said. ''The key is in the mouth, especially your tongue.''

Olson reeled off a series of screaming, drawn-out, overemphasized quacks on his call -- 35 different notes in one breath -- to show what it should sound like.

''I've never heard a duck make a hail call like that,'' Olson said. ''But it absolutely works to bring ducks in. I don't think anyone knows why. But it's something they can hear to get their attention .... Then you have to convince them to keep coming.''

It's not just expert calling that puts Carlson and Miller among the state's duck hunting elite. They take every aspect of the hunt seriously.

They've both invested thousands of dollars and months of work in designing giant duck boats that can carry hundreds of decoys, several hunters and their gear, a couple of dogs and a built-in blind.

Olson recently finished his 18-footer -- a larger copy of Miller's boat design -- and powered it with a 50-horsepower outboard. All that to traverse 2-foot deep swamps.

''I've passed a few people on the water to get the better spot,'' Olson said of his big, fast boat.

Most importantly, the boat is designed to be covered in dry grass to fade into a background of cattails and hide hunters. For added comfort there are propane heaters, bench seats and a cook stove to make hot coffee, eggs and hash browns for breakfast.

But even these guys can't shoot ducks if there are no ducks around. That's why Olson is willing to drive five hours to swamps in western Minnesota.

Olson, who has lived in Duluth for a decade, spent years scouting northeastern Minnesota for a place with the consistently good duck hunting that he had growing up near Storm Lake, Iowa. He found mostly duckless skies.

''You have to go where the ducks are,'' Olson said on a long ride home from the hunt. ''But when it all comes together, and those mallards lock up on top of you, it's worth it.''

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