Jul/Aug 2014Natural Music
by A. Hunter Smith

Mastering the ancient art of calling game is like making it to Carnegie Hall... there's only way to get there.

My mother, God rest and love her, was a long-suffering soul come hunting season. She must have possessed some near divine wellspring of patience and acceptance for not coming to violence on a daily basis in defense of her ears and sanity, embattled as they were by the head-splitting racket she was doomed to endure every fall. How she lived under the same roof with three boys and a husband, none with any sense of volume control, and a gun room full of game calls is beyond me.

Whenever we asked her for something she wasn't particularly willing to accommodate, our mother often feigned hard of hearing. At least I used to think that, but as of late, I've begun to wonder if we hadn't actually crippled her ear drums, and I've begun to feel a twinge of guilt over my personal contributions to her perhaps disability. Not only did I raise my equal share of the household decibel level, but on reflection, I realize I was, in fact, usually the band leader. Hardly a fall or spring day would pass that I could not be found with a call pursed to my lips, constantly keeping the beat, while everyone else was prone to rest for at least a stanza or two.

My father was a virtual musical genius, with perfect pitch and timing, and an operatic voice in flawless control of breath and timbre, despite never taking a singing lesson his entire life. He was also gifted with an incredible ear. He could hear a tune one time and remember every nuance in the melody, able to repeat it at will for the rest of his life. Yet as talented as he was, he never learned to play an instrument more refined than a duck call or the wing bone of a turkey.

As much as he loved and appreciated music, to him, there was no score composed by man that could match the inspiration and beauty of the natural music in the world. He heard arias raised high above the wings of widgeon, rhythms in the chaos of shorebirds flushed off a beach and soliloquies loosed from the mouths of hawks. He heard the makings of concertos in the fall migrations of red-winged blackbirds and reveled in the symphonies raised by all the beasts of woods and water. And he could mimic every note they sang almost perfectly, with a natural ability refined by a willingness to practice in the same obsessive way that philharmonic orchestra hopefuls compulsively saw away at their instruments. He subscribed completely to the "practice makes perfect" school, and he certainly proved its worth.

With no more aid than his own vocal chords, my father could sound more like a hen turkey than a hen turkey can, or call an entire choir of barred owls out of a swamp, stand shoulder to shoulder with them and out-hoot them all. A scattered covey of quail had no suspicion at all that they were being whistled up by a man with a shotgun in the crook of his arm and a bird dog at his heels. And he was as much a master with a duck call as Dizzy Gillespie ever was on trumpet. The absolute proof of this was watching him convince the most educated mallards winging over late winter marsh or timber to turn around for one more pass, when all others had waved their hats in farewell. It takes a man who can play the most seductively crafted tune in the entire duck-calling songbook to convince a report-deafened and decoy-shy black duck to swing around at season's end, but I've seen him do it time and time again.

Though I am not near ego-maniacal enough to suggest I am in league with a musical genius, I did inherit a measure of ability from my father. But mainly, I practiced at it long and often, as prescribed by a man who had no doubts about the merits of good old-fashioned hard work. Despite my present guilt over the wounds I inflicted on my poor mother's inner ears, I am thankful for his persistence in my training. He wasn't some cantankerous and aged maestro with a sadistic tendency to rap a sharp cane over your mistaken knuckles, but his mindset in all things was to work ceaselessly towards perfection or simply refuse the job. And I was a willing student, having seen first-hand what could be done with a well-played call. I had every desire and ambition to match his talent, so I never skipped a lesson, and over the years I came to realize that my father's approach to the art of game calling was not altogether unique, that all those truly gifted with a call honed their skills with the same fervor as any hungry street musician with their thumb out towards Nashville.

Duck or goose, turkey or whitetail, a game call is nothing but a musical instrument, conceived and crafted with the same care to detail and thought to purpose as any fiddle or guitar ever made, and to truly master them, you have to be committed to the learning and love of the music. Box call or slate, single reed or double, hard plastic or wood, like any instrument handled in concert, each one requires mastery and refinement of very particular skills before a confident soloist finally steps out of the backup band. The language of every game animal in the world, bird or beast, is musical and rhythmic emotion - passion and desire, comfort and alarm - rising up and falling away in melodic waves of feeling as their moods change. Animals communicate through a complicated range of individual notes in ascending and descending scales of measured expression, and no one composition is ever the same. In order to accompany such music, the acolyte must become a virtuoso, able to compose and create original scores that flow into the conversation in near perfect harmony whenever they choose to step in.

It is the unfortunate fact of the matter that, just like taking up an instrument, fully mastering all the potential of a game call can sorely test the commitment and perseverance of the melodically challenged. To some it will come extremely hard, and to others easy, and just as many more will lay balanced in between those polarized natural abilities. Yet once you reach that long-sought point of hearing an inharmonious screeching begin to flow in fluid rhythm, all the previous wounds to your ears and ego along that difficult journey will begin to heal. To master a language not only foreign to your tongue, but to your species as well, and to speak it fluently enough to create an understanding across eons of genetic division, is one of the greatest rewards in all the sporting worlds combined. There is no greater sense of accomplishment than to realize one day that you are no longer simply a common performer struggling to be heard, but are in fact more often a muse.

Of all the fundamentals of game calling to be learned and confirmed in application, it was my father's contention that only one would eventually graduate you into that highest level of understanding and performance. And though it is the simplest of all the basic truths of the art, it is oft times the most overlooked. You will never master the sounds of nature until you sit second chair to those who were born playing your tune. Simply put, to be fluent in duck takes conversing with a duck, and accomplished turkey talk requires talking with turkeys. You have to honk with the geese and squeal with the squirrels every chance you get, with or without a weapon in your hands. The bottom line: you have to regularly audition for the harshest of critics before you can pass the final exam with honors, and you cannot get there through YouTube, television or teacher. Diligent field study alone will deliver your degree in natural music, and the only way to keep the beat is by routinely attending the impromptu jam sessions held in the woods and on the water. But those are the happy days, when after all the ear-grating hard work and long hours of tedious repetition, raising roofs and shaking the foundations of house and home, the scholars of natural music can finally step out of the shadows of their wild mentors and take center stage with confidence.

And mothers and spouses can pull the plugs from their ears and live in relative harmony until next season.

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