Mar/April 2020If You Sound Like a Duck By Joey Frazier
Not just any quack can win the state's annual duck calling contest.
Growing up, I was envious of the kids who could imitate Donald Duck's voice from television cartoons. I just could not get that raspy sound to come out of my mouth, but it was not for lack of trying. As it turns out, however, making realistic duck sounds is a skill that many folks practice ritualistically. I just wanted to make the other kids laugh at the funny voice. Others folk, including some duck hunters who really took it seriously, worked to be the best at imitating ducky sounds for the bragging rights that go along with winning a specialized competition —a duck calling contest.
Whether lured by the bragging rights or the monetary prizes, contestants have been attracted to duck calling contests which offer fun and competition among waterfowl hunters for more than ninety years. Although a few duck callers use no device to assist with making the different waterfowl quacks and clucks, most use a simple woodwind instrument, sometimes homemade, with one or more reeds to produce the sounds.
Elam Fisher of Detroit, Michigan, created the first patented duck call in 1870, but history shows that another craftsman, Fred Allen, had already created a dependable barrel-style caller as early as 1863, in Monmouth, Illinois. But duck calling to catch food for the dinner table goes back even further. Beginning as early as the late 1600s, some hungry trappers used "call ducks," caged ducks used to take advantage of their feeding sounds to attract more waterfowl, a practice that is now illegal.
Early duck calls were handmade and of curious designs. Fisher's call was nicknamed "Tongue Pincher" as the split barrel often cut the lips or tongue of the blower. Allen's original design, "Allen's Nickle-plated Duck Caller," made of metal, would sometimes freeze to the caller's lips, so wood became the material of choice for early duck calling devices.
Advances during the industrial revolution made mass production a reality, a boon for duck call makers. As more hunters had more and better calls, the kid in some of them brought out the desire to prove their prowess with the instrument, and the first World Championship Duck Calling Contest was held in Stuttgart, Arkansas, in 1936, cementing that town's legacy as the duck capital of the world. Incidentally, the first two winners of the Stuttgart contest used no calling device, just guttural sound emanating from their mouths.
BACK in South Carolina, duck hunting is good, maybe not as good as in Stuttgart, but the Palmetto State falls in the path of the Atlantic Flyway. Our agricultural history, especially the history of the numerous rice plantations along our coast, made South Carolina an attractive stop for migrating waterfowl and a primo destination for hunters in the early twentieth century. In fact, a family of hunters and early decoy makers, the Caines, made Georgetown famous for their folk art-styled hunting decoys they used on Bernard Baruch’s Hobcaw plantation, but that is another story.
Waterfowling along the coast has long been popular with Lowcountry hunters, and shooting was also good along the state’s rivers, but in contest.
1941, with the completion of the Santee Cooper lakes, ducks had a new place to call home. With more than 170,000 acres of new water, which included Sparkleberry Swamp near Rimini, an expanded interest in duck hunting was born.
DURING the 1970s, duck hunting was at its best on the Santee Cooper lakes, according to Jerry Robertson, a former mayor of Manning and the former president of the South Carolina Game and Fish Association. Robertson remembers how he and friends loved the camaraderie of duck hunting. Naturally, duck hunting involves duck calling, and when you get a group of duck hunters together, the conversation inevitably turns to competition. Who is the best caller among the group? Thomas “Duck” Welch (a duck hunter turned competitive caller, also from Manning) remembers an impromptu contest held at Sparkleberry landing when more than one hunter believed himself to be the best caller.
“My brother-in-law appointed judges who turned their backs as callers hid behind trees to blow their routines,” Welch said. “Of course, I won, and I’ve been calling ever since. I just loved it back then. The duck hunting was great, and that was the reason most of us got into calling."
The crude contest in Sparkleberry Swamp soon ignited an interest in putting on a real contest, and soon after, the first state duck calling contest was held in 1970. As President of the South Carolina Game and Fish Association, Jerry Robertson was involved in the early contests. During those first few years, the contest changed locations. It was held at the Santee National Wildlife Refuge in Clarendon County, and later at Mill Creek Park in Sumter County. Early winners could expect to win $600 along with the bragging rights until the next year. The money went toward helping the winner go to the World Championship Duck Calling Contest in Stuttgart, Arkansas.
“The contest was exciting in the old days,” said Duck Welch, “especially when there was a lot of competition. All of them were pretty good, too.” Welch remembers a time when local call makers Eddie Cribb and Jack Lundy started making higher-pitched calls with a raspier tone. “They were going after competitors then,” Welch said. “They didn’t care as much about hunting sounds anymore.”
Welch stopped competing after his third State Championship, the maximum allowed at the time. Now the rules have changed to allow for more total wins.
Those early contests prompted duck hunters to practice their craftsmanship and develop some of the finest and most collectible calls ever made in South Carolina. Among that elite group are names such as Eddie Cribb, Bill Grant, Jack Lundy, Sam McKoone and Marc Ackerman.
Marc Ackerman, a local duck call maker from Cottageville, remembers Florence call maker Eddie Cribb. “When I first met Eddie Cribb, I watched him make calls,” Ackerman said. “When he first started, he made everything at Jack Lundy’s shop behind his house in Florence. They had basically the same design, but Eddie’s were just a little bit different. Eddie and Sam McKoone (another Palmetto State call maker from Timmonsville) used to get together to pick guitars.”
Eventually, Ackerman began turning his own duck calls. “It was just something out of the clear blue sky that I wanted to do,” Ackerman said. “So, I borrowed some money from the bank, bought a lathe and some wood and hacked up enough to burn in the fireplace before I ever got an acceptable call.”
Ackerman turned wood and acrylic calls to use in contests and to sell at outdoor shows. He explains how he might work hard for a month to make enough calls for a weekend show. Not long after that, Ackerman contracted with Jerry Cox in Tennessee to turn the calls to his specifications.
“At the biggest point, I was selling about a thousand calls per year,” Ackerman said.
DOWN in Elloree, lives another modern duck call maker, Hugh McLaurin. McLaurin farms cotton and works with his family’s cotton gin business, but his passion is rooted firmly in the outdoors.
“I grew up in Sumter County,” McLaurin said. “My dad loved to fly jets and hunt ducks. He took me duck hunting at Big Lake in the Santee Swamp when I was four or five years old. Dad handed me a big old Herders duck call and said blow on that. I’ve been blowing ducks calls ever since.”
After McLaurin’s father died in a jet crash, his grandfather continued to take him to Big Lake and nurture his outdoor spirit. Today he still hunts ducks and now makes his own line of duck calls, too.
“The first time I ever read about someone making his own duck call was in the pages of an old South Carolina Wildlife magazine,” McLaurin said.
Asked about designing his duck call he said, “It is a very exacting science. There was a little work, a lot of prayer, and some more work." Although most of McLaurin’s calls are made for hunters, they perform well in competition, too. He even got beat in the statewide contest by another competitor blowing a Big Lake duck call from McLaurin’s own company.
“A basic quack is about all you need to kill ducks,” McLaurin said. “But competition calls allow callers to show off all their skills in one ninety-second routine. That’s not the way you would call ducks to the decoys, but it shows off your proficiency using all the calls.”
So, what does it take to win the State Duck Calling contest? Through the years, Marc Ackerman has taught many youth how to use duck calls and has seen several of his students win state.
“The purpose of the contest, in the beginning, was to create an illusion in the minds of the judges of calling ducks from a distance,” Ackerman said. “As they get closer, you lose them, call them back and sit them down in the decoys.”
A good ninety-second routine for the contest requires callers to be proficient with the hail call, the comeback call and the feed call, he explained.
Over the years, the location of the State Duck Calling Contest has shifted from place to place. During the 1990s, the contest was held at the Palmetto Sportsmen’s Classic for a time and later at the South Carolina Waterfowl Association near Rimini. In recent years, the state contest was held at the Winyah Bay Heritage Festival in Georgetown. Fifty years after the first statewide duck calling contest in 1970, the location may have changed, but the focus remains the same: Who is the best duck caller? This year, the South Carolina State Duck Calling Championship will return to the Palmetto Sportsmen’s Classic hunting and fishing show on Sunday, March 29.
“Every now and then I will pick one up and try to blow on it,” Thomas ‘Duck’ Welch said. “I might give it one more try this year at the Classic.”
Joey Frazier is editor of South Carolina Wildlife magazine.