Quack or quack? Fooling mother nature

Aug 12, 2015


Competitor and duck call instructor, Jan Elhert, puts on his lanyard of duck and goose calls in preparation for the Saginaw Bay Waterfowl Festival.
Credit Morgan Springer

For duck hunters and competition duck callers, sounding like a duck is important. And these duck callers are pretty good. Want to hear them? Here's a person pretending to be a mallard duck.

Here's a mallard duck being a duck.


That's the goal for duck hunters: to sound like a duck. 

Mallard duck decoys for sale at the Saginaw Bay Waterfowl Festival.
Credit Morgan Springer

Like Jan Elhert says, "Ducks like to be with other ducks." So if a hunter makes good duck calls, ducks flying overhead will hear them and think there are real ducks over there. Then they’ll see the decoys, which are usually groups of plastic ducks floating on the water, and --if all goes well-- the real ducks will head over to join the fake ducks right in front of the hunter.

Elhert says, "It’s fun saying, 'hey, we fooled mother nature.'"

He got hooked on duck calling when he was out hunting once.

"It just amazed me that these two gentleman that were probably two hundred yards from me were able to call these ducks in, and I was in the same field and couldn’t get anything. It was a great sound. I guess I didn’t think it was possible to duplicate the natural sounds of a wild animal."

That was over 40 years ago. Now Elhert is a pro. When asked if he thinks he sounds like a duck, Elhert says, "Yes, yes I do, and I think I sound like several ducks."

He says calling is not a necessity for hunting, but it can help attract more birds. 

This year at the Saginaw Bay Waterfowl Festival he’s teaching a group of all-male hunters to call. There are a number of beginners in his clinic. 

Local Michigan company, GK Calls, makes world class duck and goose calls.
Credit Morgan Springer

Elhert uses a device to make his duck call. It’s a small barrel with a mouthpiece and reed that fits nicely in his hand. Most hunters use it. Somewhat confusingly this device has the same name as the sound it makes: duck call.

The students learn how to breathe into the call from their chests. Then Elhert teaches them how to hold their lips against the duck call "maybe like you take a drink from a coke bottle or something" and eventually he teaches them the cadence of a duck. They begin with quacks, imitating three blind mice.


Hunters read the ducks. They watch the direction the ducks are flying, the speed their wings are flapping, the distance they’re coming from, and the environment they’re in. These things determine what call the hunters will use.


Elhert took his duck calling from the field to calling competitions. He’s been competing for nearly 25 years. He’s competed in the Michigan State Duck Calling Contest five times and has been to the World’s competition nine times. Elhert took 3rd place at the World Duck Calling Contest in 2004. 

Elhert says, “In world competition calling or even here in the state contest, you’re not really calling like you would to ducks. Judges are looking for any little bit of mistake that you make. Where [in a] hunting situation the ducks are going to care if you make a mistake the whole day, but if you miss one note in the World’s or here at Michigan state contest, you are going to be eliminated.”

So people are much harsher critics than ducks. Elhert agrees, "Judges are much harder to call than ducks are."

On a Sunday afternoon at the end of the Saginaw Bay Waterfowl Festival and after delays from a thunder and hail storm, Elhert competes in the state competition. He’s trying to make it to World’s again, but he isn’t as fortunate this year. He misses a note in the second round, which he says immediately eliminates him from the contest.


Jan Elhert tackles round two of the Michigan State Duck Calling Contest.
Credit Morgan Springer


You can hear Elhert's squeaked missed note just after the 45 second mark.

Alex Hodges took first place in state competition and will head to the World’s contest in Stuttgart, Arkansas.

So Elhert won’t go to World’s this year, but he will be out in the field hunting ducks come fall.