What’s in a call? 4 common duck calls and how they’re made
Featured photo provided by @Josh_Montgomery1 (on Instagram)
Article by M.D. Johnson, outdoor writer & photographer
Duck calls are by no means new. Some sources date them back to the 1860s, while others say even earlier.
Every ’fowler has their favorite — the call they keep around their neck and bring along to every hunt, regardless of the location. But what sets one call apart from another? And what are the components inside that come together to make each call sound the way it does?
For the enjoyment of any curious waterfowler, here’s a brief lesson on duck call styles and their anatomy.
Photo by M.D. Johnson
Popular duck call types
Here are the four styles that have been introduced over the past 150 years:
- Arkansas or J-frame: Viewed in profile, the insert on this call appears to form a “J” shape. Components include a curved tone board, reed or reeds, wedge slot and the wedge itself, often made of cork.
- Louisiana: Similar to the J-frame, the internal components of a Louisiana-style call are combined into a single unit before being installed. That includes the tone board, reed and wedge. All are placed inside a barrel insert, which then goes into the barrel
- Reelfoot: Named after the legendary waters of Reelfoot Lake in northwest Tennessee, the Reelfoot call differs from the J-frame in its flat tone board, metal reed and simple wedge.
- Cutdown: Outwardly and in profile, the cutdown call resembles the J-frame style. However, with a cutdown, the tone board and reed have been modified or customized (sanded, trimmed or both) to give the call an entirely different sound.
There are certainly other styles of calls, but most of the calls you’ll encounter in the marsh or blind today are part of the above grouping.
Duck call anatomy
Though certainly worthy of being called a “musical instrument,” duck calls are relatively elemental in design and function. The vast majority, in fact, have fewer than five individual parts in total. Here are seven components you might be able to identify as part of the calls you have at home.
- Barrel: The hollow body of the call, into which the caller puts or places (blows) air. Think of the barrel as a mouthpiece.
- Insert: A collection of parts — including the tone board, reed or reeds and wedge — make up the insert, which is then fit snugly into the barrel.
- Tone board: The part of the insert upon which the reed or reeds rest. Some call-makers will carve so-called “spit grooves” into the tone board to help prevent the reed from sticking. This happens when there is excessive moisture (i.e., too much spit).
- Tone channel: A small groove carved into the tone board, the length and depth of which helps determine the tone or pitch of the call.
- Reed: A duck call can have one, two, or even three reeds, each made of metal or tough plastic (such as Mylar®), held firmly to the tone board by a wedge.
- Wedge: A small piece of material — often cork, but occasionally hard rubber or plastic — designed to hold the reed securely to the tone board or insert.
- Wedge slot: An open-ended rectangular slot in the rear of the insert, into which the wedge fits.
Meet M.D. Johnson
Originally from Ohio, M.D. Johnson, and his wife/business partner, Julia, spent 18 years in Iowa before relocating to her native Washington state in 2015. A full-time freelance outdoor writer since 1992, Johnson, with the photographic assistance of his wife, has authored and illustrated six full-length books, including three on waterfowl hunting. Today, The Johnsons reside in Wahkiakum County, where they both enjoy a 107-day duck season, salmon fishing, and everything the wonderful Pacific Northwest has to offer. Oh, and if you ask, M.D. will tell you he prefers 16 gauge doubles to anything else.
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