He was humbled, but Maverick Dunn was not deterred.
Dunn, a jovial man with a passion for everything involving ducks, thought he was on the verge of perfecting his own brand of duck call when an imposing figure marched into his Russellville engraving store seven years ago.
Dunn saw ex-Marine Butch Richenback, the founder of famed Rich-N-Tone calls, out of the corner of his eye. Dunn couldn’t wait to finish with his customer to find out what Richenback thought of the call sitting on his workbench in the back.
“I thought I was really on to something,” Dunn said.
“I heard him quack on that duck call a few times,” Dunn said. “I walked back there and I looked around and didn’t see that duck call.”
Richenback, a member of numerous outdoor halls of fame, told Dunn he’d seen some scraps on his work table and threw them away.
“He threw my prized possession at the time right in the trash,” Dunn, 33, said. “But I never said a word to him about it.”
With Richenback as his mentor, Dunn, in his mid 20s at the time, took off from there.
“Me and him got together and started working on some calls,” Dunn said. “And it was about a month later we won a call-maker competition in Siloam Springs with a duck call me and him kinda put together.”
Richenback died in 2015, but his influence on Dunn reaches beyond the success of the Dunn Callin brand of duck calls, the engraving business and a burgeoning duck guide service.
Like Richenback, like childhood duck-hunting mentor Glenn Biddle, like hunting buddy A.J. Reynolds, Dunn vows to pass his passion on to the next generation, starting with his 3-year-old son, Sloan.
“That’s the biggest thing, for me to get this set up as something he can be proud of so he can look forward and take it over when we’re done,” Dunn said. “Right now, he loves it. He’s really a part of it. I’m not just saying it because [I’m] hoping he is; he loves it.”
Dunn reaches out to youth throughout the state by inviting parents to nominate their kids to spend a day at Dunn Callin, where they watch the process of making a call — from carving the barrel to inserting the toneboard and adding the reed.
“When the kid leaves, he takes a dozen decoys and a duck call with his name engraved on it, and they head out.”
Usually with a big grin.
“Mr. Butch never missed an opportunity to remind me and others to pass our tradition to the youth,” Dunn said. “That is what still sticks out to me and what I try to accomplish through my business.”
The art of duck call making is an exacting process that includes carving a barrel, crafting and inserting the tone board and adding the reed. The whittling, carving, filing and sanding can mean months, or longer, of work before the call can achieve the desired sounds no duck can ignore. (Photos by Kody Van Pelt)
The Jig Is Up
CallingDucks.com lists Dunn as one of 485 call makers in the U.S. And one of 50 in the state. Dunn said he still does the engraving for 23 duck call makers in Arkansas, including some of the most well-known.
Making a useful duck call may seem like child’s play to a kid, but attaining and maintaining a universal toneboard is an excruciating process of whittling, carving, filing and sanding that can take months, even years to perfect.
It’s a labor of love and persistence, one that began almost a decade ago when Dunn started his engraving business.
People liked the way Dunn engraved so much they wanted him to inscribe their duck calls. Then they started asking him if he could make a duck call and engrave it for them.
“All of sudden it clicked — we’ve been in duck hunting our whole life, always wanted to piddle with it, now we’ve got an excuse to … see if we can make a duck call,” Dunn said.
Duck calls come in various shapes, sizes and textures and are made of either wood or acrylics. Some are blown with a single reed, like a clarinet or saxophone, others come with two reeds.
Generally, Dunn said, beginners start with double reed duck calls and when they master the basics they can move up to the more fine and difficult to use single reed instruments.
It is generally acknowledged that wood not only looks better, but when everything is right, it sounds better as well.
Trouble is, Dunn said, as good as wood can sound, changing temperature alters the size of the frame, and it impacts the sound. That’s why Dunn carries three acrylic calls on his lanyard.
“Sounds the same when you blow it, whether it’s 100 degrees or 10 degrees,” Dunn said of acrylic calls. “I know what they’re going to sound like when I pick them up.”
The sound, more than anything, is what matters most to the men and women who trudge through flooded timber and hide in their blinds during the 60 days of duck hunting each season in Arkansas.
It may take Dunn 45 minutes to an hour to make an acrylic call from scratch, a while longer for wood because it takes about two days to finish, but each call maker’s DNA is contained in a little piece of equipment known as a jig.
The jig that creates the cutout for his soundboard is a call-maker’s secret sauce. Once a maker gets his tone board the way he wants it, he must then find a machinist to create the jig, which is used to duplicate the toneboard.
“What makes every duck call different is the tone board,” Dunn said. “What the jig does, I slide it into the band saw. [The] jig lets me cut the same way every time. … You take this, you’ve got my duck call. You’ve got my formula. It’s like a [photo] negative.”
Some call makers are so protective of their jigs that they get a patent, like the Robertson family from the reality series Duck Dynasty. Dunn said he is protective of his jig — he’s had two — but has never considered a patent. But he does keep it locked up when he’s not using it.
“When you get a patent on a duck call, you are patenting that particular slope and angles that make that call sound the way it sounds,” he said. “That keeps me from taking his tone board and redesigning the outside of it, which doesn’t really matter, except [as] cosmetics, and selling it. I can’t steal his sound, basically.”
Dunn’s passion for hunting ducks and the instruments used to attract them started when he was 12.
Dunn’s grandfather lived next door to Biddle, a local grocery store owner, and Dunn said he was curious to learn about Biddle’s passion.
“He ate it up, oh my goodness,” said Biddle, whose duck-hunting days are in the past. “If it was time to go, he was there 20 minutes early. It is so delightful to see young people like Maverick, how mesmerized they are.”
Biddle said he never got a chance to use Dunn’s calls in the field, but he has played around with them on visits to Dunn’s shop.
“His design fits just right for calling,” Biddle said.
One truth Dunn learned from Biddle is that no matter how good the duck call and duck caller, the most important thing is to know when to use the little instrument.
“If I could talk to that duck, and get him to do what I wanted him to do, my job was done,” Biddle said. “ … Hopefully, I taught him well.”
Well enough that Dunn is making and selling more than 2,000 calls a year, many of them custom made in his store, pieces that can be purchased for $85 to $130. Dunn said he once received one batch of wood calls with a hand-painted scene that sold for $250.
Reynolds, Dunn’s hunting buddy, is awed by the work Dunn does as a caller as well as a maker. He said Dunn has learned how to read ducks — when to call and when not to call — thanks in part to the lessons he learned from men like Richenback and Biddle.
“Ducks are like people,” Dunn said. “They all have different voices. You don’t have to be perfect on that call. You don’t have to sound like one of those guys at Stuttgart. You need to learn how to read ducks — and know when to blow it. Sometimes, a hunter can’t resist one more quack … They have been shot at since Canada. They’ve seen it all, heard it all … As a duck call maker, I tell people all the time — and it’s bad for business — you’ve got to know when to blow it, it doesn’t matter how.”
FAMILY: Wife, Elizabeth; son, Sloan
EDUCATION: Danville High School, Arkansas Tech University
YEARS HUNTING DUCKS: 21
YEARS MAKING CALLS: 10
COMPANY: Dunn Calling, 111 S. Front St., Dardanelle
SERVICES OFFERED: Duck calls, guided hunts,laser engraving
PRICING: Wooden duck calls, $75; Wooden/acrylic, $75; Acrylic, $85; Signature calls, $120
ON THE WEB: Facebook.com/DunnCallin