He may never have to choose, but for Brad Allen the choice is already made, just in case.
“If I had to choose between my duck call and my shotgun, I’d take my call every single time,” Allen said.
A three-time winner of the World’s Championship Duck Calling Contest in Stuttgart, Allen has enjoyed a number of things that are ancillary to hunting — spending time with his dad, the sight of mallards winging their way down through the trees and, of course, duck calling. It’s an art form that has fascinated Allen since he was six and heard his first expert caller while on a hunt.
“He blew a call, and then a mallard duck from the air, it called to him,” Allen said. “I said to my dad, ‘Mr. Phillip can talk to the ducks’, and my dad was like, ‘I guess he can.’ That’s a kid’s fantasy, being able to talk to animals. I had to learn how to do that.”
Further enchanted by his first trip to the world’s championship in 1988, Allen, now 49, eventually made the transition to crafting duck calls himself. In 2013, the year he won his third championship, Allen founded Elite Duck Calls in his garage outside of Searcy before opening his current shop in town.
Working with friend and former calling competitor David St. John, a 2014 world’s champion who recently joined the business, Allen is on a quest to recreate for his customers the sounds he first hears in his head.
“I don’t think you ever obtain perfection, and I don’t want to quit chasing it,” he said.
Allen, whose other world championships came in 2010 and 2012, has had the enviable experience of learning from four other call makers and world champions: Rick Dunn, CEO of Echo Calls; the late Bernie Boyle, Trey Crawford and legendary caller Butch Richenback, founder of the famed Rich-N-Tone brand that has cameoed in numerous championships of all levels.
“It’s your own fault if you’re not successful,” Richenback once said to Allen.
The lesson clearly took. Allen has the championship rings and the business to prove it.
“Sometimes when you’re working on it, it’s just perfect. Every adjustment you make, you think you know exactly what it’s going to do,” Allen said. “Sometimes you’re in a position where you spend a week, and it feels like nailing jello to a tree.”
Jim Ronquest, the 2006 world champion, knows Allen as a competitor both on the calling stage and from his more than 25 years with Rich-N-Tone Calls. Now with Drake Waterfowl Systems, Ronquest didn’t let the professional rivalry stop him from paying compliments.
“You do something with Brad you’re going to get a quality product,” Ronquest said. “Brad’s a great guy. He builds good products. You’ll get something that’s made right here in the great state of Arkansas that blows good and be true to the sound.”
A graduate of Newport High School, Allen attended the University of Central Arkansas and got his master’s in physical therapy. He enjoyed sports, and physical therapists were in demand at the time — his wife Melissa is a physical therapist and a professor at UCA — but call making gradually encroached on his life.
“It started out that the calls were just something I was doing on the side, but there was more and more demand for it,” Allen said. “We were doing better. Selling more calls. People were wanting them. It became a passion in making them. It was one of those things where your passion overtook you.”
On his endless quest for perfection, Allen won’t name a masterpiece among his creations. However, he is fond of one call that had shells from the Cache River — a favorite hunting ground — inlaid in the barrel.
He works primarily with acrylic; Allen likes wood’s mellow tones, but acrylic is more consistent. He strives for a lifelike whine and raspiness that lend themselves to an individuality that lures ducks.
“At first you sound like one duck, and you’re happy about that, but when you get good at it, you want to sound like all the ducks,” Allen said.
Even the best-made call relies on the skill of its owner when it is put to use, and a caller’s style can be heard in the instrument’s use in the same way guitar sounds differ depending on who’s playing.
“I think that works because ducks are just like people,” Allen said. “People have different voices, and so do ducks. Sometimes you hear real ducks on the water calling, and if your buddy sounded that bad, you’d take the call away from him.”
Perfection may be out of reach, but Allen said that when near perfection is achieved and he hands off a finished call to a customer, it’s almost like winning another championship.
“When you make one, and you’re like, ‘Man this is the best-sounding call I’ve ever made,’ I get a charge out of that,” Allen said. “I love putting a call in another man’s hand and saying, ‘This is spot-on what I want,’ and being able to hand that to someone else is really fulfilling.”