Writers know it as “writer’s block,” and if we were talking about golf, I’d be diagnosed as having the “yips,” the inability to even pull the club back to hit. So, what do you call it when you hold a duck call up to your lips and can’t blow air into it without fearing what sound will come out?
“Quacks” might work. Whatever it is, I’ve tried to blow the loud, commanding hail call and either I can’t get started or I eventually let loose with some kind of exploding kazoo-like screech that could clear the White River National Refuge of any living creature.
Surely there are head doctors out there – a Bob Rotella of duck calling, perhaps – who could fix me for a few thousand dollars. Without that amount easily at my disposal, however, I decided to seek out an expert at duck calling first and see if she could figure it out.
“You have to practice and practice and just teach yourself,” said 19-year-old Shelby Free from Stuttgart. “It doesn’t come easy. You literally have to start from the basics or you’ll never get it.
“It’s like picking up a musical instrument. You can’t start at the top.”
So, I guess what Shelby’s saying is, I’ll need to keep working that call even if it means running every duck out of South Arkansas while I practice. Imagine Warren Beatty’s futile clarinet playing in the classic film “Heaven Can Wait,” but with a duck call.
Shelby Free, a sophomore at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, began mastering the duck call at age 5. Shelby announced her arrival on the competitive scene in 2005 by winning the Women’s Junior World.
She won three Women’s World titles in the World’s Duck Calling Championships in Stuttgart before she was 18; after three crowns you’re retired from winning the division and pretty much limited to trying to win the World’s Championship, mostly against men.
She was fifth last year in the last-chance qualifier for the World’s Championship but didn’t make the final field. She’ll try again.
“I started in the youth clinic with Butch Rickenbach,” she said. “We started from the very basics, starting with doing five ‘huts’ into the call.”
Rickenbach is the inventor of the Rich-N-Tone calls, made in Stuttgart. Shelby’s personal favorite call is the Rich-N-Tone MVP personally carved for her by Butch.
Stuttgart heralds itself as the Duck Capital of the World, and celebrates its standing with the annual Wings Over the Prairie Festival every Thanksgiving week. The event culminates with the many duck-calling championships that are decided on Main Street.
Shelby’s father, Bill Free, is one of the organizers long involved with the festival and oversees the duck-calling championships. That had to be one proud papa when his oldest of two daughters began winning championships.
Along with his day job at Riceland, Bill Free guides at Five Oaks Hunting Club in Arkansas County.
The UA sophomore’s love for competitive calling is taking a back seat these days to college life.
“It’s not as easy practicing in the dorm or the sorority house as it is in the garage at home,” admits the Pi Beta Phi member and advertising and public relations major.
“They kind of look at you funny.”
On the other hand, a good percentage of the male UA population is familiar with duck hunting and all that goes into it. “With boys, it’s like I’ll be hanging with my friends and they’ll be like, ‘You’re Shelby Free? You’re that duck-calling girl.’ Yep, I’m that duck-calling girl.”
There are YouTube videos to prove it.
As longtime Wings Over the Prairie festivalgoers know, being a champion women’s caller isn’t unusual. Chick Major, who created the Dixie Mallard call, taught his three daughters to hail with the best, and the best of the bunch was Pat (Peacock), a World’s Champion.
“I’ll still go and let Ms. Pat hear me call,” Shelby says, “because she’s one of the best. She and her sisters do a little clinic during the festival for 3- and 4-year-olds. That’s pretty much where everybody starts.”
Well, we’re a little late for that beginner class. So, what are the chances of a late-arrival like me overcoming the “quacks” and learning to call?
Shelby says competitive calling is nothing like calling in the woods.
“That’s Main Street calling,” she says. “It’s loud. It’s all about volume and air … You have to build up your air. Your lungs aren’t used to that amount of air needed to blow a duck call nonstop for 90 seconds. It’s not something you can wake up one morning and decide you want to do.
“In the woods, the calling is quiet. You’re trying to do as little as possible.”
Well, I’ve sort of got that down then. The duck-calling manufacturers put out a teaching CD with their products, but Shelby, who also hunts some, says she’s never listened to them. So, with that, I just heed her tips.
“Never use a hail call in the woods, just the comeback call, the feed call and the mating or lonesome hen call,” she said. “Mainly you use the comeback call.
“You’ll get it one day. You just can’t give up. Start from the basics.”