The Best Duck Call Makers You Never Heard Of
In 2005, Roger Simmons never could find a duck call that made the sound he wanted.
Simmons, who lives just outside of Sherwood, cobbled two or three calls into one.
“I wanted to make my own call that sounded the best for me,” he said.
After Simmons’ friends blew his call, they urged him to make duck calls for them.
Simmons parlayed that into a small business and started selling his calls in 2008. The move was the right one. Simmons’ Band-It Custom Calls has sold more than 200 calls in the last two years — all practically through word of mouth.
Simmons is part of a growing number of duck call makers who might not be widely known but have turned their hobby of making duck calls into a business.
The Callmakers & Collectors Association of America has seen more call makers in recent years, mainly because of the Internet forums that identify them, said Rick Milligan of Bay Village, Ohio, who is the association’s president.
The CCAA has about 300 members and Milligan said he expects that number to grow in the next couple of years.
Most of the call makers in the CCAA are coming from a small operation.
“It’s really the heart of our industry,” Milligan said. “It’s the guy or the father/son team that are creating calls in a woodshop out in the garage. You don’t have to be a big corporation by any means to produce an amazing call. In fact, it’s those individual artists who are just so talented and producing these wonderful works of art on their own.”
The spotlight has been placed on call makers thanks to the popular reality television show “Duck Dynasty,” which follows the Robertson family, known for its duck calls and other items for hunters. The website E! Online reported that the Robertson family sold 60,000 duck calls in 2012 and in 2013 they were projected to sell 750,000.
Smaller duck call makers have been in the business for decades, said Jim Fleming, the editor and publisher for the Callmakers & Collectors Association of America newsletter. Some call makers have created a cult following.
“Every area has got their guy that is like THE DUCK CALL MAKER in that area,” he said.
Fleming wrote a book in the 1990s, “Custom Calls: Duck and Goose Calls from Today’s Craftsmen” to highlight the call makers who were only known in their region.
Greenhead has attempted to highlight several of the Arkansas call makers who might have flown under the radar of the majority of duck hunters.
Several smaller makers do it as a hobby and then sell a few so they can buy woodworking equipment to continue making calls, Fleming said.
Some people are drawn to the craft of call making because they are shaping a block of wood into something that can be used to communicate with another species in their language, he said.
“There are not a lot of things you can do that with,” Fleming said. “Guys like us are trying to say, ‘OK, let’s see if we can make something that we can talk to those ducks,’ … mostly so we can shoot ’em.”
Billy Starks started making duck calls in 1969.
Starks, who was a duck guide for 55 years on the White River in his native Crocketts Bluff, said he made them for his clients.
“It was a hobby,” said the 74-year-old Sparks. “I didn’t want no business of it.”
But his calls were a hit.
His calls, called the Rebel Duck Calls, are named after the University of Mississippi mascot and have won a number of duck call contests, including several at the World’s Duck Calling Championship held annually in Stuttgart, the self-proclaimed duck capital of the world.
To win the championship, contestants are required to perform a hail, mating and feeding call and a come back call within 90 seconds, according to the website CallingDucks.com, which covers waterfowl calling.
Starks’ calls were know for their volume and rasp.
“We always made a duck call that sounds like a duck call,” he said. “It sounds more ducky.”
Starks said the awards brought interest in his calls, but he didn’t have any desire to mass produce them.
“I didn’t want to go that route,” he said.
Besides, he couldn’t make calls full time and make enough money to support himself.
If his calls sell for $75, it would have taken about $49 in materials to make it.
Starks uses types of wood found in Arkansas for his calls and he also sells ones made of acrylic. Most of the calls don’t have a design on them, but Starks has painted ducks on some.
Starks doesn’t keep track of sales like an accountant would. Some years he has sold fewer than a dozen, but other years it was many as 15. The sales numbers don’t bother Starks.
“I have never did it to make a profit,” he said.
Grover Knoll also didn’t want to mass produce calls, even with all the piles of orders he received.
“I was doing all that I wanted to do,” Knoll said.
After making his first call more than 60 years ago, Knoll, 77, said he retired from making calls about a year ago.
However Knoll, of Clarendon, is still selling calls he made prior to retirement. He will continue to sell them until his supply runs out.
Some of his calls on his website, DuckCall.com, can fetch up to $160.
Knoll made his first call in 1953 for himself and a few friends. His business took off in the 1990s.
“I went to [duck] shows all over the United States and displayed them,” he said.
His sales soared when he placed two or three ads in mail order catalogues.
“That about killed me,” Knoll said. “I couldn’t keep up.”
Knoll said he didn’t keep track of how many calls he sold, but he said over the years it was in the thousands.
“I worked harder than I ever intended to work,” he said.
Simmons, though, would like to sell more of his Band-It Custom Calls.
The 37-year-old Simmons, who operates heavy equipment for a construction company, said he prefers to make duck calls and hunt full time, but he needs to find someone who will handle the retail negotiations.
“I’m not what you call a good salesman,” said Simmons, who fell in love with duck hunting the first time he went, around the age of 9 or 10.
He sells his calls through the company’s Facebook page.
“We’ll post a picture of a new call I made on Facebook,” Simmons said. “And we’ll get a lot of people wanting it on there.”
Simmons doesn’t make the call until the order is placed. His calls range in price from $40 to $125.
“I don’t mass produce anything,” he said. Completing a call could take three days.
Simmons said he tries to stick to domestic woods, including black walnut, but will use exotic woods when customers request it.
Fleming, of the AACC, said the harder the wood, the better it is for making duck calls because it doesn’t absorb moisture.
“Moisture from your breath will swell the wood and completely change the sound of the duck call,” Fleming said.
In addition to the sound, one of the features that make Simmons’ calls unique is the finishing on the wood.
“I just don’t want them to sound good,” Simmons said. “I want them to be something somebody can put on a shelf.”
Milligan, the president of the Callmakers & Collectors Association, said people are split when buying a call from a small operation. Some want to use it while hunting but others buy it as a collector of folk art. He said investing in a call as art could be a wise move.
“If someone literally wants a piece of art that they can display that will likely appreciate in value over time, then that smaller, more custom call maker is very desirable,” he said.
Some of the higher-priced calls are selling in the thousands of dollars, Milligan said.
“I can tell you the art of call making is alive and well,” he said.