Do you really need a duck call to convince ducks to land in your shooting hole? Certainly, most of us do. But even when we have a quality call and know how to use it, we’re not always successful at imitating the come-on-down-and-join-us language of mallards and other waterfowl.
A few rare duck hunters, however, actually live and breathe duck hunting. And I mean that literally. When they call ducks, they do it with their own breath — no duck calls, just what their hands and lungs provide. These folks are sometimes referred to as the “mouth callers.” They are people who somehow learned the art of cutting loose with a perfect hail call or just-right feeding chuckle even without the benefit of the duck-calling tools most hunters need to coax birds into their shooting holes.
One of the earliest and best mouth callers about whom we know a great deal was Thomas E. Walsh of Greenville, MS. Walsh was one of 17 contestants in Stuttgart, Arkansas’ first World’s Championship Duck Calling Contest on November 24, 1936. Back in those days, it was known as the National Duck Calling Contest, and no one expected anyone but an Arkansas boy to win, for hunters from the “Land of Opportunity” were considered by everyone to be the very best callers.
When the contest was over and the winner was announced, however, the duck-hunting citizenry of Arkansas was stunned. Thomas Walsh from the Magnolia State was proclaimed to be the winner, and to make matters worse, he gave his calling demonstration without the use of a duck call, using only his throat and mouth. His prize for winning the contest was a hunting coat valued at $6.60. (Today’s winner receives a prize package worth more than $15,000.)
After the contest, Thomas Walsh noted that he raised ducks as a hobby at his home in Mississippi — and not just any ducks. Walsh kept trained callers (live duck “decoys” called tollers) in his backyard, and for 11 years these live ducks had been teaching him the trade.
In “A History of Duck and Goose Calls” published by Custom Calls Online, Dennis Poeschel notes that keeping these live birds to use as decoys may have led to many hunters learning to mouth call.
“From working with and being around the tame birds, early hunters learned their sounds and imitated them with their mouth,” Poeschel says. “This led to the development of mechanical devices to improve on that. Mouth calling was limited to the volume a person could produce as well as the ability to make the sounds for many people. In 1935 the use of live birds was outlawed and this even created more of a need and interest in game calls.”
Only one other person besides Thomas Walsh would ever win first prize in the World’s Championship Duck Calling Contest without the use of a duck caller. His name was Herman Callouet, and like Walsh, he was a native of Greenville, MS. Callouet took top honors in the 1942 calling contest.
Mouth calling is a lost art, but a few hunters still practice it. In the Arkansas Duck Hunter’s Almanac, a great collection of duck-hunting history and information written by Steve Bowman and Steve Wright, former Arkansas Game and Fish Commission wildlife biologist Greg Mathis of Hope, AR, describes two such individuals, James and Mike Harris, who hunt in the Sulphur River bottoms in southwest Arkansas. When calling, these men double a thumb over and grip their fist tightly around it.
The man’s hand “actually looks like he’s holding a duck call,” Mathis said. “But there’s nothing there. He takes his fist and shakes it in the water and then blows through it.
“I don’t know how it works,” Mathis said. “But it sounds real good.”
Apparently, the ducks like the sound of it, too. The Harris duo’s hands-on calling produces limits every season, just like duck hunters did it 100 years ago.