My duck hunting formative years were the early 1970s. Back then, my Old Man carried a black OLT D-2 duck call, at that time as traditional an instrument as one might carry afield. The call, to the best of my knowledge, never left the chest pocket of his brown canvas hunting coat, attached to the wide wale corduroy collar with a worn piece of rawhide leather and a big safety pin. I mean it — it never left his pocket. Truth is, I can’t honestly remember hearing the Old Man blow the call, yet there it was on every hunt. At the end of the season, he’d hang the OLT up by the rawhide strap from the corner shelf, and there it would remain until mid-October of the next year.

Needless to say, the maintenance required to keep the Old Man’s call in working order was minimal; actually, non-existent would be more accurate. But that isn’t the case with every duck hunter’s call. Here’s how to keep your duck call looking and sounding as it should.

At 35, Iowa’s Doug Hess is a waterfowler’s waterfowler. A mild-mannered lawn care service owner by day, Hess, when he’s not trapping moles or cutting grass, can be found hard at work at his true passion — duck calling. Five years ago, the young man turned his love of duck-speak into a business and started River Mallard Calls ( Today, Hess offers a full line of wood, acrylic and polycarbonate duck, goose and crow calls, all of which are true works of art, both visually and aurally. A talented craftsman, Hess is a stickler for perfection and performance; as such, constant maintenance plays a key role in his ability to provide the finest service to his clients, homeowners and duck hunters alike. Knowing this, he seemed a natural when it came to discussing call care and tuning; I wasn’t disappointed.

A Troubleshooting Chart

Think back to the last time you bought a new lawnmower, weed-eater…anything. Chances are, it came with instructions, and there’s a good chance those instructions included a Troubleshooting Chart — a list of problems, possible causes, and potential solutions. “Is there fuel in the fuel tank?” or “Is the appliance plugged into a live electrical outlet?” You know what I’m talking about.

That in mind, let’s take a look at what might be the world’s first duck call troubleshooting chart. Too elemental? Don’t laugh; these call-makers see it all the time.

Problem – Call makes no sound at all

Explanation(s) – Cork and wedge are absent; reed is locked in place

Solution – “We need to check and make sure that the reed and wedge are in there,” says Hess. “If they’re there, we need to take the call apart and see if there isn’t something wedged underneath the reed that’s preventing it from moving. If so, we need to remove that and clean the call. Or is the entire reed and wedge assembly out of whack? If so, we’re looking at removing the reed and cork, and starting from scratch.”

Problem – The call doesn’t sound right

Explanation(s) – Cork has gotten loose or taken a set; call has been tuned incorrectly by the end-user

Solution – “A lot of times,” says Hess, “we need to replace the cork. That’s the most common problem I see. I try to impress upon people — change your corks often.” As Hess explains, true cork can take a set and get loose, or even deteriorate over time, and both can cause the call to change in pitch or tone as the reed gets sloppy. Rubber wedges, too, can be affected by use, time, heat and other variables. Corks, he continued, are easy to change and inexpensive; there’s no reason not to change them. If we have a tuning issue here, the call simply needs to be tuned, and we’ll get to that in a moment.

Problem – Call plays, but unexpectedly stops in mid-use

Explanation(s) – Foreign object wedged between reed and tone board; condensation or moisture in call has frozen; wet reed sticks to tone board

Solution – “Chewing tobacco, weed seeds…there’s lots of things that get blown into calls that can stop them up,” says Hess. “I’d suggest taking the insert out and physically looking to see if there’s something under the reed. You can GENTLY lift the reed and blow anything out from underneath there, but you want to make sure you don’t bend or tweak the reed.” Blowing backwards, or via the insert end, into the call can help dislodge any foreign material, too. Water-related problems — ice or excessive moisture — can be solved by, if necessary, warming followed by drying. Again, blowing backwards through the call can help.

Problem – Cracked or split reed

Explanation(s) – The reed’s not well

Solution – “At the very least, you’re looking at replacing the reed,” says Hess. “Short of one that’s broken, I very seldom replace reeds. A good reed is likely to stay the same; corks, though…I’m always changing corks.”

Problem – Cork breaks, chips or gets sloppy; tone of call changes

Explanation(s) – The cork’s getting up in years

Solution – “Replace the cork. I always recommend,” says Hess, “you go back to the guy who made your call, unless you’re confident you can do it yourself. You’re going to need a rubberized cork,” he continued. “And again, the guy who made your call is going to be able to help you here. A lot of call-makers, especially those making the higher-end calls, will include an extra set or two, reeds and corks.” NOTE — Hess emphasized this point many times throughout our discussion; that is, if you have any concerns at all about the way your duck call performs, or if you believe it to be in need of repair, you’re never wrong to first contact the manufacturer.

Problem – Acrylic or polycarbonate call body cracks, chips or gets scratched

Explanation(s) – Regular use and/or out-and-out abuse; we duck hunters are sometimes tough on gear

Solution – “There are techniques for filling, sanding and rubbing those kinds of marks (i.e. chips, small cracks, scratches) out, but it’s an involved process,” says Hess. “With scratches, you can either learn to live with it, or perhaps for a small fee, you can send it back to the manufacturer and they might be able to do something with it. As for chips or bigger cracks, you’re probably out of luck there.” Hess went on to explain that scratches and scuffs on acrylic or polycarbonate calls are “generally aesthetic only,” and don’t affect the sound of the call.

Problem – Wooden call splits or cracks; finish starts to wear

Explanation(s) – The wood has remained wet for a length of time, swelled and split; a wet call was dried too quickly, e.g. near a radiator or heat source

Solution – “If your wood call splits,” Hess says, “it’s almost too late to do anything with it. With a finish, if you’re handy, you can try to strip the call and refinish it using a polyurethane type of product. It just may be time for another duck call.”