An old man sinks into a leather sofa and picks up a duck call. “The first year, I made 55 of these,” he says. “Sold them for $5.”
He turns the familiar call in his hands as he relates a story he clearly never tires of telling. “The next year, I made 555. I sold them all. Do you know how to blow a duck call, young lady?”
“Come on, Cowboy,” interrupts a cameraman. “We need you downstairs in the video studio.” But Cowboy doesn’t want to shoot video. He wants to sit on the couch and blow duck calls and tell stories.
And that’s Cowboy Fernandez for you. What could possibly be more important than giving duck-calling lessons and passing on the heritage of the masterpiece he created nearly 60 years ago?
It was the early 1950s when a young Fernandez and his business partner, George Yentzen, secured a patent on the double-reed duck call design. Yenzten, a taxi driver and baker by trade, came up with the idea and created the first prototype with a band saw on his back porch in Nederland, Texas.
“You about had to have a compressor to make it work; it was that hard to blow,” Cowboy recalls. “You had to really push it, but if you could push it, it would call in a duck.”
The men tweaked and tuned and experimented until they got it right, and the Yentzen duck call was born.
“It was always smooth and sweet,” Cowboy tells me. “When you took the Yentzen duck call and blew it … ooooh, man.” His eyes twinkle at the memory, still ignoring the cameraman.
Still, a great product is nothing without sales and marketing to promote it. Fernandez and Yentzen began manufacturing the calls by hand in a garage, and Cowboy sold them for $5 apiece.
“I learned to sell at 10 years old,” he tells me. “I started selling my mother’s fresh roasted peanuts to drivers stuck waiting in line at a drawbridge. It was the perfect captive audience. I’d give each driver one peanut free, then once they were hooked, I’d sell them a bag for 10 cents.”
Many years later, he still has the charm of a salesman in the heart of an old duck hunter.
George Yentzen passed away in 1958 at the age of 72, leaving the company solely in Cowboy’s hands. That year, Cowboy decided he was going to win the World Duck Calling Championship, and he began practicing.
In 1959, he entered and won the Gulf Coast Championship, the Texas Open and the regional in Beaumont, propelling him to Stuttgart, Ark., for the World Duck Calling Championship. The night before the contest, two of his roommates woke to the sound of Cowboy doing a feeding call in his sleep.
“I don’t know who that is, but he’s the guy we’ve gotta beat tomorrow,” one said to the other.
But they couldn’t beat him, and Cowboy Fernandez became the 1959 World Duck Calling Champion. Immediately after the contest, he got a request to demonstrate the Yenzten to sales reps, and he did so after filling the call up with water to prove it could blow wet. Sales took off, and Cowboy continued to win calling contests, including three International Championships. By the early 1960s, the Yentzen and the Sure-Shot Game Call company dominated the duck-call market and the calling-contest circuit.
“Let me hear you blow that call,” Cowboy says. I’m nervous and humbled and honored to be taking lessons from a champion, and I let out a quack — not a very good one. His face sours like we’re in a Looney Tunes cartoon and I’m Pepe LePew.
“Give me that! Who tuned this?” he demands, pulling the guts out and making the adjustments of a master craftsman. “Try it now.”
It sounds sweeter, and we practice and laugh and ignore the camera guy some more until we’re called to the kitchen for dinner by Doug Yentzen, great-grandson of George. His father, Buddy, is here as well, and he and Cowboy tell stories of days gone by over steaming plates of crab fettuccine. It’s the first time they’ve seen each other in years.
“So anyway,” Cowboy says, turning back to me, “It’s not that hard. You just gotta sound like a duck, you see.”
The food is gone and the cameraman will be ignored no longer. Cowboy shuffles off to the makeshift studio in the mudroom to shoot some interviews.
“He’s something, isn’t he?” asks Charlie Holder, now owner of Sure-Shot.
Charlie’s the catalyst that lit a new fire under Sure-Shot after years of stagnation. As Cowboy grew older, the business struggled to keep up with the wave of competition that entered the double-reed market. The old duck hunter knew fresh blood was needed to kick-start the company again, and he rejected several offers before meeting Charlie. This guy, a radio personality and marketer from Texas, had the fire and the drive to resurrect the Sure-Shot brand.
Charlie bought the company and immediately cranked up manufacturing and marketing, bound and determined to make Yentzen and Sure-Shot household names again. Cowboy’s grandson, Curtis Arnold, has worked at the company since he was 12 and leads Sure-Shot’s production today.
Though the Yentzen family no longer owns any part in the business, they’ve carried on George Yentzen’s duck-hunting tradition, and we shot mixed-bag limits of ducks with Doug and his sons that week as they welcomed us into their duck camp and blinds. They have not forgotten the significance of the legacy and the name they carry.
There’s a delightful combination of tradition and innovation at Sure-Shot, with the classic styling and sound of the Yentzen call meeting the modern rugged attitude of the “Take ‘Em In The Face” slogan. A few all-new calls have been added to the lineup, a refreshing nod to the past as the company moves into the future.
The cushioned couch calls to me, my bones weary from four days of lots of hunting and little sleep. Maybe just a brief nap, I think, until an old man’s voice calls from the basement.
“Enough with this video stuff, young man. Where’s my new friend? There’s another call I want to show her.”