The Essence of Duck Calls by Josh Raggio

The Essence of Duck Calls by Josh Raggio_HERO

Whether you’re standing against a tree in a century-old hardwood bottom, in a layout boat in a marsh, or in your favorite field blind, the anticipation has been building for this moment for the past 10 months. It’s opening day.

The guns, dogs, calls, new equipment, and old heirlooms are about to be tested by the elements once again. Five minutes before shooting time, whistling wings can be heard above the treetops. It’s at that very moment that duck hunters can’t help but ring out the melodious sounds of mallards, like a symphony. The first time a hunter experiences a group of mallards respond to the call, he is hooked. It’s an experience that truly can’t be put into words. The duck call is the instrument that allows the hunter to speak the language of a wild migratory fowl that flies over 3,000 miles from Canada south, and then back north to their nesting grounds.

man in a canoe in wetlands with ducks in water in background

The first time a hunter experiences a group of mallards responds to the call, he is hooked.


The history of the duck call can be traced back to the late 19th century, with the tongue pincher call being one of the first designs. They were primitive, yet effective for their time. It didn’t take long for calls to evolve into what we now know as the “modern” duck call, one with a barrel and insert. Today’s calls fall into one of two categories—the Arkansas style and the Tennessee style. They function much like a clarinet or saxophone, with air passing over a reed producing the signature tone. Of course, we duck hunters prefer the tones of a lonesome hen mallard.

The anatomy of the two different calls in use today is similar but not the same. The Arkansas style call consists of a barrel, an insert (which includes the tone board), a reed, and a cork. The Tennessee style consists of a barrel, an insert, a reed, and a wedge. The main difference between them is that the Arkansas style (also known as the J-Frame) uses a plastic reed while the Tennessee style uses a metal reed and wedge. They produce different tones but both are extremely effective in the field.

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Tongue Pincher Style, Tennessee Style, Arkansas Style (left to right).

a disassembled duck call on a wooden table
disassembled duck call on a wooden table

Image 1: Anatomy of the Tennessee Style. | Image 2: Anatomy of the Arkansas Style.

As a maker, I strive to create heirloom quality products that will build stories and be passed down through the generations. That said, a duck call is no different than most other musical instruments. While the care is minimal, some things need to be done to ensure sound and aesthetic quality throughout the life of the call.

The two parts that create the sound are referred to as the reed and cork. Once the reed is “set” for you, you shouldn’t have to change it. It is made from mylar plastic, which is very durable. The cork, however, needs to be replaced every so often. There’s no set time to do this, but as a general rule, I change my cork once a week during hunting season. A bad cork will cause the sound to become “flat”. Change the cork, and the call will come back to life!

Let’s talk about aesthetics. There are two main finishes used on calls. One is a CA finish, which is a shiny, glossy look, and the other is a more traditional oil/wax finish. There is no maintenance on a CA finish call, but an oil/wax call can use a little touch up periodically. I recommend taking some boiled linseed oil, or something similar, and using your finger to apply a thin coat. Let sit for a few hours and wipe any residue off with a lint-free towel. This helps protect it from the elements of waterfowling.

One more tip I want to offer regarding wood calls. Wood being wood will tend to shrink and swell with moisture and temperature changes. At the end of every hunt, separate the barrel from the insert and let dry overnight. And always have a lanyard attached to both pieces! Reassemble the next morning, and you’re ready to call ducks straight from the skies into your decoy set.

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Josh Raggio in his workshop.