Willing to take a quack at it
Duck calling is all about fowl play
HARRISBURG, Pa. - Al Dager pressed his lips to the plastic windpipe, cupped his hands, and with a strong, deep breath did his best to sound like a duck.
But no ducks came quacking.
Instead, Dager's call filled an arena, his quest for an elusive world title renewed once more.
Duck callers are a rare breed, channeling their love for waterfowl hunting into a rather loud and unusual indoor competition. Most participants appear to be their 20s or younger - though the 61-year-old Dager might be considered the Brett Favre of duck calling.
He might retire this year. He might not.
"I keep saying, 'Well, this might be my last year.' I keep saying that over and over and over," said Dager, of Townsend, Del., before a recent competition at the Eastern Sports and Outdoor Show in Harrisburg. "I just keep going back."
The Harrisburg show is big stuff on the duck calling circuit because the winner nabs one of 60-plus coveted berths in the World's Championship Duck Calling Contest, held each Thanksgiving weekend in Stuttgart, Ark.
Preparation is key. Some contestants practice two to three hours a day leading into the biggest competitions, so youngsters may have more time to drill than veterans like Dager with full-time jobs.
On this day, Dager is wearing his standard contest attire of a heavy, off-white, button-down shirt with a strip of camouflage across the shoulders. He has been to the Arkansas finals 15 times, finishing as high as eighth in the world.
"I've been doing this for 35 years. I'm the oldest guy on the circuit by far," Dager said. "I just enjoy the competition."
Whether baby-faced teenager or gray-haired veteran, most enthusiasts relate a similar story when asked to trace their interest in duck calling: days spent with family or friends in a cold field or marsh, looking for waterfowl prizes, not calling trophies.
Joe Palumbo, 21, of Dillsburg, said he started calling at age 5, "and I've been doing it ever since." He practices about 20 minutes a day when he's preparing for competition.
"The thrill of it," he said. "We're here to compete, but behind the scenes, we're all good buddies."
Organizers said the Harrisburg show is one of the bigger ones on the circuit, attracting callers from throughout the mid-Atlantic.
Camouflage gear is in the fashion staple here, even if the only animals in sight are dead and stuffed.
One big room is lined with vendors selling rows of shotguns; other vendors pitch African safaris or high-tech tree stands.
But it's a long way from calling in the field to letting out big quacks on stage with a spotlight and video cameras pointed your way.
Duck calling competitors must follow set 90-second routines on stage, whereas in the field the type of call they use depends on logical factors - like the distance to the ducks.
A red light comes on at the 10-second mark. If a caller is still performing the routine when the light goes off, he or she is automatically disqualified.
Most contestants are hunters, but don't have to be. A caller can sound pitch-perfect on stage and yet have no idea how to fire a rifle.
"You could be the best duck caller in the world, but not know how to kill ducks," said Palumbo, who qualified for Stuttgart last year, finishing 42d out of 66 contestants. "It's a huge, huge difference."
There are no ducks in sight at shows like Harrisburg. Judges listen backstage behind a black curtain, hidden from view.
Callers wait behind another curtain until their names are called to come on stage. Some people like Dager and Palumbo chat with competitors while they wait between periods of quiet preparation; others just sit patiently until it's their turn in the spotlight.
"Keep mental focus," Thomas Bryce, 16, of Sudlersville, Md., said about the key to calling. He won the 17-and-under contest in Harrisburg. "Just having everything prepared."
John Taylor, 45, of Quantico, Md., is a veteran of the stage, having competed for 21 years. A fourth-place finisher in the duck call competition in Harrisburg this year, Taylor is perhaps better at calling geese. He is the reigning international grand champion in that field.
"It's not as fun as hunting, but it's the next best thing," Taylor said, standing next to his good friend, Dager. They met at a contest in Maryland 21 years ago.
The long practice hours are part of the reason Dager might be winding down his calling days. Like many fellow callers, Dager works as a guide and owns his own waterfowl hunting business in Delaware.
His day at Harrisburg started well enough, Dager blowing through the competition to get to the finals against 18-year-old Teddy Hoover, of Towson, Md.
That's when his voice fell short.
Competition director Sam Palumbo - father of competitor Joe - said Dager's "high-end" calls, which are supposed to be loud enough to attract faraway ducks, didn't match up to Hoover. Dager finished second.
"What hurt him is his high end just wasn't high enough," Palumbo said. "When you first start, the high ball or greeting, it's got to be screaming."