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Secrets of a top duck (and goose) caller

  • Article by: ANN WESSEL
  • Associated Press
  • September 28, 2013 - 12:45 AM

ST. CLOUD, Minn. — Captivated by the spectacle of a great show. Improved by practicing five hours a day in the garage. Encouraged by friends who said he had talent. Entered a contest. Fared badly. Heeded judges' advice.

Mike Benjamin's path to world duck and goose calling competitions contains more than a few parallels to that of a singer rising to fame through a TV talent contest. But the show that inspired him involved hundreds of thousands of snow geese migrating across South Dakota. And his stage — one he'll mount this November for the second time as a competitor — is a main street in an Arkansas town that bills itself as the rice and duck capital of the world.

On a recent evening after his shift as a part-time window washer at St. Cloud Hospital, Benjamin, 24, agreed to demonstrate his competition routine and field calls for the St. Cloud Times (http://on.sctimes.com/16zVWq2). Most competitors call ducks or geese. Benjamin does both.

He started with the duck calls. And a warning: This is going to be loud.

The contest call is a piercing, compressed version of the elements a hunter might use in the field. Looking a bit like a jazz trumpeter, Benjamin bent in to the call as he progressed from sustained notes to near-trilling.

"It's not about sounding exactly like a duck. It's about call operation. It's all about control and range and the flow of your routine," Benjamin said.

The result tells a story, of sorts — the sequence imagines ducks approach from a distance, see other ducks, come in to feed and then require a call back. The routine is meant to showcase tone, dynamics, tempo and control.

"The first thing is tone. It's got to sound like the bird itself," said Scott Threinen, 31. "The power and the volume that you can get out of the call, and then the speed and the finesse, how fast you can go and how much control you have."

Threinen, a three-time world live goose calling champion, hired Benjamin to work part-time for his Rochester company, Molt Gear, which he founded after his own competition success.

Although no duck would respond to such a sequence, Benjamin said mastering the individual elements makes him a better caller and improves his hunting success.

"Your calling generally should be based off the birds' reaction and not blowing your call for the fun of it," said Benjamin, who prefers hunting and calling geese to ducks. "They have their own vocabulary and the more you practice, the more of their vocabulary you can match."

Although he spends about 120 days a year hunting in Minnesota and out of state, Benjamin still thrills to the sight of a flock of geese coming in to an array of decoys.

Benjamin didn't grow up hunting geese. When he lived in St. Cloud, he had aspirations of becoming a professional fisherman. Then he moved south of town and got to know waterfowl hunters. He went on his first goose hunt about 10 years ago with a friend and his friend's father. Terry Roeder, 57, of Waite Park, a granite quarry worker, recalled catching the peak March migration in South Dakota that year.

"Mike, he just went wild. We saw all kinds of birds. You could just tell Mike was pretty inspired about the hunting. After that, that's all he talked about — the bird hunting, the goose hunting and the duck hunting," Roeder said.

"I always liked blowing the calls. I showed Mike a little about it. After that, Mike just took off. After a year or two, he was really good."

Benjamin and his high school friends competed among themselves.

It's no coincidence that most top callers are 17 to 25 years old. They have time to spare and relatively few obligations.

"The contest calling has been a trend of a lot of high school kids that like to blow goose calls. It's just like you were in band and choir. But they don't necessarily hunt a lot," Threinen said.

While the number of waterfowl hunters in Minnesota remains among the highest in the nation — including 90,400 duck hunters and 64,990 Canada goose hunters — their ranks have dropped dramatically, said Steve Cordts, a state waterfowl specialist. Ten years earlier, duck hunters numbered 111,619, goose hunters 78,574.

In 2007, Benjamin graduated from Technical High School and that summer entered his first calling contest at a Mankato retail store. He was cut in the first round. But he went back to ask the judges for advice. The next weekend, he entered another contest and placed for the first time. The following year he won his first state goose calling contest at the Minnesota Duck & Goose Callers Association competition.

He has since called in about 100 contests. Among his biggest wins: he's a three-time Minnesota state goose calling champion and a two-time Illinois state goose calling champion. Last year, he won the North American Masters goose and live duck competitions in Peoria, Ill.

In late November, he'll compete against about 70 callers in the 77th annual World's Championship Duck Calling Contest in Stuttgart, Ark., where the top prize is $15,000. (Last year, he placed sixth in the world open duck competition.) Two weeks earlier, he'll compete in the world open goose, world live goose and world live duck competitions at the World Goose Calling Championship in Easton, Md. The top award is $10,000 and about $5,000 in prizes.

"For somebody to be that good at both of them, it's a rarity," said Andy Thill, president of the 300-member Minnesota Duck & Goose Callers Association, which draws about 100 callers to its six contests.

Benjamin started competitive duck calling because he found himself waiting around for the goose events, which typically ran last. He thought he might as well do both.

Brad Nylin, executive director of the Minnesota Waterfowl Association, said duck calling traditions are strongest in the South, while goose calling originated on the East Coast. "I think there's more call makers than there are callers," he said of Minnesota.

One reason for the difference: The hunting is different here (in the South, for example, hunters might be trying to lure ducks into a small pocket of flooded woodlands), the season is earlier and hunters don't necessarily have to call to be successful.

"Up here, while mallards are always the No. 1 duck in the bag, they account for about 30 percent of the duck harvest," Cordts said. Most calling competitions focus on mallards. Minnesotans tend to shoot a lot of diving ducks, too; they don't respond to mallard calls.

"In Minnesota, you'll hear a lot of people sort of squawking at ducks, but there's a lot that don't call that much," Cordts said.

If Benjamin has his way, he'll continue calling competitively and professionally.

In addition to contest calling — "To win a world championship would be like winning the Super Bowl or the World Series," Benjamin said — he has led seminars, produced videos for Molt Gear and helped design some of its products.

"Mike has a big drive to win a world title, whether it be the world open or the world live. Same with the ducks. I think he's on the right track and he's definitely good enough to do it," Threinen said.

This is an AP Member Exchange shared by the St. Cloud Times

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