Even in these days of fewer Minnesota ducks, the state’s generations-deep waterfowling tradition hangs on. From Lake of the Woods to Winona, some camps that were around near the beginning of last century are still around. Also, some of the wooden decoys that first bobbed in the Mississippi and other waters here during the Great Depression remain valued heirlooms, and are displayed on mantels statewide, reminders of times when flock after flock of mallards, bluebills and teal arrowed over hunters’ spreads, morning and evening.
John Arms of Minneapolis isn’t old enough to recall the days when autumn’s thunderous wings demanded the attention of Minnesotans old and young. In the small town of Heron Lake, for example, in the southwest corner of the state, schoolchildren long ago threw open classroom windows upon hearing the booming wingbeats of nearly endless skeins of canvasbacks — birds in such great multitudes they could be heard long before they could be seen.
Yet Arms, 48, remains connected to those good old days, in part through memories of his late grandfather, Jim Arms of Minneapolis, who chased bluebills wherever he could, including on White Bear Lake, and by recollections also of his father, Tom, also of Minneapolis, whose passion for all things ducks and duck hunting coursed his veins like blood.
“I’ve got four brothers, and my dad started each of us duck hunting when we were 8 years old,” John Arms said. “He taught us to respect guns and to respect wildlife. He also told us that whatever we shot, we had eat — a rule that cost me dearly as kid when I shot a merganser, a mistake I haven’t made since.”
A partner in a successful Minneapolis ad agency, Arms a few years ago got the itch to be part of, and continue, the state’s waterfowling heritage. Among the five sons in his family, he had always been the duck caller, a skill he honed over many years, and one that benefited him often on cool mornings when birds were wary and few.
“When you’re the guy who does the calling, you watch and study ducks to see how they respond,” Arms said. “My belief after watching a lot of ducks is that for puddle ducks, mallards specifically, the softer a call sounds, the better.”
Over the years, Arms had collected a lot of calls. But to him, none conveyed the right tone. So he made his own.
“My first requirement for a call was that it be made of wood,” he said. “I wanted wood for the sound. But I also wanted it because that’s what my dad and grandfather used, and because wooden calls are a part of the tradition of waterfowling worth preserving.”
Arms made one call, then 10, then 99. None met his sound standard.
“Finally, after I had made about 100 calls, I got the sound I wanted.”
Uniquely, Arms fashions his calls — marketed under the name Backwater Customs (wearebackwater.com) — exclusively from recycled wood.
“There’s a lot of wood available in this world from trees that have already been cut,” he said. “There’s no reason to cut down more to make duck calls. Additionally, by using different woods or different combinations of woods in each of our calls, we can make each call unique, a one-of-a-kind.”
For wood, Arms favors black walnut, maple, Brazilian cherry, African padauk, African purple heart and zebrawood. Often he’ll combine these and other woods, seaming them imperceptibly with glue before shaping them on a lathe.
The calls were first marketed last winter at the Northwest Sportshow, where Arms could be seen in the Ducks Unlimited booth in a carpenter’s apron, turning out his latest renditions.
“The calls sound like calls should, in my opinion, and the fact that they’re made of wood, especially recycled wood, ties us into waterfowling’s great traditions and heritage,” Arms said. “In many ways, these are the same types of calls my dad and grandfather used.”