MOUND CITY, Mo. -- As the sun peeked over the horizon, Dusty Banner placed a long-distance call.
Moments after spotting a small flock of pintails speeding across a marsh near the Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge, he blew into the duck call he designed and pleaded with the birds to fly closer.
When the squadron turned and headed toward Banner's decoys, he got ready, and his black Labrador retriever, Teal, began to whimper with excitement.
The pintails dipped down, and Banner raised up, fired two shots and hit one of his targets. And for both man and dog, another Missouri duck season was off to a successful start.
"I love it when the ducks react to a call like that," said Banner, 27, of Blue Springs, Mo. "They definitely wanted in."
For Banner, duck hunting is definitely a calling. Since he learned to carry on a conversation with waterfowl when he was in his early teens, he has been obsessed with imitating the sounds ducks make.
Not only does he make duck calls through his Pin Oak Call Co., he has advanced to the World's Championship Duck Calling Contest eight times. He finished third in the 2011 competition and is looking forward to competing in this year's contest in November.
In the meantime, though, he is content to compete for the attention of creatures far less tough to please than the human judges that assign scores.
"A hen mallard would never win a calling contest," he said as he sat in a blind on the marsh he leases. "Ducks make terrible noises out here.
"Their voices will crack. Their feed calls will sound gravelly. They shriek. . . . They aren't perfect.
"In a calling contest, you can't make a mistake -- not at Worlds anyway. Everything has to be very smooth."
Last Saturday, opening day of the duck season in the Missouri North Zone, Banner was trying to appeal to the feathered judges.
With his buddy Teal at his side, he watched as the ducks put on a show just moments before shooting hours started at 7:14 a.m. Flock after flock of ducks swept down on the decoys and some even landed, almost as if to taunt the hunters.
Once shooting time finally arrived, Banner took a second to admire the sunrise and said, "Opening day 2013. It's great to be back." Then he watched as the inevitable happened.
All of those ducks that had swarmed the sky only minutes before seemingly disappeared.
"That's the way it always happens," he said with a smile.
But the ducks did show up again, although not in the same numbers as they had in the predawn moments.
Banner pulled the trigger, Teal bounded out to make retrieves and all was well. In a matter of minutes, Banner added two blue-winged teal to his total and lamented the shots he missed.
"I could have a limit (six ducks daily) if I had been shooting well," Banner said. "Still, it's just fun being out here on opening day.
"This is when it all starts."
Banner, a waterfowl-hunting fanatic, figures he is out on the marsh 60 to 65 days a year, between his time in Missouri, Canada and Arkansas. He spent the past week in Canada, hunting a variety of ducks. But that didn't diminish his enthusiasm over taking part in Missouri's opener.
He has been a part of that opening day since he was 4 years old and he would tag along with his dad to the blind. He still remembers the excitement of watching the adult hunters use their calls to bring the ducks in.
"I still remember how my parents got me my first duck call for my 13th birthday," he said. "They bought a call from Mike Keller (the late World Champion caller from North Kansas City).
"Mike would have calling lessons every Wednesday night, and I would go. We got to be friends, and he taught me everything."
Now Banner has become an expert in his own right. He practices year-round, seldom missing a day. And he dreams of cold days when flights of mallards flock to the Squaw Creek area and react to hunters' calls.
"Those days when you get 100, 150 mallards to commit, those are the ones I look forward to," he said.
CALLING ALL DUCKS
Dusty Banner of Blue Springs knows a thing or two about carrying on a conversation with ducks. He has qualified for eight World Championship Duck Calling Contests and spends as many as 40 days in his blind during the Missouri hunting season.
Here are a few of his tips for calling in the ducks.
--"Ninety percent of the battle is reading the ducks, finding out what they're reacting to," Banner said. "You can't just go out and blow your call the same way every day and expect them to come in. You have to speak their language."
--And just what is that language? Listen. Sometimes, Banner said, the ducks will be calling to each other aggressively. "Those are the days you have to talk right back to them in an aggressive tone," Banner said. But Banner turns down the volume when the ducks seem to be less talkative.
--When the ducks are far out, Banner will use a midrange hail call. "I'm trying to reach out and touch some ears," he said. "It's like a greeting call." When the ducks turn, he will continue to talk to them, but not as loudly. As they get closer, he will go to softer calls "like you'd hear when they're on the water," he said.
--If there is more than one caller in the blind, Banner likes to mix it up. One hunter may imitate feeding chuckles, another will do some louder calls and another will do a series of intermittent quacks. "When you have a lot of decoys out, you want to make some noise," Banner said. "You want it to sound natural."
--Practice makes perfect. Banner blows his duck call almost every day.
--But perfection isn't required to call in a duck, Banner said. "If you listen to them, they'll make a lot of mistakes," he said. "If you make a call that cracks or shrieks, it doesn't mean you'll scare them off."
SQUAW CREEK: A MISSOURI TREASURE
--WHAT/WHERE: Squaw Creek is a national wildlife refuge about 100 miles northwest of Kansas City.
--AGE: Squaw Creek was established as a national refuge in 1935 as a refuge primarily for migrating waterfowl, but for other wildlife as well.
--SIZE: Squaw Creek covers 7,350 acres. It centers on wetlands, but also includes wooded areas and grasslands.
--WILDLIFE: Squaw Creek is one of the most significant migratory rest stops on the Mississippi Flyway. It can attract as many as 100,000 ducks in the fall and up to 1 million snow geese during the spring migration.
--HUNTING: No waterfowl hunting is allowed on the refuge, but many private duck clubs are located along Squaw Creek's borders. Hunters also flock to private crop fields in late winter for the Conservation Order snow-goose season.
--BIRDING: It is a popular birding spot, with as many as 300 species known to either inhabit or visit the refuge. Rare species such as trumpeter swans stop at the refuge and attract plenty of attention. Bald eagles also gather in large numbers in winter, and Eagle Days presentations draw large numbers of participants.
--OTHER WILDLIFE: Many visitors visit the refuge to see white-tailed deer. Turkeys, pheasants, coyotes, foxes, minks, raccoons, beavers, bobcats and other species also inhabit the refuge.
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