NEW LONDON, Minn. — Success in the waterfowl blind starts months before the season opens.
Just ask Mike Benjamin. He makes a practice of watching and especially, listening to waterfowl as they interact during the spring migration. It’s where he learns the vocabulary of ducks and geese, which he uses to his advantage when calling them to his blinds come autumn.
It also helps explains why Benjamin is now a two-time Minnesota state champion duck caller.
Benjamin, 27, of Rochester, Minn., won the Minnesota Waterfowl Association’s state duck calling title at competition held at Prairie Pothole Day at the Stoney Ridge Farm last Saturday. His second state title earns him a ticket to compete in the World Championship Duck Calling Contest in Stuttgart, Ark.
He’s earned his place there before, too. He’s a three-time state goose calling champion, a North American Master’s Live Duck Calling champion, and two-time Illinois state duck calling champion. Benjamin and friends Nick Johnson and Ben Marleau have won spots in the top 10 in the Minnesota goose and duck calling contests for a string of years now, and this is in one of the most competitive of states when it comes to calling.
It’s worth mentioning that waterfowl calling helps provide Benjamin his paycheck too. He works for Molt Gear in Rochester, a company known wide and far for its waterfowl calls.
A native of St. Cloud, Minn., Benjamin took up competitive calling in 2007. A friend had hooked him on waterfowl hunting a few years earlier. It wasn’t long before he got serious about learning the skills of calling to become a better hunter. “I just wanted to improve and get better and calling contests sounded like fun,’’ said Benjamin when interviewed after his win at Prairie Pothole Day.
Benjamin said he really enjoys the opportunity to meet up with fellow contestants who have become friends through the years.
The real fun comes in autumn when Benjamin can talk ducks and geese to his blind. “You can talk a bird into doing a lot of things it doesn’t want to do if you practice,’’ said Benjamin.
“Practice, practice, practice” is the key to winning waterfowl calling contests too, said Benjamin. Once he got started at the competitive level, Benjamin said he’d practise three, four and sometimes five hours a day to be ready.
In competitive calling, contestants perform a prescribed routine of calls within a 90-second time frame. Judges are tuned to the tone, tempo, dynamics and control exhibited by the contestants.
Ducks and geese have different criteria on different days and locations, said Benjamin. Successful hunters are those who learn through trial and error what vocalizations, sequences and even how loud they should call according to the circumstances of the place and time. Sometimes a quiet call works best. In some situations, it takes a chorus of waterfowl callers jamming like rock musicians to get the attention of their prey.
A lot of this can only be learned in the hunting season, but Benjamin maintains that the winning edge is best learned in the off-season. He credits competitive calling with making him a better caller in the field because it extends the season for him, leading him to practice and expand his vocabulary.
Most important, it’s made him a full-time student of waterfowl vocabulary and behavior. He purposely watches and listens to waterfowl to hear their vocabulary and see their reactions and how they interact, he said. It helps him figure out the sequences and vocabulary to use come hunting season.
No time is better to learn than in the spring. Waterfowl are more vocal. They are competing for mates and breeding grounds, he explained.
When it comes to calls, his advice to waterfowl hunters is to select calls that fit them the best and practice on them. “It’s like riding a bike,’’ he said. “It takes a lot of practice to learn but once you know how you never really forget. You just need a little bit of a tune up.’’
As for his favorite calls, the answer is obvious. “I’m a little biased toward Molt Gear.’’