A True Calling
Doug Smith
Minneapolis, startribune
November 21, 2004

SWAN LAKE, MINN. -- Hunkered in our duck blinds on Swan Lake since before dawn, we watched patiently for more than four hours last week as a few ducks occasionally criss-crossed the gray sky.

All ignored pleadings to take a gander at our decoy spread. Then at 11 a.m., after the sun broke through clouds and cast a warm golden glow over the southern Minnesota landscape, three mallards appeared.

Doug Lodermeier and Paul Englund spotted them and immediately hailed them with a chorus of duck calls. The birds, a greenhead flanked by a hen on each wing, accepted the invitation.

A moment later Lodermeier and Englund allowed the hens to pass but interrupted the lone drake's flight.

Unfortunately, they were the only shots our group of four fired all morning -- indicative of what, by most accounts, has been a poor season for Minnesota waterfowlers.

"I think we took a Swan Lake shellacking," Englund said as we called it quits and packed up.

"It's just nice to be out here," said Lodermeier, admiring one of the state's most famous waterfowl lakes.

Lodermeier, 49, of Minneapolis, is a lifelong hunter and a passionate waterfowler, but not a typical one. He's also an historian, author, collector and conservationist.

He's fixated with duck calls and is proficient with them but doesn't consider himself an expert caller.

"I'm a lunch-bucket caller," he said. "I'm average, maybe a little above average."

Yet he literally wrote the book on duck calls.

Lodermeier, a graphic artist, compiled and published "Minnesota Duck Calls -- yesterday and today's folk artists" last year, a mammoth 616-page book that documents in words and photographs Minnesota's rich history of duck calls and duck call makers.

Researching and writing the book, a four-year task, was a labor of love.

"I wanted to do something for a sport that meant so much for me," he said. He has donated 100 of the $75 books to various conservation groups, who use them as fundraisers.

The idea for the book sprouted from Lodermeier's interest in duck calls. He began collecting them about 10 years ago.

"I have the collecting gene in me," he said. "My dad was a collector. I started picking up old fishing plugs as a kid. I'd trade new lures for a bunch of old ones, because I thought they were cool."

Later, he became interested in collecting old hand-made decoys, but he quickly realized the prices of those had skyrocketed out of his price range. "So I started looking at duck calls," he said, eventually focusing on Minnesota-made duck calls.

He now has about 200 calls from about 40 call-makers, some dating back to the early 1900s. It's likely the largest such collection in the state.

"For me, it adds a little fun to the off-season; it's another way of enjoying the sport," he said.

He scours antique shops, flea markets and anyplace else where old calls might turn up.

"Hunting season is pretty short when you really look at it," he said. "All the time and investment, and it's over so quickly. This is a way to extend the sport. It's hunting of another kind."

He collects for fun, not for profit, though the value of the old calls continues to rise like a flushing mallard.

Some Minnesota-made old-time calls can fetch $1,200 to $1,500, but many others can be bought for less than $100. That compares to tens of thousands of dollars that some old calls made in such places as Tennessee, Arkansas or Louisiana can bring. (The record price for an old duck call: $63,000, paid at an auction in 2000.)

Minnesota's call makers have produced an eclectic mix of devices over the decades.
"The stubborn Germans, Norwegians and Swedes all thought they had the answer to how duck calls should be made," Lodermeier said.

There was Leo Boutin of Minneapolis, who in the late 1930s and 1940s produced the "Quacking Decoy" -- a mallard decoy with a call mounted inside the head and linked to 50 feet of rubber tubing. A hunter squeezed a ball attached to the tubing to make the decoy quack.

And there was Francis Muehlstein of St. Paul, who invented, patented and produced "The Natural Duck Call" -- made to resemble a duck head, with a bill that opens and closes when the call is blown. Lodermeier calls it possibly the most innovative and unique call ever made.

The book is filled with old hunting photos, advertisements for the old duck calls and photos of callmakers, past and present, including Englund, 68, one of Minnesota's top callers, a longtime call maker and a waterfowl hunting fanatic.

Englund encouraged Lodermeier to tackle the project.

"I had to become a detective to put this book together," Lodermeier said. "I checked old newspapers, death certificates, the historical society ... it was a lot of fun."

Again, he had no illusions of making money. He knows there's a small niche for such a book.

"I just wanted to break even," he said.

He had 1,000 copies printed last year, gave away 100 and has sold another 500 copies. He has about 400 left.

And after those are gone, there will be no more printed. That's because Lodermeier -- always the collector -- wants to make the book itself a collectible.

Meanwhile, another Minnesota duck and regular Canada goose season is coming to a close Tuesday. Though last week's trip to Swan Lake didn't produce a lot of action, Lodermeier was happy just to hunt -- and call ducks -- with Englund.

"He's one of Minnesota's preeminent ambassadors for waterfowl hunting," Lodermeier said. And as a caller, "he's one of the best."

The guy who wrote the book on duck calls should know.

Doug Smith is at dsmith@startribune.com.