Lots of duck calls are on the market today. Many of them are mass-produced, but even some of the mass-produced ones are hand-tuned and crafted to some extent. You can also still find calls that are handmade and qualify as beautiful works of art.
For the beginner, it can be overwhelming. You don't know which end is which on a duck call maybe, and don't know where to start in terms of buying one
For the veteran, it can be overwhelming, especially if you're using the same calls that you've had for several years. New calls come out by the tens of dozens every year, each promising to be the "next big thing" that will bring the ducks to your decoys. It's hard sometimes to tell the truth from the hype.
I've hunted for years with only 2 calls on my lanyard - a simple wooden mid-range call and a pintail whistle. I've killed hundreds of ducks with those 2 calls. Other hunters I know wouldn't step into the blind with less than 5 calls around their neck, and several in the bag as backup. It's all up to each person, what they prefer, what they're good at, and what they enjoy.
Here are some basic things to know and think about as you purchase one, two or ten duck calls.
Calls are made out of several different kinds of material today. Some materials are denser than others, and this is what determines the crispness of the sound. The denser the material, the louder and more crisp the sound. The three most common materials for duck calls are wood, acrylic and polycarbonate.
Wood calls tend to be more mellow in tone and low to moderate in terms of volume, although a skilled caller can up the volume on a wooden call a good bit. Some wood calls are aesthetically pleasing, and you can get hand-carved wood calls that are simply gorgeous and sound great. The drawback to wood calls is that they can lose their tone - or stop working altogether - if they get wet, either from rain, being dropped in the water, or too much saliva. Then you have to wait until the call dries out to use it again. Wood is not a very dense material. Because wood soaks in moisture and then dries from it - over and over - wood calls can crack or split. Be sure your wood call has a brass or steel band around it to prevent cracking.
Acrylic is more dense than wood, so the sound is brighter and more crisp than the mellow sound of a wood call. Acrylic calls are crafted to some extent, in that they are made on a lathe and mostly hand-tuned by the individual call maker. Acrylic doesn't soak in water like wood does, so you don't have to worry as much about acrylic calls losing their tone from saliva and general moisture. If it sits submerged in water for any length of time, however, it might require some drying out.
Polycarbonate is dense material, so the sound from these calls is loud, crisp and bright. These calls are mostly mass-produced from molds, so they maintain a very tight sound that stay consistent in most conditions. Because they are mass-produced, they are often less expensive than some of the hand-crafted and hand-tuned calls, although not always.
Double reed calls have 2 reeds in them that produce a very ducky and raspy sound simply by blowing air into the call. Single reed calls can make this raspy sound, too, but it takes a bit of skill on the part of the caller.
Generally, single reed calls are more versatile in the hands of someone who's practiced and developed basic calling skills with a particular call. Double reed calls are more forgiving and will sound ducky even when blown by beginners. Often, single reed calls require more air in them than double reed calls, but that's not always true. Longer reeds - either single or double - require more air than shorter reeds. Longer reeds also have a deeper pitch than shorter reeds.
It's possible to use one or two all-purpose calls in nearly every possible hunting situation. But, it's good to be mindful of the basic types of hunting situations that duck call makers design calls for. The basic three situations are open water, timber and mid-range.
Open Water calls are designed for hunting large open spaces and bodies of water. They are loud and can cover a lot of ground and sky. They are good for calling high-flying flocks of ducks, as well as when your decoys are competing with other decoys sets or flocks of sitting ducks in the area. Open water calls are also good on windy days, which require a high-volume call.
Timber calls are called "timber" but really are for much more than hunting in flooded timber. These calls are designed for hunting in any tight space - small ponds surrounded by trees, brushy marshes and other quiet situations. These calls are soft in volume and mellow in tone. They are designed to call ducks that are call shy or have been heavily hunted, such as at the end of the season. Timber calls are good for calling ducks on ice as well.
Mid-Range calls are designed to be the call you use when you need a louder call than a timber call, but a softer call than an open range call. As a result, mid-range calls are often good choices for an all-purpose, versatile call that can be effective in several different situations, especially if you practice with it so you can make it softer or louder as needed without compromising the ducky sound.
Most duck calls make the basic "quack" sound and variations of that sound like the feeding call sound and several others. However, not all ducks quack. Some ducks - pintails, wigeon, teal, black-bellied tree ducks - make a whistle sound instead of a quack sound. These ducks may still decoy to a basic quack, but it's a good idea to get at least one whistle call and learn to make the sounds of a few of these species. A basic whistle call will work for pintails, teal and wigeon.