When Calling May Not Be My Calling

Saturday, August 20th saw me standing with twelve other hopefuls at the Canadian Open Goose Calling Championship.  We were milling around a boat that was on display next to the contest stage, most (myself included) were holding their goose calls in their hands and chatting perfunctorily with the other contestants.  Already it was kind of apparent who the threats were.  The group of five or six guys with the official call-company t-shirts and camo hats that all apparently knew each other from their goose-call sponsorship deals, guiding jobs, and the contest calling circuit were clearly the unofficial front-runners.  For me and the other seven guys, well, let’s say that it wasn’t hopeless but it was clearly going to be daunting.  In whispers behind the stage we all cracked some jokes, talked about what calls we owned, where we hunted, and other various pieces of hunting-specific small talk.
Surprisingly, wine and classical music never came up once the whole time I was there.
Unlike anything else “competitive” I’ve ever been at though, there was no intimidation, no brash and over-the-top warm-up routines, no clique-ish airs.  Just a bunch of guys who all like calling geese, some more or less amateur, and others clearly what you could liberally describe as pros just standing around shooting the breeze and waiting to get up and do their routines.
I saw some call brands I recognized.  I saw one brand I’d never seen before (more on that below).  One guy (arguably the oldest contestant) had a young-looking black Lab with him; the dog’s lead looped securely through the man’s left hip belt loop.  The dog was placid and immaculately well-behaved, which was nice to see.
We drew numbers from a bucket to determine our order.  In some bizarre cosmic comedy, I always seem to end up drawing to call first at these contests (up until Saturday I’d called first in every duck, goose, or turkey calling contest I’d entered) but this time I drew to call eleventh out of the thirteen guys.  Not too shabby, I thought.
Then some of the guys got up on stage and started making a serious racket.  And, for me at least, that was when the very small sliver of hope I had for winning this thing vanished, and survival instincts kicked in.  Now I’d been practicing, but it was obvious that the sounds I was making and the sounds that these cats were throwing down were very different.  Continuity turned out to be the key.  I made (generally) the same sounds that these other guys made, but they strung their clucks, moans, barks, bawls, murmurs, and the very effective (but also tough to master) train notes together so seamlessly, and with such ease that it really was beautiful…if you appreciate those kinds of things.  Me?  Well I was fast, and kind of all over the place.  In practice I could draw the routine out to a full 80 or 90 seconds (which is right around the max) but in competition I was done inside of 70 seconds.  Not that I was nervous…but I did get a bit excited.
As I’d said…perhaps I was overly-optimistic to think I could win, but making it out of the preliminary heat was my minimum goal.  Once I saw who was calling 10th though (read: right before me) I was pretty certain that I was buggered.  Calling right ahead of me was Josh Brugmans; a nice, down to earth guy who I’ve talked with once or twice, who just happens to be a goose-guide and top level caller with three or four contest wins since 2008 under his belt.  He had just won the Old Man Flute contest half-an-hour before and had given me a thorough beat down (proverbially) the one other time I called in a contest against him (in 2008 at the Southwestern Ontario Calling Classic, an event he coincidentally won that year).  And in the first round on Saturday he basically did what he always does and called really well…at least to my ears.  He would end up finishing third overall, which gives you an idea of the caliber of the other callers there Saturday as well.
So there I was, ascending the stage not as Shawn West but as the anonymous Caller #11, right after a top-class caller had just done his very proficient thing.  In fact, there were no nerves at all.  I felt the pressure was off, and all I could do was get up and let slide.  I elected to take my ten second warm up…no problem, no wonky sounds.  I nodded to the MC and he gave the word that this time it was for the real thing.  And off I went.  I hit every note I wanted to, and I hit them in order.  About the time I was doing my laydown work, I noticed that the red-light that signals the very near end of the 90 seconds had not come on yet.  Only then was I slightly panicked.  It was obvious that in my excitement I’d moved through my routine much too quickly (go ahead, make your inappropriate jokes now) and was in jeopardy of finishing far too early.  But I was also out of ideas, and anything else I called would have been repetitious, so I wrapped things up.
I got some approving nods and “nice calling” remarks when I returned to the group of contestants, and one of the guys eliminated in my round sought me out later and asked about a call I had made and how he could do it too, which was nice.  Still, when the MC went through the list of the six numbered callers that were advancing; number eleven was not among them.  Such is life.
They whittled the thirteen down to six, and then down to four.  In the final four, they actually had a call-off for first place, with two guys (I don’t know either of their names, sorry) having to blow through their routines again before a winner was announced.  I believe the same call maker swept the final four and therefore the podium, which is good for them if true, but then again I didn’t formally interview the four finalists to find out what call they were blowing so I could be wrong on that front.  I was hoping to do my part and put a Tim Grounds call in there, but was unsuccessful…due more to operator deficiencies than any intrinsic problem with the manufacturer; eight world titles for Tim Grounds calls more or less speak for themselves and do much more justice to the standard of this particular product than my ham-fisted and weak-lunged attempts at contest calling could.
One brand of calls I had never even heard of, but that sounded really, really good (again in the hands of competent operators) was a homegrown Ontario product called Schuyler Goose Calls.  Made in Port Dover, Ontario and limited to a run of 200 calls manufactured per year, they sounded very good, as I said, but they also looked really sexy too (and don’t act like flashy looks aren’t important to a goose hunter).  The one guy blowing this call in my division (caller #6, I believe) was also a nice, approachable guy with very good things to say about the call and the call-maker; he advanced into the second round but did not make the final four.   My take away was that this was obviously a well-constructed, locally manufactured and tuned product with good sound and a catchy but functional design; check out the website here if you want to look into the product.
Family commitments drew me away from sticking around to see the outcome of the Senior Duck Calling Contest (with the winner qualifying for the Worlds in Stuttgart, Arkansas) and also of the Two-Man Goose Calling Contest, so if you’re seeking news on the victors in those competitions, might I suggest you slide on over to the Contest Calendar section of one of my preferred websites http://www.callingducks.com/.
As for me, far from wallowing in self-pity and discouragement, I’m galvanized anew.  I picked up some very good sounds that I can use on the real thing in a couple of weeks when the season kicks off down here in Southern Ontario in just under 20 days, I had a good time, I talked to some friends I had not seen in a while, and maybe made one or two new ones.
But that brings us to the final question: will I compete again?  Maybe, but for now I think I’ll stick to this semi-anonymous, self-directed writing gig.  Because like my goose-calling, I’m just proficient enough at this to be entertaining and get the job done, but maybe not quite good enough to take on the world just yet.
Now if only I could master that train-note…

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