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Call of the wild

RICKREALL -- In the world of duck hunting, the most essential tool aside from the shotgun is the duck call.

KumDuck produces a variety of calls for different species of birds, and has even patented a special mylar reed.

KumDuck produces a variety of calls for different species of birds, and has even patented a special mylar reed.

September 24, 2013

RICKREALL -- In the world of duck hunting, the most essential tool aside from the shotgun is the duck call.

From the 1960s to the late 80s, there was one call that almost every duck hunter in Oregon and Washington had in their arsenal.

Known simply as the "old green call," the KumDuck call was so ubiquitous most hunters carried four or five with them on any given hunt.

Fast forward to the mid-90s and the Beaverton-based KumDuck company had fallen from its nearly 40-year perch, with most owners of the "old green call" assuming the company had gone out of business.

That's when brothers Jim and Joe May stepped in.

Brothers Jim (left) and Joe May with a selection of their KumDuck brand calls at the company

Photo by Aaron Newton

Brothers Jim (left) and Joe May with a selection of their KumDuck brand calls at the company's headquarters near Rickreall on Thursday.

After a hunt in 2005, the brothers went looking for more of the "old green calls" to no avail -- no stores stocked them anymore.

So, Jim made a call.

"I'm all discouraged at this point. Everybody had the same story, `I think they're out of business,'" Jim said. "I found the owner's name up in Beaverton. I asked what she was doing with the company. She said, `Well, we're going to sell it.' That was it."

Jim had just sold his manufacturing business and was looking for a new venture; his wife approved the idea and he brought Joe along for the ride.

The duo moved the operation from Beaverton to Jim's property just outside of Rickreall and immediately got to work.

Initially, the Mays were only producing the original plastic KumDuck call, but in black and with brand new molds.

They soon found the need to branch out the product line, resulting in a steady stream of entry level and high end calls for a range of waterfowl.

"I didn't ever think that I would make a wood call because of humidity and temperature changes, but we devised a way to put in our original plastic stem. That worked really well," Jim said. "I also said I would never make goose calls. You run into so many people who say, `Why don't you make a goose call?' So, we started doing it."

Jim may be the president of KumDuck, but that doesn't keep him from rolling up his sleeves when the season begins -- Oct. 12 for Zone 1, which includes Polk County -- and how can he? There's only one other employee.

KumDuck's line of plastic calls are produced in Newberg with molds designed by the May brothers, but are assembled in the Rickreall shop.

The company's line of wooden calls, though, are all hand-turned on the shop's lathe.

On a given day, when the brothers are really going, Jim and Joe can turn -- the term used by woodworkers for creating pieces on the lathe -- a few hundred wood calls.

The May brothers, even with their long days during the season's peak, keep the atmosphere light and mostly free of brotherly quarrels.

Jim May turns a block of mountain mahogany into the rough shape of a call. All of the company

Photo by Aaron Newton

Jim May turns a block of mountain mahogany into the rough shape of a call. All of the company's wooden calls are made in Rickreall.

"We get along pretty good, most of the time," Joe said. "He has the ideas and I kind of put them into production. He knows what he wants and the sound he wants, I try to make it happen."

Aside from producing quality calls, the Mays have also patented a line of reeds.

Each of the eight reeds KumDuck produces is tailored for a specific sound and bird.

Unlike the reeds made by KumDuck in the early days, the new reeds are made of mylar and are virtually indestructible.

The company's reeds are used by other manufacturers because of the quality sound profile, which Jim says is the future of the business.

"It's taken a lot of work to get it set up to this degree," Jim said. "I've intentionally by design kept it small. I don't want to be another Duck Commander or something."

Louisiana-based Duck Commander, owned by the Robertson Family, is the country's largest producer of duck calls and the basis for the hit TV show "Duck Dynasty."

At the outdoor shows the Mays regularly attend, they get asked if they carry Duck Commanders or know the Robertsons personally.

"People come up to our booth and ask if we have any `Duck Dynasty' caps," Jim said. "I think the Robertsons and the Duck Commander guys have done a great thing for the industry. There were a lot of people who didn't know a duck call from a pogo stick."

Jim, 70, and Joe, 66, started hunting in their high school years and have been hooked ever since.

Joe May sands a nearly-finished call on a lathe in KumDuck

Photo by Aaron Newton

Joe May sands a nearly-finished call on a lathe in KumDuck's shop. The pair of brothers are the company's only employees.

Experienced callers, like Jim and Joe, can beckon a group of mallards, pintails or wigeons -- different duck species -- from up to a quarter-mile away to gently land on a prescribed patch of water.

A seasoned caller knows how to speak to a passing flock, telling them, "Come on over, the water is fine."

Though, even the best callers will tell you it's almost impossible to bring a flock in with just any call -- a toilet paper roll with a reed and tube shoved in one end will not get you a single duck.

The same way a good call will make a mediocre caller instantly better, even the best call can't completely make up for inability.

That's why KumDuck offers regular classes for their entire line of calls.

The brothers have a soundtrack of real duck sounds to hone the skills of attendees.

"People get interested right about this time of the season, but a lot of guys will buy a call at the store and it may not be tuned for them," Jim said. "I would blow different from the next guy, so you've got to know how to tune the call to make it work."

With its classes, quality calls and patented line of reeds, KumDuck is again becoming a household name in the duck hunting world.

With the hardships of selling in stores at their smaller scale, the Mays have focused on mostly Internet sales.

So far, the approach is working for the brothers -- there is a KumDuck call in every state and several in Canada, Italy and the United Kingdom; yearly sales hover in the 6,000 to 7,000 unit range.

"It's a nice little business just to concentrate on and try to do a real quality product rather than mass produce calls," Jim said.

Calling All Hunters

Who: Jim and Joe May.

What: KumDuck, custom duck and goose calls.

Where: 7190 McCoy Road, Rickreall; showroom is open by appointment only.

For more info, to buy or to register for a class: visit www.kumduck.com; call 877-803-8257, Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.; email to duckcalls@kum-duck.com.

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