His stance is sturdy: His feet are pressed firmly into the ground with his knees slightly bent, and his hands are cupped around his mouth, hiding his instrument — his weapon.
His shoulders open wide, his body grows taller and with the last breath, a sharp, sirening caw rips through the air. The noise — loud and powerful — starts in his lungs and flows through his lips that are pressed into the duck caller.
This is Ryan Sherbondy, the Millswood Middle School student with a natural talent for calling ducks. He is a 12-year-old who likes playing baseball after school, but likes to get the hunt on the weekend. He’s also a championship duck caller, who has beaten teens and grown men who have worked on their calls for as long as he’s been alive.
Sherbondy has hunting in his blood. His father, Steve Sherbondy, has gone hunting around the country, hunting everything from the massive turkey caught in their backyard to a tall Alaskan bear. Both are on display in their Acampo home, along with prized water fowl, elk and a gallery of framed photos from their excursions.
Ryan Sherbondy got his first hunting license when he was 9 years old, though he started going on trips with his father when he was as young as 5.
A year and a half ago, Sherbondy started competing in the sport of duck calling. He won first place in the youth division (13 and under) at the California State Championship before winning first place in youth division at Western State Regionals. He also went on to sweep first place in the adult division at Nevada State Open Championship. On Thanksgiving Day, he will compete in the World Championship Duck Calling Contest in Stuttgart, Ark., the country’s duck calling headquarters.
His competitors — both his age and adult men — are often impressed.
“They’ll come up to me and say, ‘You’re really good. Keep it up,’” he said.
For a duck hunter, the success is all in the call. If you can’t talk to a flock of ducks with calls that sound like garbles and howls, they won’t go where you are hiding. Sherbondy learned that early on, and started trying to mimic the sounds his father would make on a hunt. When they were at a recent contest, Sherbondy decided to go up on stage and test his own calls with others who were competing.
A surprise to everyone, young Sherbondy took third place.
“We started to see that he has somewhat of a unique talent,” Steve Sherbondy said.
Though it’s an unlikely sport, duck calling is a popular in Stuttgart, where Butch Richenback created the duck call company Rich-N-Tone Duck Calls.
The Sherbondys sent a tape of Ryan’s calling to Richenback, who was impressed and offered Ryan Sherbondy a spot on his competitive team.
With over-the-phone lessons, Sherbondy gets coaching from Richenback on controlling the airflow of his “instrument,” the volume and perfection in the routine. He also gets lessons from local coach Stuart McCullough.
When competing, there are two kinds of contests. A live duck contest is where callers mimic exact sounds multiple ducks make on a pond. They can be simple lazy mellow quack sounds that Steve Sherbondy says mean something similar to “Hey, how you doing?”
But most competitions, like the ones Ryan Sherbondy competes in, are routine based. Judges, who are almost always secluded so they don’t see the contestant, compare peoples’ abilities to control notes and follow the same routine. They will blow a series of notes three times in a row.
The object of a competitive call is to hail, which is what Ryan Sherbondy and his father say is very difficult to accomplish. The caller has to push a large volume of air through a call to make it sound crisp, not broken or crackly.
“You have to learn to hail a call and make it ring,” Steve Sherbondy said.
Competitive duck calling emerged from water fowl hunting. With a strong competitive nature between hunters, the general thought is that the ducks will flock to the hunter who can decipher the birds’ cackles and chatter.
“If you’re a better duck caller, you’re going to consistently get birds,” Steve Sherbondy said.
The Sherbondys hunt on public refugees in the area, including Bouldin Island near Tower Park. On opening day of duck season, they wake up at 5 a.m., get dressed in layers of camouflage and head out to the water.
After a short boat ride, Ryan Sherbondy will pack his Brownie 12-gage shotgun in a kayak and paddle his way to a secluding blind spot in marsh and twigs. There, he will sit in the brush, until it’s time to send out a call.