The first time I met Charlie Holder, I knew that I was going to like him.
After all, we speak the same language each fall, the art of blowing a duck call and trying to convince a mallard greenhead to cup his wings and drop into the decoy spread.
The difference between the two of us is that Holder doesn’t write about duck calls — he actually makes them.
Pretty good ones, I might add, since Holder is the talented and likable CEO of Sure-Shot Game Calls (www.sureshotgamecalls.com), the Groves, Texas-based company that gave the world the double-reed duck call back in the 1950s.
That call, the Yentzen 501 Classic with its unique shape and wooden sound, was what Texas Gulf Coast residents Jim “Cowboy” Fernandez and his partner George Yentzen designed in an effort to come up with an easy to use call that sounded just like a mallard hen.
So good was the double-reed call design that it received a U.S. Patent not long after World War II.
Fernandez would then use the call a generation ago to ride into Stuttgart, Ark. and capture the 1959 world duck calling title in a place where the Arkansas style single-reed call had dominated for years.
After Cowboy’s world championship win, the Yentzen duck call quickly became a staple in duck blinds across the country including right here in North Texas.
If memory serves correct, you could find the black walnut Yentzen double-reed duck call in downtown Denison in the sporting goods department of the old Barrett Cut-Rate Drug Store.
In fact, my old Denison High School classmates — Mike Bardwell and the late Jeff Camp — both blew Yentzens as we hunted across the Texomaland area and chased wintertime mallards during the waning days of peanut farming here in Grayson and Fannin Counties.
On each hunt that we went on, I tried to figure out how to lure in ducks with my fancy Arkansas J-frame single reed call.
Meanwhile, my two hunting pals made the distinctive raspy music that Yentzen duck calls are known for. And usually, Bardwell and Camp both called circles around me.
Over time, as peanut farming began to disappear in the Red River Valley, both Barrett’s and Sure-Shot Game Calls began to slowly decline as new box stores and call companies emerged and the Internet age came into being.
Eventually, the former hybrid drug store/department store/sporting goods store on Main Street in downtown Denison shuttered its doors for good, forcing local outdoors enthusiasts like me to find our fishing and hunting gear elsewhere.
And over time, the once strong Sure-Shot Game Calls company along the Texas Gulf Coast began to slowly fade away as well, reaching a point a few years ago where Cowboy Fernandez and his engineering grandson Curtis Arnold were about to toss in the proverbial towel.
But that’s when Charlie Holder came on the scene in 2011, purchasing a company that he knew and loved with grand designs to bring it back to life.
Part of that strategy was to focus on the company’s treasured past — namely, the black walnut double-reed and triple-reed Yentzen duck calls — while embracing the future with a new vision.
That vision included a few new major components, one a redesigned modern version of the classic double-reed call that Cowboy Fernandez made famous, the new Yentzen ONE.
Designed by Holder and Arnold, the jet-black double-reed call has a screw-lock design and an all but indestructible space-age proprietary CNC body while still producing the sound that Yentzen calls are known for.
The other parts of Holder’s new vision for Sure-Shot’s future was to embrace social media and to host a media hunt each fall in a new duck hunting spot somewhere in North America.
From the prairies of Saskatchewan to the mallard-rich timber of the Mississippi Valley to the Gulf Coast, these media camps have attracted some high powered names in the outdoors communication industry ranging from Mike Schoby (editor of Petersen’s Hunting) to Phil Bourjaily (writer and gun editor for Field & Stream and Ducks Unlimited magazines) to Paul Wait (editor and publisher of Delta Waterfowl) to Skip Knowles (editor of Wildfowl magazine).
Somehow, I bluffed my way into one of these writer’s camps a couple of years ago and I guess Holder has felt sorry enough for me since then to keep inviting me back.
Including this week as the company’s fifth media camp has been staged at J.J. Kent’s Bucks & Ducks Lodge near Bellevue, Texas.
With a host of heavyweight sponsors (Nissan, Remington Arms, Buck Knives, Polaris, Vortex Optics and Mojo are sponsors this year while YETI, Hevi-Shot, Under Armour and Sitka Gear have been sponsors in the past), the camp has featured two waves of outdoor communicators from across the nation.
Not to mention country and western musician Daryle Singletary who did some guitar picking and grinning on Wednesday night.
Educational in one sense (participants are getting to try out new shotguns from Remington, new trucks from Nissan and new ATVs from Polaris), the main focus of the hunt is for the writers and TV show folks to chase ducks and see how well the Yentzen duck calls still perform to this day.
“Back in the day, our calls were good enough that our founder, Cowboy Fernandez, won the world championship in Stuttgart,” said Holder. “He was the first Texan to ever win that title and the first to ever do it with a double-reed duck call. It made such a splash that he was invited to be on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.”
“Our classic wooden double-reed and triple reed duck calls are extremely popular with hunters these days as is the Yentzen ONE, our newest call,” he continued. “In fact, we can’t keep the Yentzen ONE in stock and actually sold out this season.”
Why such popularity, both then and now? Arnold says it is because of the company’s tone board, something that his grandfather and his partner, George Yentzen, spent years working on.
“The patent for the double-reed design was in 1950,” said Arnold. “And my grandfather (Cowboy Fernandez) won the world title in 1959. In between those two dates, they spent many nights in Groves, Texas working on the toning boards.
“They’d work on them by sanding and filing, and then go hunting with them before fiddling with them a little bit more. Finally, they hit on the right design and got it just the way that they wanted it.”
Those calls worked then for Cowboy Fernandez, both in the Gulf Coast marshes of southeast Texas and on the Main Street calling stage in Stuttgart, Ark.
And the Yentzen duck calls still work today, from the duck rich agricultural fields of Canada to the stock tanks of northwest Texas near Wichita Falls.
Where a bunch of heavyweight media types — and one certain lightweight who is really out of his element — are figuring out once again that Yentzen duck calls still do what they have always done.
And that is to make some of the world’s very best duck music.