ELKHART — What Thomas Kreuter likes most about hunting waterfowl is the interaction between himself and the birds.
Using a wooden duck call that he keeps on a lanyard draped around his neck, he lures the birds closer to his hunting spot, a talent that he has mastered over the past several years. This skill recently helped the Elkhart sportsman snag first place at the Indiana State Duck Calling Contest. The win has qualified him to compete Nov. 24 at the World's Duck Calling Championship where he will face off against about 70 contestants.
Kreuter, 29, entered his first duck calling contest in 2007 as a way to keep his skills in check when hunting season was over. He didn't make it past the first round, a disappointing defeat that pushed him to work harder.
“It was all new, and I didn't know what was going on,” he said. “It took me quite a while to get to where I am now.”
Since then, Kreuter has competed at least 15 times in Indiana, Illinois and Michigan. But his most recent victory in Indianapolis was the greatest of them all, he said. A single point separated him from the second place contestant.
“The feeling was right up there with having the kids and having a wife,” said Kreuter, whose American Kennel Club-registered black Labrador retriever, Drake, accompanies him on hunting trips.
Kreuter has two children, 2-year-old Camden and 6-year-old Kailyn. Kailyn will enter her first duck calling contest next month in Grand Rapids, Mich.
“I'm his biggest fan,” said his wife, Jocelyn Kreuter. “I think I was shaking more than he was when he won [in Indianapolis.]”
Tony Workman, chairman of the Indiana competition, said he thinks Kreuter will do well at the championship.
“He's a very, very good caller,” Workman said. “He's got good power. He is a consistent caller.”
Kreuter and his family will travel this fall to Stuttgart, Ark., a small city known as the “Rice and Duck Capital of the World.” The championship, organized by the Stuttgart Chamber of Commerce, is part of the Wings Over the Prairie Festival. The week long celebration draws close to 30,000 people each year, Stuttgart chamber executive director Stephen Bell estimated. The championship is held around Thanksgiving to help kick off duck hunting season.
If Kreuter wins the championship, he will be the first person from Indiana to do so in the contest's 77-year history. Most of the participants, Bell said, flock from states along the Mississippi River, which follows the natural migration of ducks to their breeding areas in Canada.
Each contestant performs a 90-second routine demonstrating four types of duck calls. Contestants are scored by a panel of five judges, including former world champs and local hunters.
“It's blind judging, so the judges don't actually see [the contestants],” Bell said. “It's a lot like a musical instrument. They listen for the right notes, the right tone and what we call a really clean routine where everything all flows together.”
Kreuter said his routine paints a picture of what it's like to go hunting.
“You have the birds a long distance away, so you have to blow some hail calls to try to get their attention,” he said. “When the birds come closer, you do some intermediate calling. And if the birds are circling, you do a feed call. If the birds see something they like and they take off, you can do a come back call.”
The championship usually attracts an audience of close to 300 people while others tune into local radio stations or watch a live Internet feed of the contest, Bell noted.
“People who are into duck hunting are pretty rabid about it,” he said.
The top winner will take home $8,000, a new boat, a championship ring and a large trophy in the shape of a duck call.
Surrounded by competition memorabilia, Kreuter said he practices duck calls in his den a few times a week. As the championship nears, he said he'll be practicing more often using an acrylic duck call.
“The sound is really crisp and loud,” he said, comparing the instrument's tone to the softer sound of the wooden call he uses for hunting.
Kreuter said he feels confident about the upcoming championship, but he's keeping a level head.
“I know there is going to be a lot of tough competition,” he said. “But I just have to basically treat it as if I was just going to another state contest, kind of tune everything out and do your best.”