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For 19-year-old, a higher calling


Close your eyes and lean back. Hear the approaching geese, just dots on the horizon but getting bigger by the second.

Feel your anticipation rise as the symphony of honks draws closer, attracted by the sound of nearby geese. See their beating wings slow and dip as the flock begins its descent, like a squadron on final approach.

Suddenly, the sound shuts off as abruptly as flicking a light switch.

Open your eyes and see Mitch Hughes, red-cheeked and grinning. You're in his Easton living room, not a marshy blind, and the geese are an imaginary flock he's called to a spot just beyond the fireplace.

At 19, Hughes is one of the best waterfowl callers in a region that practically invented the sport. This spring, he showed off his higher calling by earning top honors in both the state goose and duck calling championships.

For the 2005 Easton High School grad, it was his second consecutive state duck calling championship and a guaranteed invitation to the world championship in Stuttgart, Ark., in November.

The goose calling title came against a talented field that included his mentor, John Taylor of Quantico, the three-time state champion and current World Champion of Champions, a title awarded every five years.

The judges were all former world champions.

Hughes, a waterfowl guide and commercial crabber, started calling ducks five years ago, long after he started hunting. He took to the field action right away, but performing for an audience eluded him.

"I could always blow a call to hunt ducks, but I couldn't blow one in a contest?" he says.

That changed when his dad, Bill, signed him up for a small, local contest.

His duck imitations caught the ear of Taylor, who insisted that not only would the youngster improve, but he should also take up goose calling.

That was news to Hughes, who cut his teeth hunting ducks because of the six-year ban on goose hunting.

"I didn't have a goose call because I didn't have the need for one," he says with a slight shrug.

So while honing his goose calls, he competed in duck competitions, rising through the ranks of junior callers at the national and international level until he graduated to the senior level. In 2004, he was runner-up in the World Championship Live Duck Calling Contest, and last year he won the event (more about the difference, later).

How did he get so good, so fast?

"People around here know what waterfowl sound like," he says, grinning at the understatement.

Pure fact: The Eastern Shore is as waterfowl-crazy as Daffy Duck's family.

For more than 30 years, the Waterfowl Festival in Easton has attracted about 20,000 visitors, who come to look at wildlife art, watch master waterfowl carvers and cheer contestants in the World Championship Goose Calling Contest. This year, it's Nov. 10-12.

The art of calling is handed down and passed around among friends and family.

Just as Taylor is Hughes' mentor, Tim Covey, world champion from 1976 to 1978, was Taylor's inspiration.

Sean Mann, winner of the 1985 and 1986 world goose calling title, employs an entire flock of champions at the Easton call manufacturing company that bears his name.

Mann says Hughes is the real deal, a continuation of the Eastern Shore tradition. "He's been completely serious about it. Mitch Hughes wanted to sound like a duck and worked hours to make that happen."

A calling contest is a tightly scripted event. Contestants get 90 seconds to run through a scenario: Callers start with a "hail" to get the attention of a distant flock and entice it to approach; a "greeting" to imitate ducks on the ground; a "comeback" to turn spooked birds; and a "laydown," or landing instructions.

"It's supposed to flow like a song," Hughes says. "Ninety seconds is a long time."

Judges look for originality, consistency and style.

"You have to have the total package," Mann explains. "You have to know the song, arrange the song, play the song and produce the song - all with the clock running."

The so-called "live" duck calling contests in which Hughes also excels are less structured and more similar to a real hunting situation.

"Audiences can follow it a lot better," he says.

For practice, Hughes stands on the second-floor balcony overlooking the living room. His father sits on the couch below to critique. The nightly session ends when Hughes completes three perfect routines.

"He can't blow a call, but he can pick one apart," says the son of his father.

For the record, Hughes' goose call is a Bay Country Shore Thing, made by his mentor, Taylor. His duck call is a Rich-N-Tone MVP, made in Stuttgart, site of the world competition.

Last fall, he bought a hunting camp on the Saskatchewan prairie from a fellow caller getting out of the guiding business.

"Everything fell into place," he says of his first season in which he was both scout and cook for clients.

Mann says he's being modest. "It takes a lot more than a notion to run a guide service in Canada. For Mitch to step up shows a maturity and a willingness to work hard."

Come November, Hughes will step before thousands of calling enthusiasts and five judges in Stuttgart, known as "The Rice and Duck Capital of the World," to test his skills against 71 callers. First prize is $15,000.

The list of winners is dominated by Arkansas callers, as is the list of judges. No one from Maryland or anywhere near Maryland has won in the 70 years of the championship.

"I try not to listen to the other guys because I don't want to get off my routine and start thinking, 'Man, I should be doing that,'" he says. "Nothing excites me. I don't break a sweat."

Mann likes what he hears: "I think Mitch can win any contest he puts his mind to. He's not a fluke talent, he's real talent." candy.thomson@baltsun.com

To hear Hughes perform his duck and goose calling routines, go to www.baltimoresun.com, click on "podcasts" and then "Sun audio reports."

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