The following interview appeared briefly in Sitka Insight Magazine. To find out more about Sitka Insight, subscribe now.
Sitka Athletes Field and Clay Hudnall own Field Proven Calls, and turn and test every call in Kentucky on the banks of the Ohio River. As you'd imagine, they're both remarkable callers and hunters, but the thing we like best about them is they're just plain fun to talk to. We're so excited to welcome them to the Sitka Athlete team!
SITKA: You live in Kentucky, so obviously there's a lot of different types of hunting that you guys could be doing. But you've chosen to focus your business, your lives around waterfowl. Why?
Field: Where we live you wouldn't think we'd become waterfowl hunters because we're not in a waterfowl rich area. In fact if you look at the way the flyways are marked, waterfowl actually avoid coming through our area. You can go four hours west and have phenomenal waterfowl hunting. You can drive four hours east and south and have a literally phenomenal hunt. We're kind of right in the middle of between. Everything around us is turkey and deer.
The waterfowl hunting, I think it started as a camaraderie between my brother, my dad and myself, because we didn't really hunt with anybody else. It was just family time, because I can assure you where we were hunting was not good. It was actually awful. It was a small lake. Once Clay got his license we started kind of venturing out and man, you know, we actually had good hunting. It was like, “Wow, this is really fun, you know?”
From there, it came down to the calling side of things, and the strategy from the decoys, the hiding. There's nothing else that's ever given us that adrenaline rush. Both of us, we'll have a beer or two socially, but in high school we never got caught up in drugs or any of that stuff. I’ve always said if there's an adrenaline rush that' stronger than that mallard back flapping or a Canada goose coming in, I don't want no part of it.
There's so much involved in waterfowl hunting. It's impossible for it to get boring. When you really look at all the species of waterfowl, all the different ways you can hunt them, all the different regions, it's a different flavor every time you go out. It's never the same. There's layout boats, there's pits, there's blinds, there's body booting, there's divers. If it ever gets boring or you're tired of one thing, just go the next place over and it's going to be a completely different experience.
SITKA: What are the most challenging aspects of waterfowl hunting, and how have you guys seen that change over time?
Clay: This stuff it goes back to when we first started hunting, you know, you didn't have the resources that people do now. You can find out what's going on or you can listen to people call. Heck now you can watch it and look at spreads and mimic that if you like that. That being said, that's not that every picture and spread is probably correct for your situation, but we grew up having to learn. It was “let's try this, oh that didn't work.” It was more trial and error.
Now people still do that, but man, you have so many references out there. Even our media, we’ll post pictures of our goose spread right on the river, and I don't know how many times people said, "Man, you use a lot of decoys, why is that?"
Our success is because we try to figure out why, and I think a lot of people these days have that drive where they want to learn, they come to these shows and they talk to people and they try to get information, they're trying to figure it out quicker than somebody just putting in time. I think I've seen that being the change from when we started to now.
Back then, man, there wasn't even anybody to ask. We had to figure it out. It was, “We didn't get them today, hey, what do you want to do tomorrow because yesterday didn't work?”
Field: It comes down to two things really, and that’s gear and information. And that’s everything from decoys to clothing.
I remember my dad, when we got to hunt, we used to wear Army boots. Seriously! Firemen hip boots were waterproof, and that was our waders. Imagine a 13-year-old wearing steel-toed, size 13 firemen boots, 50 pounds a piece, going to walk in the water.
Clay: Yeah, you know, and our dad, when we got into it he was telling us how good we had it. “When we got into it,” he’d say, “all we had was military clothing and we used to put a couple lumps of charcoal in a coffee can and that was your heater. Men were men back in the days of waterfowl hunting. You got it easy.”
SITKA: Please tell us you have a picture of you guys in firemen hip boots.
Clay: We'll have to look for the firemen boots… No, I mean now it’s, you know, it's like when we were kids, we used to freeze our butt off going out hunting because our dad, and he invested a lot of money in quality clothing and I remember every year we'd look through the Cabela’s magazine and the Herder's magazine and he’d pour all this money into clothes, but I specifically remember thinking, "This jacket's supposed to be waterproof and it's not, it's raining and I'm soaking wet and I'm miserable."
Then there was this one, I remember Herder’s had a neoprene jacket. Come on. You look at it and think, "But it's going to be waterproof." Yeah, it keeps water out and all your sweat in. Worst jacket that we ever wore, and it was very expensive. But now, it’s pretty safe for a parent to introduce a young kid into the outdoors, because now there is the proper gear to where they're comfortable, they're safe, and they're going to have a much more enjoyable experience. I truly believe that's why there's so many more waterfowl hunters now, because there is quality gear out there that they can use and they can actually enjoy those nasty elements that the waterfowl hunters gotta face.
SITKA: Obviously you guys spend a ton of time out there in the field. Is there any particular memorable experience that's ever stood out to you, like man, that's something that's going to go down in history?
Clay: There's a couple. Probably the biggest that stands out in my mind was our first big water duck hunt. It was basically like a Christmas present to us. It was me, Field, our dad and then a friend of my dad's, because the place we hunted, my dad and a couple of his buddies were the first people that were allowed to hunt this reservoir, and they were the only ones that were hunting in this style, so it was going back to his roots.
We got out there, it was crazy cold, you know. The ramp was iced up. We'd never seen anything like that. Boats and trucks are sliding down. They'd set so many decoys and they had like a permanent spot, well they'd leave the decoys out, and we were all in there. I think it was 300 or 350, which to me looked like a million. They were everywhere.
We started tying the boats up and it was just starting to crack light and all them ducks, there was like a big rock wall where they would roost and they would flock on the far side of the lake. You really couldn't hear yourself talk, it was that crazy.
Man, come shooting time, they had lifted and they were literally everywhere. They’d leave but then they'd circle back to the lake. Man, we had some great shooting. At the time, me and Field started talking like it had to be all the decoys. That was what we thought did everything. I think that's a big part of today, why we still run huge, huge spreads. It's been imprinted in our head of what works and that experience and the sun and the way the ducks were, we got to shoot our first ducks over a big spread on a large body of water. To me it probably sticks in my head the most.
Field: I think the one that probably sticks up in my mind is… we ... I don't know. It's weird, because lots of stuff that we remember the most wasn't when everything worked out perfect. It was when things went sour. You just remember, "Man, that was miserable at the time," but those are the experiences that stick out.
We drove all the way up to Patoka Lake, which it was 2-1/2, 3 hours, maybe. We got up really early, went up there. The lake was froze over. Our dad was very short-tempered. I mean anytime something would go wrong he would fly off the handle and we couldn't get to the lake, and so he was like, "It's over, we're going home."
Clay and I were like, "Let's go in the river." We didn't hunt the river a whole lot at that time. We mainly hunted a lot of lakes and stuff, and so we headed back to the river and we didn't get on the water until probably like 9:30, it was actually pretty late, and when we got to our spot, it was just, man, it was... We shot a little bit of everything. We shot Canadas, we shot mallards, we shot canvasbacks. We shot widgeon, pintails, and it was like that's when it hit us that we love hunting rivers because it's impossible to get bored with it. You hear guys talk like, "If it ain't green, it ain't a duck." Come on. That's ridiculous.
We love hunting situations to where you never, I'm going to use the typical cliché of, you know, it's like a box of chocolates, you never know what you're going to get. But it's true. We've got photos to where like you'll shoot a snow goose, you'll shoot mallards, you'll shoot pintails, goldeneyes, canvasbacks, redheads, blue bills, widgeon, all at one time, and that's just... I think that's what we love, because its just every day's an adventure.
SITKA: If you had one hunt, one more to go and you had to retire, what would it be? Where would you go?
Field: The Ohio River. In fact I could literally put my finger on the best migrator day, and it’d be the Ohio River for a number of things. One, because we can hunt with some of our closest friends and two, because of the unknown, because of you know you're not going to hammer out your 6 mallards in 30 minutes. You're not going to shoot 50 Canada geese in an hour.
Every flock that you shoot approaches the decoys differently, and it's always a challenge on when do you call the shot, when do you not call the shot, and every time you call the shot there's always like, man, we should've called it sooner, or we should've give them another five. It's literally everything is grey, there is no right or wrong.
Out of all the places, it comes down to maybe it's just because it's home to us, but everywhere I've traveled, there is no one hunt, there is no one perfect setup that every waterfowl hunter longs for. You can take a guy from Stuttgart, Arkansas, a guy from Minnesota and a guy from the eastern shore of Maryland, and if you try to figure out who's more excited or who loves waterfowl hunting more than the other, it's not going to happen.
The guy from eastern shore of Maryland and the guy from Minnesota aren’t jealous of the guy from Stuttgart because he might hunt timbers. When you're hunting with guys from Minnesota, they literally get goose bumps and start shaking when they start talking about hunting bluebills. They talk about flocks of 500 bluebills doing it at 15 yards in your decoys, that's what those guys live for.
Same thing with the guy on the eastern shore of Maryland. He's a Canada goose hunter. He would rather shoot Canada geese than anything else because that's what he's grown up doing. I guess it's the same thing with us. I don't really long for, "Man, if I had only one hunt and that was it," I want to go to some other state that I'm not familiar with and shoot ducks in a situation I'm not familiar with. I want to shoot, I want that perfect hunt that I can associate with, which is a complete mixed bag of every weird thing that comes down the river.
SITKA: What honors or accolades have you guys received in connection with your hunting, specifically in the calling stuff?
Clay: Oh gosh. There was, that would be more Field. I guess basically just being able to be a business owner in a call company and being able to operate a call. I wasn't really a competition guy because I figured I couldn't beat my brother, so I didn't want to donate my money. He's on a level that a lot of people aren't. I mean, there's only a select few that can blow like my brother and I wasn't there and I'm like, that's your deal, you do it.
He's been successful. I always thought man, you listen to some of those competition callers, they're the best of the best. And then we got with some of the people that were terrible on calls, but when it comes to actual hunting and killing numbers, it blew my mind. This is probably weird saying, even though we sell calls, but a lot of times the call is not what does it for you. There's so much stuff that's involved in the hunting where calls are just one piece of it.
Field: Yeah, I mean there's some of the early stuff, we were in the glory days of the video productions. I loved videoing, I loved editing, and my boss would tell me that my brother was a better camera man than I was.
We did release a lot of videos that sold through Walmart, sold through major retailers, and a lot of people looked at those videos as kind of the original, really portraying how the fields hunt.
Then when you get into the calling side of things I was just very, I was ... I guess blowing a duck or goose call's one of those things that just came naturally to me, because I was horrible at football, at sports. I don't know what the numbers are now, but I think it's like 103 or 105 calling contests I've blown in, and I've placed in like the top 5 in 89 or 92 out of those.
Two world goose calling championships, a world duck calling championship, two international goose calling championships, the Cabela’s Classic, which was a $10,000 contest, Kansas State. But the main ones are the worlds, the internationals.
I love the calling contests because number one you get to meet a lot of neat people and that was really my “in” into the industry. There was a local call maker here in Louisville and he was at a show and it was the first time I ever saw a waterfowl call that was over $100. That was just ridiculous to even think about something like that. I forked over the $100 and when I was blowing the call in the booth the callmaker's wife said, "You're pretty decent on a short reed, have you ever thought about calling contests?"
“Calling contest. What’s a calling contest?” Anyway, I blew that call for a while and the end broke off. I had to go back in and get it fixed.
I went to the callmakers house, and asked him about this calling contest stuff. He kind of explained to me the way the routine goes and he gave me a stack of VHS tapes from like '96 worlds, '90 worlds, some really crazy stuff.
I watched some of those VHS tapes and developed somewhat of a routine. I actually traveled with him and his wife to a lot of shows, to these calling contests. My very first calling contest ever, I've actually got the video of it, my mom videoed it, I was 17 or 18, I was just old enough to where I couldn't call in the juniors, but I called in the intermediate, and I took second place. That’s when I got bit by the bug. From then on I was just going to contests nonstop. I guess I just got lucky in a lot of them. I don't know. There's a lot better callers out there than me, for sure.
SITKA: Lucky 85% of the time, right?
Field: Yeah, I guess so. Yeah.
SITKA: Everybody kind of knows you as a goose call guy, and clearly you blow duck calls too. We know Clay tunes the duck calls, you tune the goose calls at the shop. So how many duck competitions did you enter?
Field: When I first got into it, I actually was blowing open duck and goose. I was trying to do both of them. Therefore I was dividing up my practice time to duck and goose, and in 2000, I qualified for the world duck calling championship and I went because I won the Kentucky State, which no Kentucky State duck caller's ever won world duck. It's a different caliber, but I did get to go to Stuttgart, I did get to sit on the bus, and I did get to blow in the world championship.
Sitting on that bus, I sat next to, he's deceased now, but I sat next to multiple-world champion Bernie Boyle. I didn't know who this guy was and he knew I was new. I was nervous, I was scared. And he literally talked to me for the entire 3-1/2 hours we had to sit on that bus to get to just the first round. Then when I got off I shook his hand, "It was great talking to you." Not once did he tell me his credentials, what he'd won.
Then when I got off that bus, I walked around because I got knocked out the first round, no doubt. It was a completely different level of calling. Then when it came up to the last round, I watched. He was up on stage, and I told my mom, I said, "Mom, that's the guy that I sat next to," and then I learned who he was. Even then, over the years we became really good friends, and it just showed me that was what I wanted to be. There's a lot of guys on the bus, as soon as you're talking to them, they're going to tell you what they've done, who they are, what they've won, and I knew if I ever did that one time my dad would kick my butt. He said, "Never boast or brag about what you do, just do it and be humble," and that guy was like, man, if I ever do well, that's the guy I want to be. Even to this day I still try, any contest I go to I see a new caller who might be nervous and try to give them that extra boost of confidence, because I was in those same shoes.
After that contest I realized all right, this is a completely different animal than blowing a goose call, but I said all right, I need to pick my poison. I want to be great at one thing, not okay at both, so my mom actually helped me decide. She goes, "You're a lot better at goose than you are at duck," I go, "You think?" She was like, "Why don't you just stick with goose and try that.” And that's what I did.
Then when we started working for Zink Calls, we literally were tuning so many goose calls and so many duck calls, you blow a duck call enough you're going to get good at it. Then it was really the turn when they started having the live in the meat style contest, the livestock contest, that's when I won the worldwide duck, just blowing hunting sounds.
I'm still blowing the occasional meat contest, but I mainly stick to goose. There's so many good callers out there that got the fire and the time. It's a young man's sport. You got to have the lungs. More importantly you've got to have the time. I've got a kid and a kid on the way and a business. I don't have the time to practice anymore. These kids, soon as they get out of school they're not playing video games, they're blowing duck and goose calls.
SITKA: How has Sitka Gear affected your waterfowl experience, and is there any specific pieces you think are essential to your systems?
Clay: Man, it’s like anything. If you went just a few times, you can kind of make yourself like something, but when you’re in something all the time on a daily basis, putting it through element, that's when you want comfort and the durability of that product to work. Last year when we started using it, it was literally mind blowing how the product worked, the durability of it. I was so surprised.
You’d probably laugh knowing how we used to layer. It became sweatshirts and long-sleeved shirts, and really, we would take them off together, they'd stay together so we'd put them back on, like you put three or four things on together. Now the system, it’s awesome that the stuff works the way it does. You keep that comfort and you keep that body temperature close to you where you can stay out there longer. Its not every hunt starts at daylight and you get to leave at 9. Some days you're out there all day, and you've got to have equipment that allows that.
My favorite piece would be the Duck Oven. I've put that thing through everything. I'm looking forward to trying all the other stuff that’s coming, but right now, that Duck Oven is the best thing I've worn.
Field: When we were kids, Dad got us a neoprene jacket. That was the worst thing ever, and it was shortly after that our dad, he really believed in the GORE-TEX stuff early on, and when we started buying GORE-TEX jackets, he wouldn't buy anything if it didn't have GORE-TEX in it. So that's what we were raised on.
Afterward we learned our lessons on the gimmicks, so then when we first heard of the name, “Sitka,” well Sitka, what is Sitka? Then you hear they're doing waterfowl, but what is a Sitka, what's the background of waterfowl? And then you hear, "Well it’s got GORE-TEX,” and you start hearing more and more, and it's like man, if it's got GORE-TEX it's got to be good because they made fabrics for so many people, for so many companies, and they're still there after so many years, you know it's not a gimmick.
But I don't think it's until you try it that you really get it. A prime example is when Mac came out, we had a couple of pieces, and we let some of the other guys wear it so that way we were all wearing the same stuff. We had to dang near fight them for the jackets back. We don't have any thieves in our group, but they were literally hoping we'd forget about it and they could keep wearing it.
The one buddy, I actually let him wear the Boreal Jacket the entire season, and he literally, he kept it, and I’m like, “Hey, I'm going to need to get that jacket back.”
“Man, come on.”
“Sorry brother, I've got to get it back.”
How do I put this…It's literally game changing. It's a level of comfort you never thought you could have in such environments.
I remember the first time I looked at the Sitka bibs, I'm like the legs are crooked. Why are the legs crooked, you know? Then you put them on it's like, "They fit my body, this is awesome." You don't have all this baggy material, your crotch isn’t to your knees and your ankles aren’t rubbing each other as you're walking. It actually fits, it's comfortable, and I think that's the biggest thing.
I'm probably right there with Clay on the favorite piece. That Duck Oven jacket. The test for us, or the biggest challenge for us when we hunt is the boat ride, because it might be negative 5 and you're going to hammer down wide open to go 7 or 8 miles at 40 miles an hour to get there quick, you want warm clothes and what I did was put the Duck Oven on first and then I put my Dakota vest on top of that, and then I put on the raincoat, I think it was the Delta Jacket. I put it on top, and literally with three pieces, because all I had on under that was the merino wool base layer, I never felt the air. I never felt the wind. Before you could put on all the [compression layers] and all the other stuff you wanted, and that wind would still just cut right through you. That first boat ride was the testament to me, like man, this is some wicked stuff.