As a duck caller and call maker, John Stephens has always been captivated by the people who practiced these art forms before him
“Waterfowl is one of the few sports that has so much tradition,” he says. “There’s so much history behind our sport. There have been so many call makers across the country, and even though they were making tools, they were making functional pieces of art. And to me that’s really just fascinating.”
Born and raised in Stuttgart, Arkansas, the self-proclaimed Duck Capital of the World and host of the annual Duck Calling World Championship, Stephens grew up in a world of duck hunting, calling, and call making. He began calling competitively, as well as crafting calls, at a young age under the tutelage of former World Champion caller and founder of Rich-N-Tone Duck Calls, Butch Richenback.
Stephens won the Junior World Championship before becoming, at age 13, the youngest person to ever qualify for the Men’s World Duck Calling Championships. Between 1995 and 2005, he won that event the maximum number of three times, and then won the Champion of Champions contest in 2015. Coming full circle, Stephens is now President of Rich-N-Tone Calls, which now includes the J. Stephens Calls handmade line, crafted individually by Stephens himself.
As he’s grown the business into one of the most reputable call brands in the country, One of Stephens’ big focuses has been on the preservation of waterfowling history. His collection of vintage calls began with relatives giving him old calls when he was a kid and has grown into a massive collection dating back to calls made in the 1800s.
“The collecting part has always been important to me,” he says, “because if you want to know where you’re going, you need to know where you’ve been. Seeing the history of how calls have developed, the little intricacies of each call maker, I still learn stuff from collecting calls today.”
In displaying the collection, including the information behind each call and call maker, Stephens has a specific goal of trying to garner interest in the hobby and the history amongst a younger generation. The biggest step toward this goal has been the opening of the Flying Duck Taproom, a bar focused on craft beer and on exposing the public to the history of waterfowling.
“The majority of collectors are of older age,” he says. “There’s not as many younger people getting into collecting vintage calls and vintage decoys. The whole idea with the taproom was to create a fun environment for people to come and enjoy themselves while subconsciously learning about old calls, or taking it on their own to read about because they’ve been exposed to it through the taproom.”
The success of the taproom, and its associated merchandise and Flying Duck Amber Lager, has exposed the call making art form, its history, and the love of the sport to a new group of people. For Stephens, that exposure is the first step in preserving this history for years to come.
“If you’re a hunter, collecting and reading about these old calls is a way of enjoying duck season 365 days a year,” Stephens says. “I think it’s our job to preserve these duck calls and decoys. They could be lost forever, and I think that as waterfowlers, it’s our duty to pass this knowledge on to the next generation.”