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Your dad has been there. There’s a good chance your grandfather has too. They took their places in the silence of a cold winter’s morning, waiting impatiently for the first chance to split the air with a few methodical notes from their duck call. You might have heard the same notes coming from the garage, or muffled behind a closed truck door in the driveway, sparking your curiosity as to just how that sound was coming to life. All of those mesmerizing sounds linked together to pull you in just like an early morning flight of ducks. You were hooked without even knowing it, following a tradition in waterfowling that has eluded many, and encouraged most, but always left a waterfowler in awe when perfected. The notes come from your lungs, but the song of a duck caller comes from the heart. It is how blocks of wood turned at the hands of skilled craftsmen become working pieces of art, echoing duck calls through the woods for the next generation. That is what keeps tradition alive.
Following a tradition is not the same as imitating the past. You must feel it in your heart enough to carry the torch, while seeing a path of your own to move forward. This is what makes Josh Raggio follow in the footsteps of fading craftsmen, turning duck calls by hand, because “if they could do it back then, why can’t I do it that way now?” The simple truth is that we all can, but the vision into its value and the desire to pursue the effort is rare. In Raymond, Mississippi, that tenacity sends tiny wood shavings flying off Josh’s lathe at 3300 rpm in a personal quest to stand proudly among the call makers that came before him. His turning of blocks is just the beginning of a process that will encompass many stages before the finished call arrives in the hands of the owner. Not one step can be compromised, or the end product will suffer. That just is not acceptable for Josh. Drawers of throwaways in his filing cabinet are proof that one flaw in the crafting process will mark the end of a call’s life before it ever sings. A look inside Josh’s workshop helps explain these meticulous decisions.
I left Texas before the sun rose, sipping coffee from my thermos with the radio serenading me eastward, to Mississippi. There was a story to tell — one that felt incomplete from a phone conversation. Josh welcomed me into his home to truly embrace it.
Adorning the walls of the front room, as a shrine to waterfowl history, are several cabinets housing a collection of duck calls from many of the greats dating as far back as the 1920s. To the untrained eye, they may appear simple, but a look at the vast variations in shape and aesthetics shows the record of individual ingenuity. Considering the limited tooling available to the old masters, their craftsmanship is truly impressive. They built from the ideas of their predecessors, but innovated with their personal touches. “Each generation has pushed the envelope on sound and artistry,” Josh says. Among the vast collection are some of Josh’s own calls, placed not out of vain, but to serve as a reminder to the personal evolution in his process. He has the ability to hone in on a trade that flows through his waterfowling ancestry. Early calls were works to be improved, but now a characteristic shape and tone has come to signify a Raggio call. He opts not to engrave the exterior, nor to place a sticker as a signature, saying that “tradition would be watered down by a precise engraving on a perfectly imperfect piece of craftsmanship.”
His own calling ability is validated by the plaques hanging on his shop walls from Mississippi State Calling Championships, but the real made treasures reside on the shelves. Each call has an intimate story, a unique voice when it comes to attention. A leather journal, in which his father, Ronnie, recorded every single day of duck season, conveys just how strong the ties to the Mississippi Flyway run in this family. Serving as director of the Mississippi State and Regional Duck Calling Contest, Ronnie is no stranger to calling either. He always kept a call in his pocket, blowing those notes around the house daily, in and out of season. For Ronnie, calling promoted a bond among friends long before Josh was around. By the time Josh was ready to join in, waterfowling was hardly welcoming to children, but that didn’t stop them. The young boy had to adorn excessive layers of adult clothing to stay warm, also serving as insulation between the frigid waters and the chilling skin of canvas waders. I can envision the resemblance to Ralphie’s brother in A Christmas Story. With limited mobility, teeth chattering, Josh got his first taste of why his dad blew that call every day. The fire within could warm even the coldest water.
Josh’s story hits home, reminding me of my own first hunt. It was so cold then that the laces of my wading boots froze in place, but when it was time to leave, that fire within kept me warm enough to want to stay. Or perhaps the hypothermia just did not allow my lips to move. It’s those early memories, though, that keep all of us chasing the wild waterfowling life. Now, in hearing the call crack through silence, an appreciation from that pursuit grows.
Today, we have boundless opportunities for suiting into the best materials during our pursuits. Decoys come in every shape and size imaginable — so uncanny, you can see hunters sometimes shoot them off the water. A call can arrive in nearly any material or color, but Josh likes to pursue the roots. Wool layers covered in waxed canvas are his staples as he touts a small bag of hand-carved decoys into the backwaters. He was inspired by an old neighbor who did it all this same way — carving his own decoys, turning his own calls and training his own dog. There was little fuss to his process, just an appreciation for each item and the time he had to chase ducks. It’s not the path for everyone, but in 2009, it sparked an idea in Josh: “I’m going to make my own call one day.” It was not to happen overnight, but you can see that from the evolution of those 15 original calls residing in the front room.
There are immaculately clean tool stations lining the outer walls of Josh’s shop. Each has a role in the finishing of the product. The vital, coveted lathe, named Jolene, glows in the room under two spotlights as if she is a museum piece of her own. Under a mural of Raymond, Mississippi, Josh stands firmly under those lights to bring his calls to life. The table before that lathe shows the stages of his current projects, from wood blanks to unique, artful calls, turned to customers’ requests.
Some have gold bands, while others are engraved ornately with silver. Some glimmer with oil-shine off the smooth Cocobolo wood, while others are intricately stippled by hand. Regardless of these details, each of them wears the signature Raggio shape on the exterior and houses the tone board, which echoes sound. It’s Josh’s intention to be known by that shape. Just as the trained eye can look into the front room and pick out the famed callers from the cabinets, Josh wants you to spot these calls on a lanyard without hesitation. That shape signifies quality, a testament to the countless hours spent in solitude flinging wood from a block into art.
These calls are not for everyone. They are not readily available on a shelf, nor do they ship overnight. You must patiently join the waiting list to receive your instrument, often waiting as many as eight months. At best, two calls per day will reach completion in the shop by Josh’s own hands. It’s truly a one-man operation, one which cannot be rushed. It’s a meticulous process, right down to the shimming of millimeters on the reed that makes the music. When the last fulfilling note leaves the end of that duck call, Josh will engrave his name on the tone board, package it up with care, and send it into the world so that traditions can be formed by its owner.
To pursue waterfowl is a dream for many. It pumps the blood through our veins every day in hopes of that next season, forever feeling distant and never seeming to hold long enough once it does arrive. In those long days away from the blind, our memories serve as a beacon to the golden days ahead. The craft and the world of tradition around it keep us keen until the frigid mornings return. These sounds filled Josh’s ears through childhood. When they echo now out of a Raggio call, you know the notes came from your lungs, but the origin of the music comes from the heart. If it weren’t for duck calls, Ronnie and Josh might not get to spend each day together, but that is not the case. For now, they can continue to share those traditions of waterfowling as the next generation plays outside in the mud, becoming hooked in it all without even knowing it.
To Have a Hero