Dave Gaston Custom Calls’ origin is a winds-like-a-snake duck hunting story that begins with western Alabama childhood, meanders through memorable friendships while chasing ducks in Mississippi and Arkansas, finds him apprenticing under one of Arkansas’s most legendary call makers, and leaves him at home right where it all began. Only nowadays he spends his time carrying on on the tradition; turning duck calls as a tribute, in part, to those great people now passed. That and telling damned good stories like only Gaston can about the infamous “Jerry Lee” and other local legends. Enjoy!

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A Fascination with Duck Hunting

I was doing what my daddy did. But my fascination of duck hunting has been in my bones for that long.

Ramsey Russell: Welcome back to Duck Season Somewhere, where today I am in Thomasville, Alabama and I want to introduce you all, it’s about the time I introduce you all to my old buddy, David Gaston, who the stories we’ve been telling just before we even started recording, it’s just a constant reminder of what a small world duck hunting is, especially in the Deep South. David, how the heck are you, man?

David Gaston: I’m great, buddy and pleased to have you here.

Ramsey Russell: Well, I’m glad to be here. Last time I was here, I left with a couple of duck calls and I bet I leave with one today if you’ve been busy with them. David, I’ve been blowing your call for probably 20 years and I blow other duck calls, too. But my go to, I mean, if I’m going duck hunting, I’ve always got my lanyard with a couple of David Gaston calls on it, and there’s a reason for that. I didn’t find you by just happenstance, I found you because your call is very similar to a call I learned to cut my teeth on, which is our mutual friend, Mr. Alvin Taylor from Clarendon, Arkansas. But before we get there, David, I want to back up. Now, look, we’re in Alabama, we’re not necessarily in the epicenter of duck hunting culture right here in western Alabama. What is your introduction to hunting and fishing and then to duck hunting? Are you from this part of the world?

David Gaston: I am, Ramsay. I grew up across the river in Wilcox County, over in Camden. And my fascination with duck hunting goes way back to the 50s, about 1954, 1955. And I was just a little taut, but I can remember my daddy duck hunting. And sometimes at night, he would pick me up, wrap an old quilt around me and pull it up over my head and I can remember mama standing on the porch hollering at daddy, that is too cold out there for me. And my daddy asking me, do you hear them? And I said, yes, sir, I do. He said, listen to them. I said, I’m listening, I hear them, daddy, and I was a little bitty fella. And then a couple of years later, when daddy duck hunted, of course, the statue of limitations, I don’t know what the federal statue is, but I’m going to tell the story. They duck hunted over in Portland, over at Mr. Emmett Houston’s, which is over on the river north of Camden, up in edge of Dallas County. And he would bring the wood ducks home in crocosacks, about a half crocus sack full of wood ducks, I assume the limit was 25 or 30 back then, I don’t know. But I would stand on the edge of an old wicker couch until I broke the arm off of it. I wasn’t tall enough to swing that duck around, but if I got up on that couch, I could. And I had my daddy’s old 12 gauge browning shotgun that had the trigger in the front of the safety in the front of the trigger guard and I’d fling that duck out there and I’d pow, play like I was shooting him. And mama and daddy was sitting right there in the kitchen and they could see me, and mama was raising cane about the feathers and daddy would tell her, hush, Cleo, leave him alone, he’s having a good time, and I was. I was doing what my daddy did. But my fascination of duck hunting has been in my bones for that long.

Ramsey Russell: It’s funny how you remember things like that, isn’t it? Because it just triggers me into remembering as a child, a little boy that had never shot a gun or nothing, my granddaddy coming by the house in Greenville and me climbing up and looking in back at the Buick at all those mallards he had. And a lot of times what he would do as crazy as it sounds, he would cut the feet off at the joint and bring them in and hand them to me. And I can’t be 4 or 5 years old and I just had this memory, and he’d pull those strings, to make those duck feet move.

David Gaston: Make the toes curl up.

Ramsey Russell: And that was my earliest introductions and my early indoctrination into waterfowl.

David Gaston: Exactly.

Ramsey Russell: Isn’t that crazy?

David Gaston: It is. You never know what’s going to start it.

Ramsey Russell: Yeah. Boy, that’s a great memory to have. But when did you actually get into duck hunt? Now, when did you go from swinging them on the couch and playing, playing like you’re shooting them to getting in a duck blind with your daddy?

David Gaston: Well, my daddy and mother bought an old motel and they were building the millers ferry lock and dam, so daddy’s outdoor activities all but ceased because we had a motel and a restaurant, and he was working. But as I got older and loved the outdoors, my first shotgun was a Browning 20 gauge A5, bought it at Matthews Hardware, paid $142 for it.

Ramsey Russell: That’s big money back then.

A Persistent Tradition of Duck Hunting

But we shot wood ducks coming into a cornfield, a dry cornfield, that’s called it, down to the sally white cornfield and that’s where we shot wood ducks.

David Gaston: Well, it was bigger money when you babysit your baby brother on Saturdays for $5 a day and then good grades on my report cards and I eventually got that gun paid off. But now that’s the way that was. But nevertheless, I had friends that had land and of course, everybody’s daddy’s hunted and Fred Henderson’s daddy, Bane Henderson, of course, they were friends of our family. And Fred and I duck hunted, but most of our duck hunting back then, Ramsey was late afternoon hunting. And so we continued to do that. But we shot wood ducks coming into a cornfield, a dry cornfield, that’s called it, down to the sally white cornfield and that’s where we shot wood ducks. That’s where I actually kill my first duck.

Ramsey Russell: A wood duck?

David Gaston: Wood duck.

Ramsey Russell: How long was it along your hunt career before you got into other ducks, mallards?

David Gaston: Well, it’s funny you ask, because during that period of time, they were building a Miller’s ferry lock and dam and the pool was slowly rising as they built that cofferdam across the river and the mallards really started showing up. And Fred used to call a black duck, a black mallard and they weren’t referred to as a black duck, they were black mallards. As the pool came up and their land was farmland, cattle land, a lot of it, and as the water backed up in those grassy draws, they would fill up with ducks. And we sneaked up on them in the grass and we did everything you could imagine. And God knows how many we killed back in the old days. And of course, my first duck call was an old PS Olt.

Ramsey Russell: Really?

David Gaston: Yeah.

Ramsey Russell: You buy it the same hardware store you got that shotgun?

David Gaston: No, I actually bought it from Ratcliffe’s hardware.

Ramsey Russell: Okay.

David Gaston: Actually bought it from Ratcliffe’s hardware, but nevertheless. And I couldn’t call a duck, I thought I could, I could quack. But years progressed and we kept hunting and we kept killing ducks and the river was dammed up now –

Ramsey Russell: We’re talking about the Ten-top waterway.

David Gaston: Right. We’re talking about on the Alabama River at Miller’s ferry and there were lots of ducks. I mean, Ramsay, like, Mississippi and Arkansas ducks. This was in the late 60s, early 70s, it’s hard to imagine. But nevertheless, we kept hammering on him and about 1977, a guy moved to Camden, his name was Jimmy Faust and he saw my old boat over there across the street where I live. And he asked me if I duck hunted and I said, yeah, he said, man, where are your decoys? I said, they were right there in a boat, I didn’t have but 5. And so he and I went and he could call, he was from Selma, Tennessee. And I learned a little bit about calling, listening to him. And so he said, when I go home next weekend, I’m going to bring us some decoys back. He and his wife had a red Camaro and when they came in that Sunday afternoon, Sunday night, the back seat was slam full of decoys.

Ramsey Russell: What kind of decoy?

David Gaston: Mallard duck. Most of them were Carry-lite. But nevertheless, we had a decoy spread and it’s not much room in the back of a Camaro, either. But anyhow, he and I hunted together and we continued to kill ducks and I learned a little bit about calling. And it was during this period of time that I was invited to go to the Mississippi Delta, Butch Stallings invited me to go over there to his duck club, I didn’t have a clue what they were talking about. But when we got there, it was a little rough initially.

Ramsey Russell: Rough how?

David Gaston: Well, it was no water and no power.

Ramsey Russell: Oh, the camp house?

David Gaston: Yeah. No heat, it was an old office trailer and it only had two beds in it and that was Fred’s and Butch’s bed, so I slept on the floor. It had some natural inhabitants in there called mice or rats, depending on how big they were, plenty of them. But I slept with them. And that was my first introduction to really, seriously duck hunting over a big spread. And that was over at Mossy Break, Mississippi.

Ramsey Russell: Really?

David Gaston: Yeah, that was it.

Ramsey Russell: Now, who’s Fred you’re talking about? Fred Henderson.

David Gaston: Well, no, it was Fred Riley from Brandon, Mississippi and that’s a podcast for another day. I’m telling you, I have too many tales to tell about Fred Riley, Butch Stallings and while hunting over there with them, I met the illustrious Bob Westerfield.

Ramsey Russell: Bob Westerfield.

David Gaston: There was only one. And God knows I never knew anybody that didn’t like him or think the world of him.

Ramsey Russell: And you include me in both those camps with both those men. And that’s what, the other day when we got to talking on the phone, you were telling some stories, I’m like, well, I know Fred Riley and we got to tell a little bit about Fred Riley and we dang sure got to talk a little bit about Westerfield. So Fred was one of your, as you were growing up and getting into it, he’s one of your mentors?

David Gaston: Yes. He was.

Ramsey Russell: I didn’t know that. He was a pretty authentic personality. And how I met him is 20 years ago when I started getting into labs, he was heading up kind of the head honcho of one of the retriever clubs over in Mississippi and we’d meet on Saturdays and boy, he was a commander in chief, son, but he taught all the stuff. And for some reason, I actually went over to Mossy Break, he had a place over there, a little camp and he invited me to come over one weekend with my little pup and I would give anything, he sat there on the deck of his trailer and wrote down a 15 point list of everything I needed to do with that dog as a puppy, just to socialize it, and I would give anything to have that list. Because it was how you need to socialize and bring up a puppy before it goes into force fetch and all that good stuff. But he just took that time and spent time with me, that’s all I knew of Fred Riley was working them dogs with him, he was a huge lab guy.

Duck Dog Training

 Because they just got to understand how to communicate.

David Gaston: He was. And I’ll tell you something else and Fred kind of went by the same theory. I asked a guy one time, we were talking about labs and he asked me, he said, when do you start training that lab? I said, well, I don’t really know. And he said, let me tell you, said you start training him the day you get him at 49 days old, 7 weeks, his mind is fully developed and he is capable of remembering. He has a short attention span, but he can start remembering at 49 days and that’s when you start teaching him to sit, to calm, what no means, the basic things.

Ramsey Russell: It’s like a toddler. That’s the age you start teaching them to communicate.

David Gaston: Exactly.

Ramsey Russell: You start teaching them the human language and communications and commands and bonding and building a relationship with them to which you build from force, fetch on into training.

David Gaston: Exactly.

Ramsey Russell: Because they just got to understand how to communicate. He had me doing stuff like walk them out through pastures, get them around cattle, get them around horses, take them into crowds, let the kids pet them and take them into crowd of people, he said, because the more distraction, he said, the bolder animal you’re going to get, you don’t want an animal just sitting over in a dog pen or sitting off to its side. You want a dog that is not scared of people, scared of things, he said, just think of the things. And this was decades before getducks.com came about, let alone these dogs like Char dog that are traveling around the world. It’s just me going around Mississippi duck camps. He said, all the noises and all the things that a dog is going to be exposed to in his life, introduce him to him at that age. He was like a dog whisperer. He got into a dog’s head, didn’t he?

David Gaston: He did.

Ramsey Russell: What was he like to duck hunt with?

David Gaston: Well, Fred blew a cut down Olt.

Ramsey Russell: Really?

David Gaston: He did. And there was a dentist that came down and hunted with him, his name was Bobby, but I cannot remember his last name. And there was another guy from Arkansas, they were both from Little Rock and his name was Miller, but they used to come down and they would hunt. And this is where I really started learning about how to blow and when to blow a duck call, I really did. But Fred was not a game hog by any means. He wouldn’t pull the fast one on you. But now, anytime you shot a duck out of the hotel blind, which was a gigantic blind, I have a print of it hanging in my bedroom in there, not the blind, but the tree is built on by John Rhimers. But anytime Fred said, did you kill this duck? Who killed this duck over here? You needed to say, I did because it had a band on it, I got bit on that.

Ramsey Russell: Slow learner, are you?

David Gaston: I was slow learner. Well, I didn’t think he’d do it. I didn’t think he’d do it two times in a row and be honest, the third time he did, I said, I killed that duck. And he said, that’s a big old greenhead. I said, I see it is, that’s what I shoot, he said he don’t have a band, he turned him around, I thought, God, he had me.

Ramsey Russell: That’s good. What about Bob Westerfield? I got to tell you, right after high school, I didn’t duck hunt to speak of. I got into a deer camp down in Capa county, met a lot of characters. Bob Westerfield being foremost among them. And it was a deer camp, we ran dogs, which is a lost Deep South sport. But he got in that camp to turkey hunt, I’d catch him out there squirrel hunting some. And boy, the things he could do. I can remember one of the most things is he was sitting out in front of the camp house with a 22 rifle, iron sights, a turkey diaphragm, and he’d start yammering like a squirrel, barking and those squirrels would come out of hiding.

David Gaston: He’d shoot them.

Ramsey Russell: He sat right there by the skinning rack, limited on cat squirrels with that turkey call. And it wasn’t until later and I actually kind of started going out some, like some of your daddy stores way after dark, shooting wood ducks, I was young and rash and didn’t know if there was a law, I just went and did it. But he was a huge duck hunter. He ran the state calling contest forever. What was he like to duck hunt? Tell me some Bob Westerfield stories, because he was a colorful personality.

David Gaston: Well, I have so many from Bob Westfield. One of my favorite Westerfield stories was one morning we were at the Mossy Break camp and Bob would take a drink.

Ramsey Russell: Don’t we all?

David Gaston: Occasionally. But Westerfield took a bottle and put it behind the bar, down on the shelf. He was hiding his, he was going to drink everybody else’s. This is classic Westerfield now. Classic Westerfield now, I’m telling you. And we had been sitting there, we were not drinking, this was in the morning, 10:00 AM. And I looked, here comes an old truck driving up and this guy gets out of it, he worked on somebody’s farm around a black gentleman, his name was John. And so John comes on up, he knocks on the door, well, come in. And he comes in and I’m sitting there, and Westerfield is sitting on the couch. And John comes in and speaks and he’s nice as he can be. And I knew what he wanted because he had been there before. He was coming by for somebody to give him a drink. So he sat there 10 to 15 minutes talking and I asked him, it was on a Saturday morning, asked him how he was doing, if he needed anything, and he said, well, I could use a little shot, I said, well, let me get you one. So I get a glass and reach down under that bar on that shelf and break the cap on that bottle of Jack Daniels, pull it out of the bag and Bob Westerfield sitting there shooting daggers at me. And I poured him a pretty good drink out of that 5th and Westerfield was not happy. So I gave it to him and I sat down and we continued to talk. And I think Fred Riley was still hunting, or either he was in the bed, one of the two. But I was sitting on an old school bus seat over there, and John drank that whiskey up pretty quick, Westerfield was not happy. He was sold up a little bit. And I asked him, 10 minutes later I said, John, you need another shot? He said, yes, I believe I do. So I got up, got his glass, and I went over there in Westerfield, I’m telling you, he was furious and I poured him a good one this time. The look on Westerfield’s face. So I took it to him, Westerfield was shaking his head, don’t do that again. I mean, he didn’t have any smile left, he didn’t have any glimmer in his eye. The only glimmer was, if you give him some more of my whiskey, we’re going to have trouble. So I didn’t offer John another drink. But those two had, John, we’re talking about drinking it straight. He probably had –

Ramsey Russell: 2, 4-finger drinks?

David Gaston: Yeah. And I was sitting on that school bus seat, and he said, I’m not mocking this man, I’m just repeating him because I love this old guy. He said, cap, I’m going to tell you something. He said, I go to all these duck camps around here, all over this county, and he said, some of them got all that big, fine furniture in there and what have you, rugs on the floor. But he said, and he pointed at the school bus seat I was sitting on. He said, ain’t none of them got one of them. And I said, what you talking about, John? He said, a school bus seat. He said, if your duck camp ain’t got a school bus seat in it, it ain’t nothing.

Ramsey Russell: That’s a fact.

David Gaston: That’s a cold, hard fact. I got a school bus seat in my camp in Arkansas to this day because of John. Guarantee you. Yeah, but him drinking Westerfield’s whiskey was the funniest thing in the world.

Ramsey Russell: Fred Riley blew an Olt cut down. What did Westerfield blow?

David Gaston: Westerfield blew a Southland call. Mr. Gordon Hartley made over in Leland, Mississippi. He got me started on them, that was the first custom turned call that I ever had, was a Southland.

Pranks & Trouble on the Hunt 

Well, if Westerfield pulled out his pocket knife, he would cut down a little peg and slide it behind your trigger so your gun wouldn’t shoot. 

Ramsey Russell: Tell me one more Westfield story. You told me before we started recording that if he pulled out his pocket knife, there was trouble.

David Gaston: It was trouble because Westerfield was a prankster. He could prank you, but you didn’t need to prank him. But I have dispelled that rumor that it’s not impossible. John and I prove that.

Ramsey Russell: Let me hear the story.

David Gaston: Well, if Westerfield pulled out his pocket knife, he would cut down a little peg and slide it behind your trigger so your gun wouldn’t shoot. You could knock the safety off, but you couldn’t pull the trigger. He was horrible about it.

Ramsey Russell: You never noticed that till the ducks were coming into the decoy.

David Gaston: Oh, yeah. When you click the safety, I’ll pull the trigger, it wouldn’t go off. There was no boom, there was no recoil, there was no nothing.

Ramsey Russell: I guarantee there’s folks listening just right now thinking, I need to break my pocket knife out next time I’m in a duck blind.

David Gaston: Well, you got to be careful how you do it, because you could get your butt whipped and not me, I’m not threatening anybody, I’m too old for that crap. But we were over there one day, I do not believe in mixing alcohol and shotguns on a duck blind. I do not believe in it. Although there had been a time I did. But nevertheless, Westerfield and a buddy of his from Arkansas who had come down had drank a quart of Jack Daniels, it was mine, when he screwed the top off it, I paid for it. He threw the cap out in Mossy Break and turned around and looked at me and grinned. So I knew that I was even with that. But I was not even for the pegging of the gun. Pegging my trigger. And we weren’t killing anything. Last day of the season have not fired a shot and so Westerfield was into his story, hanging over the side. I think he smoked Chesterfield or Pall Mall cigarettes, one of the two. But anyhow, I eased the boat back on his model 1100 and dug that shell out of there and then I turned it over and punched that little silver button and let the follower go and slid those two shells out of the magazine. And I didn’t know if we were going to even shoot that day. I mean, we had literally not fired a shot. But if something came by, Westerfield was pretty quick draw on you. I’m telling you, he didn’t mind busting the cap. And it got on over in the – Well, I’m going to condense this. It was the first big migration of birds I had ever seen in my life.

Ramsey Russell: Describe that.

David Gaston: Well, when we were looking to the north and they started coming.

Ramsey Russell: Must been a front hit all of a sudden.

David Gaston: Holy moly, it was freezing.

Ramsey Russell: So it went from kind of warm and comfortable to cold.

David Gaston: Well, yeah, but it was pretty cold when we got up that morning. But anyhow, they started coming out of north, and there was just V after V. And then coming off of one wing of that V, there was another V. And to make a long story short, I have never seen that many ducks in my life at that point in time. It was unbelievable. As far as you can look to the east and the west and back to the north. Well, they started breaking up, and everybody started calling. And I forgot about unloading Bob’s gun that was behind me. I had Jerry Lee over there and I checked him, he was ready to kill. And after a few minutes, and they came down and it was the most God awful sight I had ever seen in my life. I had never at that time seen that many ducks and these ducks were filling the decoys up. I mean, you literally could have walked across Mossy Break on the duck’s backs, they were in there so thick, Ramsay, they were unbelievable, absolutely unbelievable. And when they called the shot, and there were like 10 of us or 12 of us in the hotel blind when they called a shot, well, I came up shooting and I heard some most profane language that I’m not going to repeat on the air. And then I heard that model 1100 rack back and click and I heard more profane language, and then it racked again. Well, Jerry and I had already done our damage by then and I turned around because Westerfield was to the right and kind of behind me, and his face was redder than an August sunrise. And he was mad because he didn’t get in on any of that killing action.

Ramsey Russell: What are friends for?

David Gaston: I don’t know. But when he loaded that gun, I thought he was going to kill me. Now he was mad. But nevertheless, that’s my Bob Westerfield story for the day.

Who is Jerry Lee?

Jerry Lee is a model 870 Remington magnum shotgun.

Ramsey Russell: You keep talking about Jerry Lee. What is Jerry Lee? Who is Jerry Lee? What is Jerry Lee?

David Gaston: Jerry Lee is a model 870 Remington magnum shotgun.

Ramsey Russell: We got it sitting right over here on a chair. Looks like that gun has been around a while.

David Gaston: That’s a 1976 or 77 model.

Ramsey Russell: You still hunt with it?

David Gaston: No. When we had to start shooting steel shot, I put Jerry Lee up. His barrel is too valuable. He hates turkeys, oh, my God, he hates turkeys, he hates greenheads, he hates whitetailed deer. You can put a number one buckshot in him, and at 40 yards, you can put 18 in that piece of notebook paper laying in front of you at 40 yards. I’m telling you. Unbelievable.

Ramsey Russell: Okay, so it’s an 870 shotgun. Why’d you name it? Jerry Lee?

David Gaston: Named him after Jerry Lee Lewis.

Ramsey Russell: Jerry Lee Lewis.

David Gaston: Whose nickname is the killer.

Ramsey Russell: The Mississippi killer.

David Gaston: That’s him. Jerry Lee has left a trail of pain and destruction, death and heartache, blood and misery from the prairies of Canada to Grand Chenille, Louisiana.

Ramsey Russell: What’s so special about that gun? Besides the memories?

David Gaston: He shoots unbelievably tight.

Ramsey Russell: Why?

David Gaston: Well, he just has a 2 and 3 quarter inch barrel on him.

Ramsey Russell: I see. Yeah. 2 and 3 quarter inch chambers.

David Gaston: That’s right. It was just a test barrel, and a lot of folks don’t know it, but Remington 870 or an 870 magnum barrel will interchange on the receivers. But that’s a magnum receiver. But I had him board out to 3-inch Magnum, and then we lengthened the forcing cone and then we lengthened it a little more. And the gunsmith told me, he said he’s going to shoot like a rifle. And he does. I don’t even shoot him at paper, I don’t waste the energy to shoot him at paper because he’s deadly.

Ramsey Russell: You said earlier that some kind of prototype?

David Gaston: Well, yeah. You notice he’s got an oil finish on his stock.

Ramsey Russell: Talk about that.

David Gaston: And he’s parkerized, and he’s got a sling on him. And back in the day, we didn’t think much about shiny guns. There was no parkerized or any other thing on the market. But I had him parkerized, and I took the stock and the forearm off when he was brand new before I ever shot him. And when I initially purchased him, he had a 30 inch full choke barrel. But I bought that little test barrel from Richard stocks up at Walter Craigs. He called me one day, said, I got those barrels in. I said, I’m on the way. And you notice the forearm is cut way down.

Ramsey Russell: I noticed that.

Customized Shotguns for Hunting

He said, you killing those ducks with an improved cylinder barrel?

David Gaston: Well, I shot model 12 Winchesters for years and I cut it down like a model 12 Winchester. And then I oil finished it, the stock and the forearm and that’s how I hunted with him. And then when I got the part a little 26 inch barrel, it made him pretty special, because that 26 inch barrel will outshoot the 30 inch barrel that came with him. And we were at Mossy Break one year, and we had been hunting, and I came in, and I walked through the living room there, and somebody said, hey, what are you doing with our gun? And I turned around and looked, because that gun is personal to me. And I said, this isn’t our gun, this isn’t my gun. He said, you killing those ducks with an improved cylinder barrel? Because back then, if the barrel was 26 inches, it was improved cylinder. And I said, no, this is a test barrel that Remington came out with. It’s only available in 2 and 3 quarter. But I had him board out to 3 inches, and yada, yada just spilled my guts. Told him why I had a sling on him, told him why he was parkerized, told him why I put the oil finish on the stock and what have you, and lo and behold, I was talking to a Remington representative, I didn’t know it.

Ramsey Russell: Really?

David Gaston: Yeah. And in August, this was in January, in August of the following year, Remington had an announcement in Peterson’s hunting magazine that they were introducing their new special purpose shotguns and the model 1100 and the model 870. And that’s where the idea came from.

Ramsey Russell: Ain’t that something? Boy, one of that and call it the Jerry Lee model.

David Gaston: Well, they’re a big company, they’re not going to give an old country boy that kind of credit.

Ramsey Russell: What was it like hunting on Mossy Break? Describe Mossy Break to anybody that is unaware of where and what that is.

David Gaston: Well, Mossy Break is just what it is. It’s a break in the earth that has gigantic cypress trees in it. And back in the day, you could see platforms built up on some of those trees, I thought they were blinds, but they were not. They were logging platforms, where they built a platform up there to get up there and saw those gigantic cypress trees down when they were logging it. It’s unbelievable. It’s beautiful.

Ramsey Russell: Was it posted?

David Gaston: Oh, yeah. Yeah, it was posted. Fred Riley was quite a ladies man. And it was up there in August, they were putting postage signs up. Fred was an older guy, but he liked the young girls. And there was a lady standing on the bow of his john boat with part of her bikini on, nailing up a postage sign on a tree. And I asked Fred, I can’t help it, I had to ask him. I said, Fred, I said, didn’t the mosquitoes eat her up? And he said, everywhere that she didn’t have that swimsuit covering. But he said, I rubbed her down. He’s just an old dog, I loved him to death, but he’s an old dog.

Ramsey Russell: I’ve been hanging postage signs wrong, I just realized.

David Gaston: I’m telling you, that picture is on an album somewhere at Mossy Break.

Ramsey Russell: That’s hilarious.

David Gaston: Yeah.

Alvin Taylor Duck Calls

And was hunting with some boys, a fraternity brother over in Arkansas, limit was 2 mallards and all them boys blew Alvin Taylor. 

Ramsey Russell: Years ago, forever, I cut my teeth on an Alvin Taylor duck call. I was in college, I had killed ducks, but didn’t duck hunt, to speak of, like we all think of duck hunting. And was hunting with some boys, a fraternity brother over in Arkansas, limit was 2 mallards and all them boys blew Alvin Taylor. Because there was somebody I cannot remember, Don, somebody who had won a champion and blown in champion, a champion, he blew something called Alvin Taylor call. Acrylic, big board and all them boys I hunted with, that I can remember, blew an Alvin Taylor. And I wanted to learn how to call ducks. And one day we drove over to Clarendon, Arkansas. We weren’t hunting too far from there, 30, 45 minutes, we drove over to the shop, and Mr. Taylor’s shop was small and modest by all standards, it was just a little working shop. And at least back in those days, there were no CNC, he wasn’t doing that business, he was hand turning calls. While he might have 50 or 100, how many calls standing up out there on display, you couldn’t just grab one. Maybe the grain was different, maybe the material was different, maybe there might be little subtle differences in the shape, but more importantly, you just had to blow them.

David Gaston: That’s right.

Ramsey Russell: You had to blow them and just figure out one. Okay, however, I’m blowing air and however this call is responding, this suits me. So you just show up and blow calls and chat with him. And I could not blow a duck call. And my buddy Pittman at the time, he’s now a veterinarian over yonder. He said, bang. He said, I want you to listen to this. He said, this one note, don’t do nothing until you can make this one note. If you make that one note, you’re blowing your air, right. And from that note, you can build on everything else. And, boy, the racket I made for months, running down the road, blowing, trying to make that note. And, boy, I hit that one note one day, and I said, my old diaphragm be burning, I hit that note. And that’s how I learned a duck call on an Alvin Taylor and I love that call. And I don’t know, it’s some time ago when chat rooms were big and everything else, we was all posting pictures on chat rooms instead of social media, I’d held up some killing some ducks somewhere. And somebody inboxed me and said, now, Mr. Taylor had since passed and said, if you don’t have no more sense than to blow an Alvin Taylor call, I’ll give you a lot of money for it and he named the dollar. And I said, well, I love this call, he said, well, you need to reach out to a man named David Gaston. I’m thinking, what kind of duck call makers in Alabama, no offense, and I didn’t know all these stories then, David, but I did. And I get this call from you, and it blows like an Alvin Taylor. And to this day, I never leave home without my Gaston calls. And I’ve since put up. Now, my favorite Alvin Taylor call, I got about a half dozen, but my favorite was just a little, simple $50 bodark call. And it had the brass ring on it, but nonetheless, it developed a hairline split. And I’m going to say, the last 5, 6 years, I blew that call, it sounded lousy on opening day. But the more you blow and the more you blow and the more that wood absorbs your saliva, if I was lucky, it rained like it is outside your house day to rain or be humid, that wood was sell up so tight, I couldn’t pull the insert out. But it doesn’t matter that some bitch was sweet then.

David Gaston: It sounded good.

Passing on the Duck Call Carving Craft

…I said, Mr. Taylor, I said, I don’t know if you are ever going to teach anybody how to do this, but if you do, I would be honored if you would teach me.

Ramsey Russell: It was on. But I’ve retired it, and I’ve been retired 20 years and here we go with Gaston calls. But I learned the other day that Mr. Taylor only taught two men how to make a duck call. And it says a lot because his personality, even though I greatly respected and admired him and enjoyed his company on a limited time, he was somewhat of a contankor’s personality. And so it speaks a lot to me that somebody from Alabama that immigrated over to Mossy Break during duck season and eventually found his way to Arkansas to kill ducks, somehow met Alvin Taylor, same as I did, but was passed on this tradition of call making. When would that have been? How did you meet Alvin Taylor and when would that have been, David?

David Gaston: Well, Ramsay, I went to Arkansas, I think it was 1986, might have been 1985. I had been a time or two before, but I had met some guys up there and we had become friends. But we went up one day and were hunting, and a guy named Kevin Banks, and God rest his soul, was blowing a clear acrylic duck call.

Ramsey Russell: What were you blowing at the time?

David Gaston: I was blowing my Yensing and a Southland call. I like that call, it was different. And Kevin told me, he said, now they expensive, I said, I don’t care. I said, I got to go get one. Will you carry me down? He said, yeah. So anyhow, after the hunt was over and we went back to the motel, and then Kevin came over and we rode down to Clarendon, we were staying in Brinkley. And that was the first time I met Alvin Taylor. And I still have that call, that sitting right there, that clear call that I bought from him that day. Will never get rid of it. But nevertheless, it lit a fire in me. Now, I’m going to back up just a few years when I was at Mossy Break dealing with Bob Westerfield and what have you, I went over to Leland, Mississippi and found Gordon Hartley and went to his shop and I bought another call from him. But he gave me another barrel, another bodark barrel, a hedge barrel, because mine had cracked. And he just gave me a barrel. And I told him how much I appreciate it. He didn’t put a band on his calls. But nevertheless, seeing that duck call shop, and I’m the kind of guy that likes to do stuff with his hands. Like, I built this house you’re sitting in. When I tell you I built it, I mean, I cut the boards and drove the nails kind of build, but I’ve always been like that. But I asked Mr. Gordon about it, I said, man, I’d love to know how to do this. And he said, well, you just need to go on and leave now, you got your barrel. So the story was over. Well, when I met Alvin Taylor on our first meeting, I did not, and I did not mention that I could remember how Mr. Hartley reacted. And so several years went by, and I visited Mr. Taylor’s shop, acrylic duck calls at that time were $75.

Ramsey Russell: And he hand turned his call. Everyone was standalone, work of art. Unique.

David Gaston: Exactly. And years went by and I bought a bunch of calls from him, I probably had 30. And I asked him one day, probably around 1991, 1992 in there somewhere, I said, Mr. Taylor, I said, I don’t know if you are ever going to teach anybody how to do this, but if you do, I would be honored if you would teach me. And he looked like I kicked him in the groin. He absolutely did.

Ramsey Russell: He didn’t say nothing?

David Gaston: He didn’t say a word. And I said that as I was leaving his shop. And I stuck my hand out and shook hands with him and told him, I appreciate it. And I said, I’ll be back. Well, sure enough, the next time I went up there, I’ll go buy his shop. And we talked, but he wasn’t really friendly. And we did that off and on. And I continued to buy a call from him. I didn’t buy one every single time I went, I couldn’t afford one, not that often, because if I went up there for 4 days, I went by his shop every day.

Ramsey Russell: Did you ever talk about something besides duck calling? Did you all ever talk about duck hunting? Did you ever duck hunt with Mr. Taylor?

David Gaston: No. He had quit duck hunting about this time because they had made us start shooting steel shot.

Ramsey Russell: Really? He quit because of steel shot.

David Gaston: That’s what he said. Now, he may have hunted one or two years after they started that steel shot thing. No, not really. Because 1986, we started having to shoot steel shot in 1987 or 1988.

Ramsey Russell: I think on public land. I think on federal land. I know by that time, on federal land, you having to shoot non tox.

David Gaston: Well, we were nevertheless, we were trying to obey the laws, but I continued to go. Well, after 2 or 3 years, maybe 4 years, I don’t know, I wasn’t keeping a ledger, he started talking to me again. And they found out he had cancer, if I’m not mistaken, in 1998.

Ramsey Russell: Yeah, late 90s.

David Gaston: But before he had cancer, this was like 1996, maybe 1997. I was leaving one day and he told me, he said, you asked me a question some years back, and the answer is yes, but I’ll tell you when. Well, I knew what he was talking about. He didn’t want to mention it, but that’s when I knew what he was talking about teaching me. And so during the duck season of 1997 and 1998, he told me, he says, when can you come up here and go to school? And I said, well, Mr. Taylor, June would be the best month for me. It’ll be the best month. He said, well, you call me and we’ll set up a time in June, first part of June. I said, yes, sir. So we did. So I went up there and we looked each other in the eye, and I told him that I just want to learn. I’m not going to start making duck calls until you tell me to. And he said, well, I believe you. I think you’re an honest man. So that’s what we did. And I have the handwritten notes that I took on that trip and the drawing of his tools, where I laid them down on a piece of paper and drew them out. I have the original tracings of those to this day, I do. And I have some other documentation that you may be interested in that I don’t want to talk about right here. Sure, but I’ll share it with you. And so that’s when the teaching process began. And so I came home and bought a woodlave, and I started practicing. I use the word practicing because I was not making a duck call, I was practicing turning. And this went on for a while, and then I got a jig made that was not real good, but it taught me a little bit about what you have to do to make a duck call blow. So we worked on that, and my next trip to Arkansas, I took 4 or 5 calls up there and met him in his shop. And he said, all right, let me see what you got. He had an old galvanized garbage can sitting over there under his lathe, and he was propped up on the table, the workbench on the opposite side of his little shop, and he looked at the call, the first one, and he blew it, and he threw it across the room, hit that garbage can. I can hear that garbage can tingling, when my duck call hit it. And he did that to the duck call. And I said, you don’t like them? They weren’t the crap. All right, I’ll do better. So I go over there and he said, what are you doing? I said, I’m getting them out of garbage because I want to find out why they won’t blow. He said, make another one. I said, I will, but I’m going to keep these. And this went on for the biggest part of a year. And he finally, this was probably late 1998 or early 1999 when he told me, he said, now you got the sound. He said, I don’t like the way they look. And he told me at that point, he said, if your calls look good, when you’re at those shows, people will stop and look at them when they pick them up and blow them, if they blow like this, he said, they will lay their money on the table and buy your duck call. And he was absolutely right. Well, we rocked on there 3 months, 4 months, and I finally took a call up there and some acrylic calls, and he finally said, this is what you need to make. That looks good and that’s what I have today.

Ramsey Russell: You got one out here on the table.

David Gaston: That’s it.

Ramsey Russell: Yeah, that gray one.

David Gaston: And that is one of the first 80 calls that I ever took to the show in Stuttgart.

Ramsey Russell: Really?

David Gaston: Yeah.

Ramsey Russell: I noticed. I’ve seen some of your calls, and not all your calls are exactly alike. And the ones I’ve got, and I’ve got acrylic version like what you just held up. And I bought a green bodark. Not a bodark, painted green or stained green, but a green bodark and those are my two carry calls. But I was hunting in Oklahoma with some friends, and there was a young man, I was standing next to a tree with, 20 years old, I’m going to say. And I had those calls, only goes, those are Alvin Taylor, those are Tylor made? Well, first off, I was shocked that a 20 year old knew a Tylor made call, I was impressed, I said, well, no sir, these are Mr. Gaston calls. And I noticed a lot of your calls, you put that, what I call that cork lip bottle like he did. He didn’t do it on all of them, I think sometimes you’d slip up and do something different, but not all your calls have that, but a lot of them do. I see a lot of tribute to Taylor made calls in your work. And this is why because he was a friend and a mentor.

Tricks of the Trade: Making a Duck Call

But we hand cut and file and sand every tone board that goes out of that shop is made right out there in that shop. 

David Gaston: He was a very dear friend and a mentor and got me started and taught me an awful lot about making a duck call. He did. Little tricks of the trade. And of course, Ramsey, these tricks of the trade are not sacred anymore. YouTube, Internet, call nuts, call collectors, call makers, all those pages, most of those secrets are not sacred anymore. But back in the day, they were sacred, as evident by the way Gordon Hartley treated me and the way Alvin Taylor treated me to start with, when I mentioned I would like to learn how to do.

Ramsey Russell: You know, back in those days, as recently as back in those days, David, you had to come back to shop and create a soundboard, make that call work, make it sound like a duck, make it sound good. And now, really and truly, anybody with a little bit of money wherewithal could find any call they like, pull it off and go get it engineered, and somebody say, well, this is actually what I – they could scan it and have a jig made, and boom, now they’ve got the exact same thing. But to me, the whole thing about a duck call, it’s made to blow and call ducks. And I’ve got a bunch of calls I blow that were turned on a CNC machine, I don’t know how in this day and age, with this market of demand, that you can really scale and sell a lot of duck calls without doing CNC. So I’m not down talking, I’m not badmouthing anything about that process. But it’s just something maybe because cut my teeth on Alvin Taylor call, it’s just something about a fully hand turned call. I think they got a soul.

David Gaston: Well, they have more soul than a CNC call. And we have some acrylic calls CNC, I can’t make that.

Ramsey Russell: I’ve got one and it sounds great.

David Gaston: That’s right. But we hand cut and file and sand every tone board that goes out of that shop is made right out there in that shop. Every single one of them. We do not cut those on a CNC meal. You mentioned just a moment ago about having a call, a plan drawn up or digitized or mapped or whatever the term that you want to use and it’s irrelevant. But all you have to do is have that. And you can buy a little tabletop milling machine and cut your tone boards. Lots of call makers don’t even have jigs anymore. They’ll use that little tabletop meal. And they’re not a bad thing.

Ramsey Russell: I just like the artisanal value and the cultural value of a hand turn know. I’ve always felt, and I used Mr. Taylor going to his shop, really, they were all Taylor made calls, they were cut from the same jig, yada, yada. But there were no two identical calls.

David Gaston: No, I don’t care how close, how you measure them, you cannot duplicate exactly call. I’ve got some hedge calls hanging out in the shop that I’m going to start sending out tomorrow.

Ramsey Russell: How long then have you been making Gaston calls?

David Gaston: Ramsey, I started in late 1999, Mr. Taylor told me to make some calls and sell a few. Well, I told him, I said, I’m not going to sell calls as long as you’re making them. I don’t want to do that. And he said, it’ll be okay. Well, I made a couple of calls, 5 and I gave two of them to some friends of mine in Arkansas that were guides, and people heard them and didn’t know how to get up with me. And they went to Mr. Taylor’s shop and asked him, said, didn’t you teach David Gaston how to make duck calls? And he said, yeah. He said, well, we hunted with a guy this morning that had one, and we want to buy some of his calls. How can we get up with him? He told us you had his phone number. Well, Mr. Taylor called me and he was upset, and I told him, I said, Mr. Taylor, you told me to make a few calls and I did. I brought them by here, but I didn’t sell them. I gave those two boys, those duck calls, their guides, and he said, well, it bothered me a little bit, they came here asking me how to get up with you. And I said, well, I’ll tell you what we’re going to do. I’m not going to let another one out of my hands, I’m done with that until you tell me to start making them. And so for a little over a year and a half, that’s what we did, I didn’t let them go. I continued to make a call or 2 because I was in the restaurant business, I didn’t have much time to do anything. But I’d make a call or two here and there and then he called me and told me he had cancer. And I went to see him more often during that time. And finally he told me, he said, you need to start making those calls now. You’re ready. So we did. And that was it.

Ramsey Russell: You ended up being a pallbearer at his funeral?

David Gaston: I was a pallbearer at his funeral, sure was.

Ramsey Russell: Who were the other pallbearers?

David Gaston: Jim Stenson.

Ramsey Russell: I know.

David Gaston: And to be honest with you, Ramsey, I don’t remember the other guys.

Ramsey Russell: Yeah, his two proteges, that says a lot. Because Arkansas duck calling like that, back in those days especially, that’s a very competitive business.

David Gaston: Oh, yeah, it is. I guarantee you it is. It really is.

A Cloud of Ducks

And he said, when that flock of duck would fly over the road, you couldn’t see the sky, you couldn’t see the sun.

Ramsey Russell: What kind of stories did he tell you about back in the days when he duck hunted before we got out? Because he told me a story one day in a cafe about, he said, you all boys don’t know what ducks are. He said, you’ll never see the clouds of ducks we had back then. He would describe the ducks flying from one rice field to the next over that highway that runs through Clarendon or just outside of town. And he said, when that flock of duck would fly over the road, you couldn’t see the sky, you couldn’t see the sun. It’s like a big shadow on the ground.

David Gaston: He said that when the birds came by like that, he said it was like a big cloud passing over you, it was just a shadow underneath them. He said, you all don’t have any idea how many birds it used to be in there, he didn’t say birds. He said, you all don’t have any idea how many ducks used to come to these bottoms. He said, you could just go anywhere. You could put a boat in and go right across a river and get one ridge off the river and kill a limit of ducks any morning you wanted to go.

Ramsey Russell: Isn’t that something? And you still duck hunt over in Arkansas in those neck of the woods?

David Gaston: I do, yeah.

Ramsey Russell: How long you been hunting that property?

David Gaston: That we’re on now?

Ramsey Russell: Yes, sir.

David Gaston: Oh, Lord Ramsey.

Ramsey Russell: Since back in those days, with Mr. Taylor?

David Gaston: Not. No, Mr. Taylor had passed away. I think we started the Friends and Family Duck Club, I think our first lease was in 2000, so it’s been 23 years.

Ramsey Russell: Why do you think you got into, what was it about owning a handful of calls and being able to blow them? Why did you want to learn to call? To make duck calls?

David Gaston: Well, when I see something, I like to do it. I want to be able to do it. For years, we made our own turkey calls, our own wing bone calls, our little snuff can calls made out of a nickel snuff can, even made diaphragm turkey calls, mouth calls out of lead and people talking about taking lead and hammering it out and getting it thin and I had more sense than that. I found a lead boot that you put over a roof vent in a house where they cut the excess off and it folds flat and you could get four diaphragms out of it where it was round and it folded flat, you could tap that down and it’d be that long. You could get 3 or 4 off each side and put your latex in there, prophylactic as it was back then, and make your own turkey. So that’s what we did.

Ramsey Russell: Growing up Fred Riley, Bob Westerfield, a lot of these older gentlemen that are no longer with us, Mr. Alvin Taylor. How do you feel like their influence still shoot no Jerry Lee right here? How do you feel like the influence of hunting with those yesteryear legends shaped who you are and the path you’re on in duck hunting and duck call?

David Gaston: It’s a loaded question. Knowing them was an honor. I knew that at the time, Mr. Taylor, Fred Riley, Bob Westerfield, all those guys, they were legends in their own time, they really were. Having known them and hunted with them, I never duck hunted with Mr. Taylor, I did hunt with Bob Westerfield and Fred Riley. They taught me a lot about decoys, about calling, about camouflaging, about being still and of course, Mossy Break, you were in a boat or you had to get out of a boat and get on a blind because it was deep. So with that having been said, I learned because I was a little bit kill crazy, coming up.

Ramsey Russell: Weren’t we all?

David Gaston: Yeah. But hunting with them made me realize that, and I’d never hunted in a group of people like that. Made me realize that, and it’s gotten more so now. Being there with the guys is what’s important. Seeing the ducks, pulling the trigger, smelling burnt powder and a wet dog, all of that is important. But hunting with them over there made me realize that there’s more to it than just killing. And after I started going to Arkansas and became friends with Larry Clifton, who is actually the duck killingest son of a gun that ever put on a pair of rubber boots. Now, I’m telling you, he can call them, he can kill them, they can cook them, the whole 9 yards. And I could not let this thing go, we were talking about mentors. I could not let this go without mentioning Larry Clifton because he is a very dear friend of mine. I talk to him 2 or 3 times a month to this day.

Ramsey Russell: Folks, thank you all for listening this episode of Duck Season Somewhere. Traditions and people and small world, I bet your duck hunt world’s a lot like that, too, isn’t it? Thank you all for listening to this episode of Duck Season Somewhere, we’ll see you next time.


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