Every time I see or hear somebody going gaga over the puzzlingly popular “Duck Dynasty” TV reality series, I think back to an interview I did over 20 years ago with a Sioux Falls gentleman named Frank Heidelbauer who was in the same business as Phil Robertson (creator of Duck Commander duck calls) only he didn’t have a beard or a bazillion dollar business. He simply made, arguably the finest duck and goose calls in the world.
Frank Heidelbauer grew up on an Iowa farm and loved hunting..especially ducks. As a boy he studied waterfowl sounds and leaned to call them out of the sky using nothing but his voice. Unfortunately, that talent disappeared one night when he was 12 or 13 when he awoke to find puberty had arrived and, like a thief, stole his natural duck calling voice so he would quack no more.
But Frank never forgot the sound he knew could get a duck’s attention and was determined to someday come up with a call to recreate it.
That would have to wait, though. His country needed him and after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Frank joined the U.S. Army Air Corps; serving the entire length of World War II from 1941 to 1945 receiving two distinguished flying cross medals and two air medals. Frank would continue to make aviation his life career retiring in 1981 after over 20 years as Chief Pilot and safety director for Raven Industries.
After the war, Frank also got back on track toward his lofty goal of building the finest waterfowl calls in the world. His regular hunting trips became research and development missions.
With the skills of a fine wood craftsman, the mind of a scientist, the discipline and confidence of a military leader along with the faith and fairness of a prophet, Heidelbauer eventually found a combination of Bird’s Eye Maple wood and plastic along with the proper dimensions and assembly techniques that made for the perfect call.
Frank was not a braggart by any means but after demonstrating the call for me; first leaning into it loud enough to get the attention of a flock flying a thousand feet over head or a not-so-understanding neighbor….then softly clucking as if ducks were having a quiet conversation on the pond…Frank smiled at me and said, “There’s no other single reed call that can do that.”
Not only did Frank once win world championships with his own calls, his reputation quickly outgrew his ability to keep up with demand..especially after write-ups in Field and Stream and other outdoors magazines.
The thing about Frank was he just wouldn’t settle for anything less than perfection. I remember him telling me after he stopped making Goose calls for a while because the sheet plastic he’d been using for reeds was discontinued, “Most people wouldn’t know the difference but I would.” He said.
At the time of our visit in 1991, the Heidelbauer Mallard Toller duck call was priced at $275.00. That’s an enormous amount of money for a duck call..probably the most expensive in the world but every Heidelbauer call was personally handcrafted by Frank himself who spent an average of 14 hours on each one and guaranteed them to be perfect upon leaving his shop and bring in ducks for the hunter. I remember him saying, “You couldn’t hire a plumber in Sioux Falls for 14 hours for 275 dollars.”
That was the wonderful thing I took from our time together. He wasn’t interested so much in achieving big money or fame.(Although, many of the country’s top guides are on record as using Heidelbauer calls. One, Frank joked, told him he’d part with his wife before giving up his Heidelbauer call.) He was more interested in having people get outdoors and enjoy the hunting experience and if he could help you invite some ducks to the party…well, that’s reward enough.
About four years after our interview, Frank Heidelbauer, who had turned down lots of offers to sell his shop, tools and all his secrets, decided to turn everything over to his young protégé, Todd..his grandson. Todd had not only loved going hunting with Frank but been like a sponge hanging around the shop helping grandpa and learning the master’s skills..both as a craftsman and a gentleman.
Todd is still carrying on the Heidelbauer duck and goose calls tradition: http://www.heidelbauer.com/
As for Frank, he was 73 at the time of our story. I recall him saying he hoped the good Lord would let him keep going until at least 80. It turns out he was still calling in Mallards, Mergansers, Red Heads and Canvas Backs until age 84 when God decided to give the ducks a break.
I don’t know what Frank might have thought about a show like Duck Dynasty..or if he’d ever heard of Duck Commander calls. I can almost guarantee, though, that any duck hunter worth his buckshot..including the bewiskered Phil Robertson.. has heard of Frank Heidelbauer.