October 2017
Outdoor Life

A Call of Tradition

David Gaston’s custom duck calls carry on a passion for craftsmanship learned from several accomplished mentors.

 

David Gaston sells from his shop, located in the small community of Rural, just south of Thomasville. He ships his handmade duck calls all over the United States and to numerous countries around the world.

Growing up in Wilcox County was something very special for David Gaston. Since the county has more miles of riverfront along the Alabama River than any other county in South Alabama, this area was an outdoorsman’s dream. It still is today! Sportsmen flock to this Black Belt area for ready access to all kinds of game.

Whether hunting or fishing, Gaston and his friends took full advantage of this natural paradise. After Miller’s Ferry Lock and Dam was completed in the 1960s, the area became an even better flyway for migrating waterfowl. Gaston learned to call and hunt ducks in what he proudly said was "the Wilcox County way, long before it was cool!"

"I had seven mismatched duck decoys," he laughingly recalled. "I painted a 2-liter coke bottle black and anchored it with a big nut or bolt, really whatever I could get! I called and hunted, and I loved it!"

Gaston developed a deep love for duck hunting, but he longed to learn the tradition of making his own calls. He traveled to Selma, Tennessee, where he met Jimmy Faust. Faust taught Gaston how to place his decoys and how to refine his calling. Later, a good friend invited him to Mossy Break where he met Bob Westerville, who had finished first runner-up in the World’s Duck Calling Championship.

"Bob showed me better ways to be more effective with a duck call," Gaston explained.

Wishing to learn even more, Gaston visited Gordon Hartley, owner of Southland Duck Calls in Leland, Mississippi. Hartley advised him to get some good wood, find the right tools and start making calls. He took Hartley’s advice and began in the early ’80s to craft a few duck calls that he now describes as "crude."

It was only when he traveled to Clarendon, Arkansas, in 1984, and met Alvin "Fruit Juice" Taylor that Gaston’s longing to make calls would turn from a desire to a passion. Taylor became Gaston’s mentor, slowly teaching him how to make his own duck calls with his own unique sounds. Most important, Taylor would become Gaston’s dear friend, sharing the time-honored tradition of this art form.

"He was very old-fashioned," Gaston stated. "He grew up along the White River, and he was raised by his aunt and uncle. I had to win his trust and respect before he would reveal his techniques. It wasn’t easy but finally I won his trust. I had a lot of love for this man."

After Taylor’s death in early 2000, Gaston vowed to carry on the tradition of his mentor. He began to sell his calls at his business, Gaston’s Custom Calls. At the time, he also owned the Alabama Grill, a popular restaurant in Thomasville. Between running a restaurant and making duck calls in his spare time, Gaston stayed busy. His calls soon became very popular and established him as a gifted craftsman.

Gaston believes a duck call is really a musical instrument. That’s why he has always been so particular about the kind of wood he used. Gaston orders cocobolo and African black wood on the internet. He also uses hedge or bois d’ arc (commonly called mock orange), which is abundant in the Black Belt area. The hedge Gaston uses produces the pitch and tone he prefers. Gaston refuses to use any pieces with chips or cracks. He never fills any cracks, because he believes this diminishes the integrity of the wood. He also covers the wooden calls with a glossy sealant as a protection from the elements.

The kind of wood determines the quality of the sound in duck calls. David is very selective, choosing only the best quality wood with no chips or cracks.

 
   

Gaston’s acrylic calls are also very popular. These calls are nonporous and do not absorb moisture that can change the quality of the sound. His acrylic calls come in many vivid colors.

Waterfowlers seek Gaston’s calls for the realistic sounds they produce and their ease of blowing. Gaston believes the only way to get a true tone for a call is to "hear and feel" it. The only way to hear and feel the perfect tone is through experience as a hunter. He still returns to Arkansas every year to hunt with longtime friends and family.

Gaston has now retired, and he continues to make both wood and acrylic calls in his shop, located behind his home in Rural, a small community just south of Thomasville.

When asked how many duck calls he could make in a day, he laughed and explained, "It depends on how many friends drop by and how many phone calls I get."

From August to November each year, the pace of work changes in Gaston’s shop.

"During this time, my turning goes from pleasure to an all-out sprint to get the Christmas orders out!" he laughed.

Fortunately, two friends, Jay Gunn and Tyler Stephens, come by often to help him turn.

Duck hunters seek Gaston’s calls for their versatility and dependability. He has customers from all over the world. His prices range from $80 and up for hedge calls to $125 and up for acrylic calls.

 

David and his wife, Dottie, are both retired, but neither has stopped working. Together, they have four children and 10 grandchildren. Dottie often accompanies David on his duck hunts in Arkansas.

Gaston’s calls are 100-percent handmade.

"I cut and file every tone board that goes out of this shop!" he added proudly.

Gaston is very proud of his work and the products he makes.

"The quality of any call reflects directly on the call maker," he explained. "The tone, appearance, everything about it reflects on me. I always think that if I wouldn’t give it to one of my grandchildren then I wouldn’t give it to my customer!"

Gaston’s Custom Calls can still be found at Cohutta Fishing World and Dunn’s Sports in Thomasville, but now he sells on the internet and directly from his shop. He also makes custom goose calls such as the Canada speckle belly and snaps goose calls. His calls have won numerous state and regional competitions, finishing several times in the top 10 in world competitions. His handiwork can also be found at Black Belt Treasures in Camden, where they are recognized both for their quality craftsmanship and their artistic beauty.

Like most artists, Gaston says that working on his duck calls takes him to a timeless zone that is sheer pleasure.

"When I am working," he said, "I have no sense of time. It is one of the most relaxing, gratifying, satisfying times to be in my shop turning duck calls."

Gaston carries on the tradition he learned from an older artist who cared enough to share his wisdom. Gaston waits, hoping a youngster somewhere will hear the rush of wings and feel the urge to call. Then, he, too, will pass on the tradition to another generation.

You can contact David’s Custom Calls at 251-769-2744. His website is www.gastoncustomcalls.com.

 

Carolyn Drinkard is a freelance writer from Thomasville. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..