By Rebecca Bingham | Photography courtesy of Buck Gardner
Buck Gardner’s passion for duck calling turned into an internationally recognized company that helps hunters communicate with nature.
Buck Gardner placed dead last in his first duck calling contest because he was disqualified for talking.
“That was 1980, and I didn’t have a clue what I was doing,” said Gardner. “It was a blind setup where the judges couldn’t see you; they just called you forward by number, not by name. What I remember hearing is, ‘Number 4, you’re done,’ but I didn’t know why until later.”
“Thank goodness for Mike McLemore, the emcee that year and three-time World Champion from Huntington, Tennessee. After the competition, he told me even though I had been disqualified, I actually performed better than most of the other callers. He also said if I wanted to learn, he would be willing to teach me.”
In the years that followed, Gardner strung together impressive wins in local and state contests and several high finishes in world duck calling competitions.
“By 1994, my family and friends said I was driving them crazy,” he recalled. “They wanted me to go blow in the Mississippi Delta Regional contest being held in early November. My wife finally said, ‘Either go down there and win or embarrass yourself and quit.’ Not only did I win there, but I also won the World Championship later that month.”
The next year, Gardner brought home the Champion of Champions title, which earns every winner an automatic retirement from competition. Even more importantly, he has gotten a lifetime of satisfaction using his passion as a waterfowl hunter as the basis for a successful game-call manufacturing business. That business, Buck Gardner Calls, helps hunters of all skill levels improve their hunts through effective communication with nature.
“I’ve truly been blessed by God,” he added.
Raised in Aubrey, Arkansas, Gardner grew up in a rural agricultural community located on the rail line about 25 miles southwest of Forest City.
“It used to be a thriving community of nearly 1,000 residents, with two independent cotton gins and a high school,” he said. “My father and grandfather worked together clearing farmland until my grandfather developed a carotid artery disease and died in surgery. When the price of soybeans topped $15 a bushel during the 1960s, my dad decided to move the family to Memphis. I was in the third grade.”
Buck’s mother, Sadie, continued her career as a teacher. His father, Arch, started a new profession in secondary education, teaching automotive mechanics and math at Whitehaven High School.
“It was horrible!” recalled Buck. “Like on Senior Day, everybody else got to skip class, but not me, because my mom and dad were at school.”
After graduation, Buck went to Lambuth College on a golf scholarship, but soon came back to Memphis State after his grades slipped. “Three years into college, I figured I knew everything I needed to know, so I headed out into the world to make money.”
Gardner found his career groove in sales, working for Levitz Furniture in Memphis.
“The best part about that job was meeting Marlene, the young lady who worked nights in the credit department,” he says. “Even though I had been dating someone else for a couple of years, I came home that night and told my mom and dad I had met the girl I planned to marry. Dad suggested I might want to go out with her first.”
Their first date was to meet his parents.
“From then on, she was my girl,” he recalled. “Seven months later, we were married. That was 46 years ago.”
Buck and Marlene soon moved to Birmingham, where they started their family and lived for the next 12 years. As a manufacturer’s representative for a broad line of consumer electronics and housewares, Buck built relationships with major retail buyers for Walmart, Fred’s Dollar Stores and Dollar General.
“By 1986, business was strong enough for me to set aside $5,000 to start my duck call business. Wal-Mart was one of the first ones to carry our products. Now, we’re also in Cabela’s, Dick’s and Bass Pro Shops, plus every other major retailer in the U.S. And that’s in addition to a strong international business.”
Buck says his biggest business break came about eight years ago when he figured out how to make a duck call that would blow, even with spit in it.
“Spit-Tech technology knocked our business out of the park almost overnight. Again, that’s another example of God’s blessing,” he said.
Today, Buck Gardner Calls makes a full range of duck calls, goose calls and predator calls, as well as a small selection of deer calls.
“We’re truly a hunter’s best friend because we make great products everybody can afford,” said Buck. “Every call is tuned by hand and tested at our shop in Memphis by our Pro Staff Tuners before they make their way into the field.”