By GREG HILBURN
Written for the LSWA
When A&E Network officials approached Duck Commander Phil Robertson about creating a reality show in which he and his Louisiana family would star, he agreed on one condition.
“I informed the A&E people that I would not be available for filming during duck season; I didn’t care if they were paying $50 million,” Robertson said while stroking his signature beard and cradling a shotgun. “They said, ‘You’re not going to budge? I said, ‘No.’”
“Duck Dynasty” may have made the Robertson family famous in mainstream America, but the Robertsons have long been celebrities among hunters for their duck calls, hunting videos and outdoors TV hunting shows.
And long before his rise to “Duck Dynasty” fame, Robertson was a tall, talented quarterback at Louisiana Tech University in the late 1960s, where he and future NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Terry Bradshaw were competing for the starting job.
Phil said he was more interested in answering the call of the wild rather than the call of cheering fans in a stadium.
He has often repeated a conversation he remembers having with Bradshaw.
“I said, ‘Bradshaw, here’s the deal. You’re a big strong kid, you’ve got a strong arm and you want to play in the NFL and you want to play football,” Phil recalled. “He said, ‘That’s right.’ I said, ‘I’m going after the ducks full time. I’d rather hunt ducks than have large violent men stomp me in the dirt . . . You go for it and I’ll see you later.'”
And that decision has landed Robertson in the 2020 class of the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame as an outdoorsman rather than a football player.
Robertson will be inducted in Natchitoches, home to the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame. It’s likely that he might display his duck calling skills during the festivities June 24-26.
Phil designed the first of his famous series of calls in 1972, and he and his wife “Miss Kay” and their four sons Al, Willie, Jase and Jep have built an outdoors empire around it from their West Monroe headquarters in the decades since.
Phil, who blows his calls with the same passion as a master trumpeter, perfected his mallard music as a young man after leaving Louisiana Tech.
Jase explained how the empire began: “Dad was hunting on the (Arkansas-Louisiana) state line at Moss Lake in 1972 when his buddy told him he ought to manufacture the call because the ducks like them so much. He told Dad, ‘You don’t just call the ducks; you command them.’ That’s where the Duck Commander started.”
“The idea is for you to get ducks to think you’re one of them,” Phil said while standing on the bank of the Ouachita River outside his home deep in the pines and hardwoods of Ouachita Parish. “It will make the hair stand up on the back of your neck when you call one down.”
Robertson said his friends and Miss Kay were pensive about his entrepreneurial plan in 1972 to build and sell duck calls.
“I told them we’d just fish out of the Ouachita River until the duck call thing got going,” Phil said. “Kay said, ‘We may starve to death.’ I was getting 30 cents a pound for buffalo and (gasper) goo and $1 a pound for catfish.
“Isn’t that right Al?” Phil called to his oldest son.
“We ate a lot of fish,” Al said, laughing.
Phil recalled a few of his college friends visiting him in the early 1970s.
“They said, ‘Robertson, you’ve got a master’s degree in education and you’re out here fishing and talking about duck calls?’” Phil said.
Those friends later admitted the skepticism they had then.
“They later confessed that as they drove off they said, ‘Robertson’s an idiot,’” Phil said, smiling. “(Forty) years later they were calling me a genius.”
Phil manufactured 500 to 600 calls that first year in 1972. At the peak of the “Duck Dynasty” craze the company was selling more than 1 million calls a year.
The original wooden instrument with a cedar insert is still made, though the company has added colorful plastic calls to the repertoire.
Duck Commander’s calls remain popular because “they sound like ducks,” Jase said. “If you go to a championship duck calling contest, a lot of the calls don’t sound anything like a duck. Our judges aren’t at a championship contest. Our judges are real live ducks that have to believe the decoys on the water are real.”
Phil, who is also an evangelist and best-selling author, said he’s loved the outdoors his whole life, beginning as a child in the 1950s at his parents’ home in Caddo Parish near Moon Lake.
“When I was little I’d stare in the creek and watch the little crawfish or tadpoles swim by,” he said. “I’d lay on the bank and study them hours at a time. I’d look for animal tracks. There have been a lot of meals that the outdoors has provided for me.”
He recalled his first successful solo hunt at 11 using his father’s Browning shotgun, taking down a pintail and teal on his first volley standing on the bank of Moon Lake.
It was cold that day, about 35 degrees, and Phil was wearing blue jeans and tennis
shoes. “We didn’t have warm clothes or hip boots or waders or anything like that,” he said.
Phil stripped out of his clothes, oblivious to the cold, and dog-paddled about 40 yards in the lake to retrieve the ducks. “I was as naked as a jaybird,” he said.
Back on land, Robertson pulled on his clothes and ran the entire two miles back to the house.
“I said, ‘Dad, I’ve got two ducks for us to eat; what kind are they?’” His dad identified a “pretty fat” teal and pintail and “told me to pick (pluck) them and give them to Momma to cook for dinner.”
“I felt like a grown man,” Phil said. “I’ve been after ducks ever since. A man is just who he is – a hunter and a gatherer.”
He’s tried to instill that same feeling for the outdoors in his sons and grandchildren, something sons Jase and Willie remember vividly.
“Every time we went fishing or hunting we’d come back and analyze and discuss how we could have improved for maximum success,” Willie Robertson said. “We would sit at the dinner table and tell stories of our hunts or fishing for the day.”
“When we were little, Dad said, ‘You give me nine months of work and I’ll give you three months to hunt,” Jase said. “We still try to follow that. If it wasn’t for duck season I’d be in a padded room. It’s the only time of year I feel completely free to enjoy what we do.”
“One of the greatest things you can do is take a young boy or girl hunting,” Phil said. “It occupies their time, connects them with something bigger than themselves and takes them away from mischief-making.
“If you do that,” he said, “there’s a good chance, or at least a better chance, that they’ll grow up happy, happy, happy. It’s a good way to raise children,” he said.
But even Robertson admitted he didn’t foresee the success of the Duck Commander company or the hit TV series and best-selling books when he dreamed of earning a living by making duck calls.
“From the riverbank to here has been a long journey,” he said. “But we stayed the course and trusted the Almighty.”