Even Our Dogs Have Oddball Moments Afield
In practice and concept, the act of a dog retrieving a dead duck appears simple.
Real-world hunting, however, sometimes complicates the process. Poor shots, missed marks, human or canine error, and other factors often lead to retrieving adventures. And when you factor in conditions and the personality of the dog involved, things can get downright odd.
I've witnessed a few weird retrieving sequences through the years. Some involved the actual retrieve, but others turned strange before or after the fact. Here's a snapshot of some memorable odd moments.
South Dakota was wet. In fact, you couldn't wade a slough without quickly being up to your chest in water. But if that's where the ducks wanted to go, that's where we had to hunt.
Of course, that was tough for the dogs. Even hardy Labradors don't enjoy standing neck-deep in cold water for hours, and when the mercury plummets, it can even be dangerous.
Maybe that's why my first retriever, Belle, went rogue. I'd slugged into a secluded pothole, found decent cover and positioned Belle in waist-deep water behind me. After a few minutes, however, she opted out of my setup and found a dry muskrat hut 50 yards away. And that's how we hunted — me shivering in the deep water, and Belle watching the action from afar.
But the pup made it work. When I downed a duck, Belle would mark, retrieve and deliver it to hand before resuming her vigil on the hut. And when we left for the day, she took the long — and dry — route back to the truck. Smart dog.
I was a bit worried how my 10-month-old pup, Birdie, would handle her first experience with ice. Temperatures on the North Dakota prairie had plunged overnight, and most sloughs and backwaters were rimmed with a pretty good coating of hard water.
Not being very smart, I put her to the test, downing a pair of greenheads out of a passing flock. One fell dead at our feet, but the other sailed a bit into a frozen mass of cattails. Knowing the bird was still kicking, I gave Birdie a mark and released her. She did well, too, crashing through the ice and tracking down the bird 50 yards from where it had fallen. Moreover, she seemed to come alive after the experience, craving more action. But that had been the final duck in our limit, so we were finished.
Or so I thought. As we walked through a field back to the truck, dozens of tiny songbirds flitted from hay bale to hay bale, and Birdie became enthralled. Then, she began to chase the flocks here and there across the frozen ground. I watched, baffled, as she sprinted back and forth through the field several times, transfixed by the birds.
Finally, she got tired and returned to my side. I guess busting through that ice hadn't been enough.
Belle epitomized the concept of an alpha female. And she always had a clear idea of how every retrieve should go. It was her bird — no questions. That became apparent one October afternoon at a small North Dakota slough.
I shot a gadwall from a small flock, and the bird hit the water alive. Belle was on the job quickly, but the bird began diving for long periods and eluded her for several minutes. Anxious to help, I waded into the water so I could finish off the cripple.
When the bird surfaced, however, it was too close to shoot without destroying it. So, I held fire. After its next dive, the gaddie surfaced by my leg, and I quickly grabbed it. Seconds later, I felt Belle rip the duck from my grasp and proudly carry it to shore. She'd done all the hard work and would not be denied her prize.
Birdie was pretty sick, but she wouldn't miss opening day. Poor girl. She sat in the skiff like a champ but had to make frequent, um, emergency visits to a nearby shoreline to relieve herself. That didn't detract from business, though. In two hours, I slowly plowed through our six-duck limit, and Birdie answered the call for every retrieve, including some tough work in heavy cover. Then, she'd bring the bird to hand and quickly find a nearby bog or rat hut to have a loud and violent elimination event. I can only wonder what nearby hunters thought as we poled out of the marsh that day.
Did I mention that Belle was an alpha female? Our first year in North Dakota, she hunted alongside my pal and his retriever, Bud. The pups got along fine, but they'd yet to work out their pecking order. When the first gadwall fell during that trip, both dogs broke, and the race was on.
It's OK, I said to my buddy. They'll figure it out.
Maybe. The dogs reached the duck and grabbed it at the same time. Then, they returned in unison, heads jerking as they played tug-of-war with the gaddie on the 40-yard swim to shore. Thankfully, the bird was mostly intact when I took it from their maws.
We took turns on retrieves after that.
In Your Absence …
Reggie, my brother-in-law's retriever, was probably the finest, most polished gun dog with which I've hunted. He had that great combination of raw talent, insatiable drive and tempered obedience. Yet he wasn't without idiosyncrasies.
One late-October day 21 years ago, I sat in our lake blind with Reggie as my brother-in-law left to check his muskrat traps. Minutes later, a large mixed flock of redheads and canvasbacks flew out of a bay, wheeled by my spread and committed with wings cupped. For once, I made hay, killing two drake redheads with the first two shots and downing a bull can with the third.
Trouble was, the can was alive and on the move. I knew Reggie would have difficulty tracking down the bird in the rough open water on the lake, so I sent him on the redheads and then jumped in our boat to chase down the cripple.
I had to row about a mile out to finally overtake and kill the can. Then, I had a long row back against the wind. The journey took about 30 minutes, and Reggie had been busy.
The shoreline was covered in feathers when I finally beached the boat. In my absence, Reggie had retrieved both redheads but decided to rip the feathers off one and eat most of the breast. It looked like a pillow had exploded.
Just then, Jay returned to find Reggie covered in white feathers and me soaked in sweat, hunkered in a row boat.
What … what happened? he stammered.
I didn't even try to explain.