At Winter’s Edge | Belle’s Last Duck Hunt
Belle’s Last Duck Hunt
Ice popped rhythmically under the truck tires as dawn revealed the white desert before us. The search for ducks had a special urgency that day, but winter’s early arrival wouldn’t make it easy.
Belle didn’t seem to care. Perched in the shotgun seat, she fogged the passenger-side window with anxious breath, gazing at the familiar South Dakota landscape. A veteran of 19 prairie trips in 13 years, the old girl had done it all: plump mallards in cornfield sloughs, hardy divers on windswept lakes, and roosters from vast grasslands and cattail-choked fencerows. But this was the last ride, and I think she knew it.
Even before we’d journeyed west, I knew the trip would mark Belle’s Dakota hunting finale. She still had game, but 13 hard seasons had taken their toll on her old body, and she simply couldn’t do it anymore. To my relief, the week had gone well, with great water hunts and many retrieves. And when a late-October blizzard struck during our penultimate hunt, Belle got to take the morning off, as two buddies and I endured 40 mph winds and six inches of snow while taking 18 ducks and several geese from a hot bean field.
But that blizzard and the subsequent cold front had changed the waterfowl scene dramatically. Many sloughs were covered with ice, and our bean field was empty. Snow geese streamed endlessly from the north, and it seemed obvious that a major migration had occurred. Although cool to witness, that shift had me hitting the panic button. It would be my retriever’s final hunt in the Dakotas, and I desperately needed to find ducks – a task that appeared almost insurmountable considering the near-Arctic conditions.
Still, I vowed to enjoy the day. We drove to several spots that had produced good freeze-up hunting during previous trips, finding a few ducks but nothing worth hunting. Phone calls and texts with buddies revealed they were struggling too. But we continued driving and glassing, certain we’d stumble upon a hidden gem.
Finally, about lunchtime, we spotted about 75 birds along the shoreline of a large slough we’d hunted years ago. I pulled into the landowner’s farmyard and asked for permission, but he politely declined, saying a friend from the city would be there that weekend to hunt. I thanked him and drove off, quietly discouraged.
As we reached the highway, I realized it was decision time. Belle would never again hunt the prairies, and I owed it to her to provide a good finale. Should I continue stubbornly looking for ducks or admit defeat, switch gears, and take her pheasant hunting? The answer was obvious, so we turned the truck north toward the cabin to switch waders for boots and an upland vest.
Ninety minutes later, we pulled into a familiar walk-in area, ready to stretch our legs. Two buddies joined us, also having given up on waterfowl. Their younger dogs would boost our efforts.
The plan was simple: march slowly into the wind along a field of standing corn, and then follow a winding ditch east to a larger sea of grass. The powder-like snow helped muffle our approach to the corn, and the dogs immediately got excited as we cut rooster tracks.
The cornfield ended at the top of a slight rise, and that’s where I expected most of the action to occur. So maybe I was surprised when two roosters exploded from the middle of the field five minutes into our walk. Catching the stiff wind in their wings, they peeled toward the right, bringing them 35 yards from me. My first shot killed the lead bird, and a buddy took care of the trailing pheasant. Belle held her head high as she quickly recovered the rooster and brought it to heel.
“Good pup,” I said softly, scratching her ear. “We got one.”
And we could have ended the hunt there, but Belle sensed that more work waited. Nose down and tail whirling in circles, she immediately disappeared into the corn, resuming the chase. Tension increased as we neared the field’s edge, and almost on cue, another rooster burst from cover and flew straight away. It was a cake shot, and Belle soon had pheasant number 2.
At the ditch, my buddies and I decided to split up. They’d walk a grassy fence line to the north while I stayed along the ditch to the south. We’d reconvene a quarter-mile to the east and then work other cover back toward the truck.
Belle seemed to relish the close-cover work, quartering back and forth while checking every tight spot for a hidden bird. We’d certainly chased other pheasants out of the corn, so I expected action at any moment.
Several hens burst from a corner as Belle closed in. She watched them for a second but then returned to business, convinced that more birds were ahead. Soon, another hen flushed and escaped, but a rooster exploded just behind her, almost at my feet. The shot was almost too easy. I twisted to my right and slapped the trigger.
And missed. Embarrassed, I fired again but whiffed.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I thought. “I just blew an easy chance for a pheasant limit on my dog’s final prairie hunt.”
Of course, Belle had seen me stumble before, so she didn’t seem to mind. Eyes bright and white maw panting for breath, she sat for a minute, her old haunches trembling a bit. I knew it was time to circle back to our friends and finish the hunt.
My buddies had scored another rooster, so we declared the day a success, despite my epic fail on the ditch rooster. We turned west and hit several grassy patches on the trek to the truck, hoping to find another bird or two. Only a couple of hens obliged, and soon, we were within sight of the vehicles, with the setting sun seemingly marking the day’s end.
But as I paused on a high hilltop, I noticed several groups of ducks trading between a huge slough to the south and a recently opened slough directly below. Two redheads zipped over at 50 yards, and I suddenly realized it might pay to sit there for a moment.
Sure enough, as I glanced back south, a black dot appeared on the horizon, heading directly toward us. I crouched low and waited, bidding Belle to sit. Soon, the drake bluebill flared overhead, and I rose and fired. The hit was solid, but the bird sailed out of sight over the hill and disappeared. Belle had marked it, though, so I didn’t bother giving her a line, simply saying, “Back.” She kicked up snow as she headed off, plowing through cover on her way down the hill.
Silently hoping the bird was dead, I waited and watched anxiously. Belle sprinted about 100 yards and then stopped, tail twirling, looking left and right. Seconds later, she plunged her head into deep grass and emerged with the shiny dead scaup in her mouth. Soon, she sat at heel, presenting another duck in a long career of such moments. But it wasn’t just another duck.
Chuckling, I headed leisurely for the truck, Belle at my side. Gunshots behind us indicated my buddies were pass-shooting a few ducks, but they’d be along soon. At the vehicle, I gave Belle some water and propped the roosters and the duck on a round bale. Then I positioned Belle — who always loathed having her picture taken — below the birds and snapped a few cell-phone shots.
It hadn’t been a typical prairie day – two roosters, an awful miss, and a bonus bluebill – but the strange series of events somehow seemed appropriate as a coda to Belle’s Dakota career. As she sat impatiently by the birds, the low sun cast her shadow on the hay bale, almost making it appear that she was looking back and reflecting on seemingly endless adventures.
The next day, we headed home. Belle would ease into a well-earned retirement, and I’d soon undertake the fun and frustration of training new retriever puppy. More trips and memories would follow, of course, but every late-October sunset returns me to Belle’s final prairie moment. She’s been gone for a while, and I sometimes struggle to remember what it was like hunting with her or envisioning her plowing into the water for another retrieve. Then the images of that day and the many that preceded it flood back, and I hold onto the thought that I tried to savor the moments as they occurred.
That final prairie hunt hadn’t been perfect. Or maybe it had. Looking back, maybe it ended just the way it should have – with a flood of joy and a proud retriever – and I realize I couldn’t have asked for more.