Hunting Dog Training | Duck Days: The Tune-Up
Hunting Dog Training | The Tune-Up Hunt
She was a dog out of time.
Caught between the frenzy of opening weekend and an upcoming Dakota waterfowl bonanza, Birdie, my 6-year-old Lab, squirmed from inactivity. Every morning, she sat by the front door, paws shifting slightly back and forth in anticipation of running to the truck. Every evening, disappointed, she panted nervously after supper and then curled up on her bed with a groan, probably wondering when she could again retrieve ducks.
So, I had little choice when the second split of my home state’s season opened. We were hunting.
I wasn’t too excited about our prospects, though. The pressure would surely be intense, and although many calendar migrants — greenwings, gadwall, wigeon, pintails and early divers — had surely arrived during the break, I’d learned that duck hunting at that time was often spotty.
But my dog, in her hunting prime, had already placed the guilt trip on me. And if nothing else, I figured, a quick weekend foray would serve as a solid tune-up for our prairie trip a few days later.
Commitments prevented me from hunting both days, so I watched the forecast and tried to choose the best morning. Saturday would dawn crisp and clear, but still. Sunday, however, would bring strong north winds and an approaching front. Sunday it was.
Birdie and I were on the road well before light. We only had an hour of travel, but the place I’d picked was popular during the early season, and although the walk in was long, I doubted it would deter many motivated hunters.
I sighed with relief as we pulled into the gravel turn-around and didn’t see taillights. If nothing else, we’d have the first choice of spots. After some quick prep, I whistled at Birdie, threw the decoy bag over my shoulders, switched on my headlamp and began the long trek west.
A two-track service road marked the first leg of the trip, and walking was easy. From there, we eased slightly north and crossed a small hill that dropped into increasingly thick cover by the big pothole. At the water’s edge, things got serious, as we struggled to find dry ground and solid footing while traipsing the final 250 yards to a distant point. Finally, we reached our setup, found a spot to sit and waited until it was time to set out decoys. Birdie sniffed here and there, gazing into the black sky.
The spread would be simple. I was only able to lug 20-some decoys into the marsh, so I’d set those out in two loose groups, with a large open landing area between. The wind, already howling, was perfect, blowing from the north-northwest off my right shoulder and across the large pond. Better, a makeshift blind made of willows and grass offered solid concealment from incoming birds. Birdie, sitting solidly at heel, squirmed with anticipation. But I knew the hunt’s outcome was up to the ducks.
At legal shooting light, a few dark forms streaked high overhead, and muffled shots echoed in the distance — not bad signs, but nothing that helped put birds on the strap. I scanned the horizon, hoping the wind continued to blow and wondering if unseen ducks were on the way.
Moments later, Birdie’s head snapped to the left, her gaze intent. She’s always been better at seeing ducks before I do, and she’s rarely wrong. Sure enough, a three pack of mallards zipped over the ditch at the slough’s far end and worked low into the breeze. At 75 yards, the ducks lifted up, seemingly saw the decoys and set their wings. They didn’t finish well, but that was OK, as I rose and knocked down the greenhead.
“Marginal hit,” I thought. “Get her out there.”
At the back command, Birdie sprinted through the shallows and then began a brisk swim to the drake, which was already swimming away. The chase was brief, though, and Birdie quickly brought the duck to heel, where I dispatched it.
“Good girl,” I said, catching a full face of spray as she shook off. “Hey, at least we got one.”
But we weren’t done. Flocks of ducks zipped overhead, seemingly new to the area and searching for shelter from the blow. Some continued north toward unknown destinations. Others dipped low and worked through our blocks.
A dozen shovelers tore across our bow and flared high to the south, and I couldn’t help taking one. Birdie didn’t mind. Minutes later, 15 gaddies decoyed perfectly in the hole, and Birdie soon retrieved a double. And with each bird, she returned to her spot and demanded more. It’d been too long since she enjoyed such good action, and she wasn’t about to leave.
Sunrise finally illuminated the landscape, and a solo bird came at us high. Immediately, I saw the brilliant white belly and short snout.
“Wigeon,” I whispered to Birdie.
The shot wasn’t perfect, and we knew it. The little bull splashed down outside the decoys, and I immediately released Birdie for what promised to be a long retrieve. Hard winds pushed the wing-tipped wigeon farther out of range, bobbing in the waves, and I started to worry. Yet Birdie never wavered, solidly marking the duck from the start and continuing her pursuit. When she ultimately lowered her head and grabbed the bird in her maw, I exhaled hard, blew the whistle and gave silent thanks.
I considered quitting on that high note. We’d already exceeded my expectations, and my pup had done solid work. But then again, I thought, there was no reason to leave early and miss the show.
So we sat and waited. And the flight stalled somewhat. But undeterred, Birdie kept watch as I gazed at the wind whipping the treetops and waves pounding into the opposite shoreline.
Maybe my daydreams let the mallards surprise us. Or perhaps I just glanced in the wrong direction. But as I lifted my head left, the flock was at 100 yards and coming in hot.
“Just one,” I thought. “Pick him out.”
The birds’ swift descent brought them to within 25 yards on my left side, so I rose quickly, found a trailing bird and fired once. A dozen birds quickly flared and left, but one sailed 100-some yards to the slough’s thick eastern bank.
“Oh no,” I thought. “Mark him.”
I released Birdie and directed her back. When she stopped at 100 yards to look, I hit the whistle and again directed her back. Soon, she disappeared into the shoreline grass and went to work.
“It’s up to her now,” I thought. “If it’s there, she’ll get it.”
But then a minute stretched to two, and I started to fret. Had I mismarked the duck? Had I not sent her far enough?
A skinny black tail revealed the answer. Waving above the cattails, it approached slowly and steadily. Soon, a tiny black head emerged — with a dead mallard firmly attached.
No one heard me whoop as Birdie brought back the duck, but that’s OK. The celebration was ours, so we savored it together. After more praise and a few pictures, I reluctantly yanked the decoys, threw the ducks on an old leather strap and began the walk out. Birdie — wet, muddy and happy as a Lab can be — followed at my side. We’d had a day likely as fine as any the prairie would offer, and the hunt had proven to be a wonderful surprise during what can be a down time.
Yeah, Birdie was ready for more. And those days would surely come. But it had been quite a tune-up.