By E. Donnall Thomas Jr.
One December afternoon last year, I left my desk early to head for the creek and shoot a few ducks. When I stopped at the kennel, I bypassed Rocky, my veteran yellow Lab, in favor of his son Kenai. A promising youngster, Kenai still needed work in the field. Despite the howls of protest from Rocky’s kennel, the low-key hunt I had in mind promised an ideal opportunity to advance Kenai’s training.
There were mallards in the air when I threw the decoys into a favorite backwater, but the birds trading up and down the creek paid no attention to the blocks. I’ve certainly hunted ducks on colder mornings, but the air always feels colder than the thermometer reads when the birds aren’t cooperating. By the time the first hour had passed without an opportunity to fire a shot, I was shivering even if the dog wasn’t.
Finally, a lone greenhead appeared over the cottonwoods and turned into the freshening breeze. He sensed trouble on his final approach, though, and flared prematurely at the edge of shotgun range. Ordinarily I might have passed up the shot, but Kenai had been waiting so patiently for a chance to retrieve that I felt obligated to provide one.
I wanted a dead duck 30 yards away across the creek to test the young dog’s ability to stay on line through moving water. What I got was a mallard with a broken wing fluttering down in a dense tangle of frozen cattails 150 yards away. Chiding myself for this development, I gave Kenai the line and sent him.
Because of a sharp bend in the creek, the direct route to the bird required the dog to cross the moving water not once but twice before arriving back on the same side from which he had started. He handled that challenge like a pro. Because I’d been standing up to shoot while he lay quietly in the grass, I’d marked the long fall better than he had. I gave him one correction on his way to the cattails, and he read that perfectly. I already knew he had an excellent nose, which he confirmed by running down the crippled bird quickly despite the thickness of the cover. That was the only duck I shot all afternoon.
A lone mallard hardly sounds like the conclusion of an epic duck hunt, but as we walked back up the bank together that night, a limit of geese hanging from the game strap couldn’t have made me happier. I wouldn’t walk across the street to shoot a limit of ducks without a good retriever at my side, and most veteran duck hunters I know share similar feelings. Ethical concerns for lost birds aside, a good retriever is simply an essential part of the waterfowling experience.
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