Divers on Big Water
Diving ducks are incredibly tough birds that often require a finishing shot after they’ve hit the water. But follow-up shots aren’t an option if downed birds fall or dive out of range. This is when a retriever is an invaluable asset.
Steinman says it’s essential for hunters and retrievers to work together while pursuing crippled diving ducks in open water, especially when a dog has to swim a great distance to reach a bird. “You have to help your dog out,” he says. “Diving birds require more teamwork than any other type of retrieve.”
Although having a dog with a good nose is an asset on any retrieve, Steinman believes sight-marking is more important than scenting in open-water retrieving. “A dog is probably going to have a hard time winding a diving duck on open water, so I want him to sight-mark it,” he says.
While not technically complicated, long open-water retrieves are physically demanding. In many cases, a dog must swim hundreds of yards to get the bird and then return to the boat or blind. Consequently, conditioning is vital in big-water retrieving.
Steinman likes to train his dogs in warm (but not hot) weather, and he conducts the training process in graduated steps. He begins by having the dog perform extra-long retrieves on land before moving to the water. “We just try to build momentum,” Steinman says. “We start with 100- or 200-yard retrieves in the water and then gradually work up to 300-, 400-, and 500-yard swims. You have to be patient.”
Steinman says it’s also wise to help dogs become accustomed to retrieving from a boat during the off-season. “Teach the dog to be steady in the boat and to jump out and climb in,” he says. “But there’s nothing wrong with helping your dog back in if it’s having trouble.”
Many big-water hunters fish from their boats during the summer as well, and Steinman advises taking the dog along on these warm-water outings. Throwing a couple of bumpers from the boat in short training and swimming sessions is also a great way to pass the time when the fish aren’t biting.
Another challenge for many dogs is what’s known as a far-bank retrieve, where the dog has to cross an expanse of water and then hunt on land for a bird that has crawled into vegetation on the opposite shore. This may not seem difficult, but it can be a confusing situation for a retriever.
“If a dog has never been taught to get out of the water for a retrieve, he’s not used to getting out on the opposite side,” Stewart says. “But don’t put a dog out on an opposite bank until he will handle. He needs to stop and cast. Otherwise, he’ll learn to be out of control on an opposite bank, and there’s not much you can do about it.”
The primary lesson for a dog to learn here is not all birds are found in the water. For this purpose, Stewart selects a command during training to signal the dog to hunt on the opposite bank. He says a simple command such as “get over” works best. He begins training by putting on his waders, placing a bumper on the far bank, and then wading into the water with the dog at his side. When the water is about nose-deep on the dog (still shallow enough for the dog to get some footing), he sends it to the bumper. Gradually, Stewart progresses to sending the dog from one bank to the other, using large, easy-to-see bumpers placed near the water at first and then progressively farther up the bank. Having an assistant on the opposite bank to toss the bumper can help the dog understand what it needs to do.
“You just want to train the dog so that he handles easily from the opposite bank,” Stewart says. “You want to use a long but narrow body of water, such as a slow-moving river, for your work, so that the dog doesn’t cut corners.”