Friday, November 15, 2013

Old Dogs Still Doing Old Tricks

Monday afternoon I decided it would behoove me to grab the decoys, the waders and the old lady (canine version) and be set up on the water when that massive, nationwide cold front/storm system was scheduled to blow through late Monday afternoon. I had visions of undulating waves of high movers riding the wind right into my decoys. Ahh, the giddiness of pre-failure...

I also briefly considered hunting - for the first time - out of the kayak, but wisely decided that 45mph gusts, a notoriously windswept lake, plunging windchills, and a tiny, narrow boat loaded with gear, decoy bags, a somewhat fat man and a somewhat fat dog would more than likely result in Watery Death and six inches below the fold in our local paper.

So instead I decided to hunt a small slough below the dam of the reservoir. Not an ideal location, as it presented some logistical issues of its own (long hike in, extremely limited area in which to hunt, extremely limited open water in which to drop ducks so your dog doesn't have to search for them in the acres of dense, flooded reeds that ring the pond, even more extremely limited area in which to set decoys without falling into deep water/sucking muck and the corresponding Watery Gelatinous Death that goes along with said misstep, etc.). It's basically a spot that allows zero flexibility in setting up according to conditions and wind direction. Like castor oil, you just have to take what's given and like it.

But when everything aligns just right, it can be a great spot. So that's where the dog and I found ourselves Monday afternoon. We survived the extended sand plum thicket crawl, I survived the setting of the decoys, and all we needed now was cold weather and mallards.

So we waited for the gust front and the clouds of ducks that were surely just over the northern horizon. And waited, and waited, perspiring in my waders as I watched clouds of insects fornicate under a brilliant azure sky. Where the hell was the cold front? Where the hell were the ducks?

Eventually, I started getting a few ducks winging by in the sunshine, almost all of them wigeon, a species of duck for which I have a particular fondness. The obvious fakery of my decoy spread was eclipsed only by the obvious fakery of my calling, but I did manage to drop the first pair of weary, astigmatic and tone-deaf wigeon that committed to the decoys. I sent Tess after the first one and then remembered that I had a video camera I never, ever remember to actually use. So I grabbed it to record a few seconds of sloppy dog handling, lackadaisical dog work (she is ten, after all), and overall low-production value entertainment of interest to absolutely no one but myself. But since this is my blog, I don't care...

She's never been a ball of fire like my other two chessies, and she's never been as crisp, either, but she's always been consistent, if a little plodding. I duck hunt almost exclusively alone, so the past few years as she's slowed down and settled into her golden years, I've let Tess slide on a lot of little things for which real dog men would frown upon and chastise me. But again, she's ten years old. She doesn't give a shit what real dog men think of her, and neither do I.

So we waited, enjoyed the sunshine, shot a couple more wigeon, which appeared sporadically and in small groups, and waited some more. All in all not a bad way to spend a late afternoon, even if the expected clouds of ducks never showed up. Right before I decided to pack it in and head for home, a lone drake mallard flew in, and instead of dropping him in open water, which is what would have happened had I shot him correctly, I winged him and he tumbled exactly where I didn't want him to go; into the jungle of reeds and deep, sucking muck across the slough to my right.

Since both the dog and I were in a makeshift blind on the back side of the dam, covered with reeds, all either of us could see was the mallard angling into the general area of the reeds. Neither of us could actually mark it down.

Well, shit. I had a downed but live duck out there in that nightmare of water, mud and cover, no clear idea where it was, and absolutely no way to reach it short of sprouting gills or webbed feet. Well, that's why you have a dog, right? All I could do was line her in the general direction of where I thought the duck went down, give her a "back" and hope like hell the fat old girl could bust her way through those reeds and use her nose to find that mallard. There would be no handling beyond the initial line, but she knew the game.

So I sent her, watched her hit the reeds and disappear, and then of course suddenly remembered (again, a bit late) that I had a video camera. What follows is, literally, about eight minutes of me filming a silent row of reeds, so I chopped it down to about a minute-and-a-half of me filming reeds, followed by some silly, overly effusive praise that Tess earned every bit of.

A few short years ago Tess would have eaten up a retrieve like that, but at ten, although she's still fairly active, I was a bit worried she'd tire out looking for that mallard and get hung up in the reeds,which really must be seen in person to understand just how dense they are and how difficult it is for a dog to negotiate. If she had gotten hung up, my only option would have been to walk back to the north around the entire slough, cross a creek, walk back in from the west and start bushwacking into the water, hoping like hell I wouldn't step off into a hole or bury myself in silt.

But she made it: all slow, pudgy, arthritic, crotchety, gray-muzzled, slowly-going-blind sixty pounds of her. It wasn't an especially long retrieve, sixty yards, maybe seventy. But a tough one for a seasoned citizen. It was a helluva lot of fun to witness, a great way to start what may well be her last season, and a perfect example of why I will never understand the appeal of hunting ducks and birds without dogs. I know a lot of people do, and that's cool if they like it, but for me hunting without a dog is kinda like eating a chocolate chip cookie without the chocolate chips. Bleh.     


  1. Well that second video made my Friday afternoon. Nothing better than seeing an old dog still getting it done, better still when it's against long odds.

  2. Love that. Reminds me so much of the last lab I had that actually got old, and her last couple of hunts. It's that point where they know what they're about and just go at it all business-like, and when you layer on the praise you get that look that sort of says, "well, frickin' DUH!"

  3. Nice work, Tess. Extra treat for you.