Most of us think we are dead-eyes with a shotgun, but in waterfowling sometimes we’ll only wing a duck and they hit the water swimming hard. When this happens, the focus shifts to ensuring that crippled bird ends up in the dog’s mouth.
It can be as simple as letting a retriever loose and watching him do his thing, but that situation depends heavily on the amount of damage the duck has taken. For other birds, it’s going to require touching off another round.
All crippled ducks, especially divers and sea ducks, will try to get away any way they can. Since they can no longer fly, that means they are going under to avoid capture. My general rule is if a bird has its head up on the water, it’s time to get another shot into them.
Sometimes that’s possible, sometimes not.
With a steady dog that hasn’t scrambled into the water, you can wait for the follow-up shot. That’s a perfect-world scenario, however, because not all dogs will sit at your side until released. When this happens, you now have a duck that needs to be shot again and a dog in the water. Of course, it’s also entirely possible to knock a duck silly enough so that he splashes down like he is dead, only to have him come to his senses when your dog gets close.
There is no way to overstate how important it is to safely navigate this reality. When I hunt with a group, I always tell them ahead of time that I’m either the cripple shooter, or I’m the one who calls the shots. I don’t care if that hurts someone’s feelings, because it’s not about them or me—it’s about keeping the dog safe. You have to have control of the situation from beginning to end to ensure your dog comes back home healthy and happy.
You also have to make sure your dog understands the situation.
The goal of training for cripples is to ensure the dog focuses on the wounded bird and can tune out any other distractions. One of those distractions, which can be hard to ignore, is the follow-up shot.
For this, it’s imperative your dog has been properly introduced to gunfire. If this is the case, then it’s time to grab a training dummy and a blank gun and start off on land. Have the dog at heel and toss the dummy. Once he is halfway to the dummy, touch off a shot. This will start to simulate what he will experience when you’re finishing off a cripple on the water. The goal to get your dog comfortable completing the retrieve without stopping to look back at you or losing his focus on the dummy.
A lot of dogs breeze through this stage because they possess such a strong retrieving desire. Either way, eventually, you’ll want to fire off several shots while he is working the dummy. As long as your dog can finish a retrieve on land without losing his focus as you shoot, you’re ready to advance his training.
Now move to a pond or nearby lake and start from scratch with a single blank shot while he swims out to grab the dummy. Again, work him to the point where he can handle the entire retrieve while you shoot several times.
At this point, I’ll leave the blank gun at home and bring out a shotgun to run through the drills. If you’re dog is good with this, it’s time to move on.
Shooting the Water
To begin shooting into the water while my dog retrieves, I’ll start at the water’s edge with him sitting next to me. I’ll shoot and throw the dummy as far as I can. Make sure the water is deep enough so your dog has to fully swim (and won’t ever be bounding through the shallows) and send him for the retrieve.
When he starts his retrieve, move parallel down the shore and shoot into the water well away from the dog and the dummy. Again, safety is paramount so be very careful.
When you shoot the water your dog should perk up and look at the splash of the shot but he should also keep going toward the dummy. It’s important to note here that shot can skip off of the water’s surface, so be absolutely sure not only of where you’re shooting in the water, but also what is beyond your shot.
That goes for training but also when you’re finishing off a cripple while actually hunting. There might be another hunting party tucked into the next point of cattails and you don’t want to send a bunch of steel skipping their way.
If your dog is good with this, you can use a live duck to train with or have a dummy attached to a weight and a cord that will disappear just like a diver will. Simply pop the dummy under and then allow it to resurface, and when it does, shoot near it (but not near your dog).
This drill will teach your dog that the splash of the shotgun blast indicates where the bird is, which is important when you’re dealing with cripples and thinking about how limited a dog’s view is when he gets into the water.
I’ve mentioned safety quite a bit, but I’m going to mention it again. It’s your responsibility to control the situation when a bird is wounded, but also to recognize when not to send your dog. If for some reason you feel you can’t safely shoot a cripple, you need to make that call and stand by it.
There may also be times where you have to call your dog back and restart the retrieve from a new position because the duck has either sailed or paddled far enough away to necessitate a fresh look.
You might also run into a scenario, especially on big water, where recovery is not possible, or very unlikely. No one wants to lose a duck for any reason, but it happens. It’s a reality and there is no reason to put your dog in danger over it.
Naturally, there are a few things you can do to keep this from happening too often. For instance, even if I’m shooting No. 2s or 4s, I’ll keep some 6s in my shell pocket for follow-up shots. The denser the spread the better when you’re trying to anchor a cripple.
It’s also a good idea to work steadiness with a dog to the point where you have absolute control over him even when the shooting is intense and the ducks are working. It’s necessary to designate a shooter and work with a dog that understands his role retrieving a still-alive duck.