Visit any public boat ramp in the Washington, D.C.-area during duck season, and you will find a hodgepodge of characters seeking the Potomacâs bluebill-rich waters. Thereâs an eccentric mix of historic duck hunting families and transplants, brought here by career or political fortune. There are weekend warriors and diehards, big boats trailered to big trucks, and small boats towed by yuppie mobiles.
One tie binds them all: retrievers, specifically the Labrador. But the river is large enough, unforgiving enoughâand close enough to The Bayâthat Chessies also enjoy a strong following. What a scene it created on the 2008 goose opener when a springer spanielâgaspâbounded out of the front seat of my truck.
Heads turned as Freedom merrily bounced about greeting passersby as no self-respecting Lab would dare. As I grabbed my blind duffle, I felt the stares of onlookers: Who would bring a springer on a goose hunt?
My dog didnât seem to notice and I didnât much care. I wonât argue a springerâs single-layer coat isnât fit toÂ handle ice-laden waters. And, if you contend Labs take hand signals better on impossibly far blind retrieves, well, youâve got me there too. But thereâs no animal Iâd rather spend a day with.
Springers are happy, with big smiling brown eyes. They cherish every day afield, though are susceptible to over-excitement when ducks drop in. When it comes to tracking cripples of any kind, I place the springer on a higher pedestal than any breed recognized by the American Kennel Club.
But Iâm admittedly biased. The point is, for some, the list of capable duck dogs includes only the Lab or, for the especially patient, the Chesapeake. However, there are those of us whoâve foundâor were found byââotherâ duck dogs. Breeds that just plain suit us. Their qualities exude what we enjoy about a day afield and in a sense mirror our own waterfowling souls.
For centuries in continental Europe, hunting dogs were a luxury reserved for societyâs upper crust. However, in the mid-19th century German hunting laws were amended, opening the door to working-class sportsmen.
These men couldnât afford a large fleet of specialized dogs. They needed one, do-it-all hunter to chase birds and hares, retrieve on land and water, and even blood-trail big game. According to the North American Versatile Hunting Dog Association, the resulting âversatile pointing breedsâ arose in the late 1800s.
The breeds gained rapid popularity and by the mid-1900s were well established in North American circles. The German shorthaired pointer has found particular favor in the U.S. (according to AKC statistics, it was the fifteenth most popular breed in 2012).
I had never considered shorthairs a duck dog, but a recent trip to Argentina changed my opinion. The GSPs were well mannered and retrieved with enthusiasm, flash and accuracy. However, as the name implies, the breedâs key disadvantage on waterfowl is its thin coat.
Even in Argentina, they wore thick vests, and on one frosty morning I noticed some shivering.
Perhaps thatâs one reason two lesser-known versatile breeds are gaining quiet popularity among duck hunters in colder climates: the Pudelpointer and wirehaired pointing griffon. Their key advantage over the shorthair is a dense, wiry, protective coat. They are most popular, of course, with hunters who also pursue upland game, but the griffon in particular may offer advantages to the dedicated waterfowlerâeven over the Lab and Chessie.
âI was a Lab guy for 25 years, but I found myself looking for something different,â says Captain Bob Wetherald of Mid River Guide Service in Newburg, Md. âMy wife and I wanted a good dog for the house, one that didnât shed like a Lab or require constant bathing to make them smell niceâwhich you shouldnât do during duck season anyway. Thatâs when I came across a griffon at a hunting show in Easton, Maryland.â
Wetherald was struck by the dogâs pleasant disposition and the ownerâs tales of versatility and toughness. And, unlike Labs, griffons shed very little and lack the oily scent. Soon he bought a female, Sandy.
âSheâs proven to me that the griffon is absolutely a duck dog,â he reports. âGriffons have a base coat and an outer coat called a wirehair, which gives them durability to the extremeâas much as a Lab, if you ask me. They also have webbed feet which makes them great swimmers, and Sandy is quickly developing into as a good a retriever as any Lab Iâve owned.
âFor me, doing what I doâhunting the Potomac, plus a little upland huntingâthis is as close as I can come to owning a dog that can hunt with me every day in every situation.â
Like Wetherald, Ryan Crew of Trussville, Ala., spent more than two decades certain the Labrador was the only breed for him.
But then Crew joined a friend in Florida for an old fashioned buggy-style quail hunt. Pointers quested for coveys, but what really grabbed Crewâs attention were the English cocker spaniels retrieving downed birds.
âI just couldnât get over these little balls of energy running out and picking up quail,â he said.
âItâs a long story, but I ended up with one, and he changed everything I thought dogs were capable of. The English cockers are so intelligent itâs as if theyâre human. You just look at them and they seem to know what you want.
And if you get them in the area of a crippled duck, theyâre typically going to find it. Iâve seen some Labs with great noses, but I donât know Iâve seen one with the nose of a spaniel.â
Crew recalls one slow, miserably wet morning of hunting with his cocker, Trip, when a lone drake pintail buzzed the decoys. Crewâs shot connected, but it sailed out of the muddy field.
âI was mad at myself,â Crew said. âI could barely walk because of all the mud and sheet water, and now we had a crippled pintail that I wasnât even sure had come down. But I lined Trip up, and he ran a couple hundred yards and went into a big, thick irrigation ditch.
Three or four minutes went by, and my black-and-white dog emerged so covered in mud he looked like a Boykin. But he had the pintail. With every step, he sunk almost to his stomach. Thatâs just one of many ducks I wouldnât have gotten back without that dog.â
Spaniels shine in the upland, have less susceptibility to heat than retrievers (think September teal or dove hunting) and fit nicely into smaller boats.
âWe hunt out of a small boat and kayaks almost exclusively, and a 35-pound cocker or small springer is easier to manage and doesnât leave us cramped for space like a 90-pound retriever,â Crew said. âPlus, when they shake it doesnât wet the boat from bow to stern.â
Such space considerations factored strongly into the development of the Boykin, which stands just 14 to 18 inches at the shoulder and weighs 20-40 pounds. Bred in South Carolina, the small dog was ideal for those hoping to reach the stateâs numerous shallow backwaters. Today the Boykin remains a great retriever, and through careful breeding efforts, I believe itâs perhaps the most underrated upland spaniel.
The spanielsâ big disadvantage is in their tolerance for icy water. Unlike Labs and Chessies, they do not have a warm double coat or oily, hollow hair. Some retrievers shed water like rain off a duck; springers soak it up like a sponge. So, I employ properly-fitting neoprene vests and towel them off after retrieves. But late-season duck hunting often means a quick hunt or leaving the springers home altogether.
âTheyâre not for everyone,â Crew said. âIf you intend to hunt ducks 60 days per year regardless of the weather and want a dog that can haul in dozens of geese across a wheat field, I think the Lab is head-and-shoulders your best choice. But here in Alabama, we rarely break ice. I canât imagine a better duck dog for my situation or a better pet when Iâm not hunting.â
An exception to weather-sensitive spaniels is the less common American water spaniel. It is only slightly larger than the Boykin and similar in appearance, save its less-docked tail and warm, curly double coat. This is a breed developed specifically for duck hunting thatâs serviceable in the uplandsânot the other way around.
Good breeders can be challenging to find, and American water spaniels donât retrieve ducks with the speed and stamina of a Lab, but, for many they are the ultimate compromise between retriever and spaniel.
Many of the previously mentioned dogs are suited to guys who split their time between waterfowl and upland. There are, however, two pointing breeds worth noting for the avid upland hunter who enjoys shooting a few ducks prior to the freeze: the French Brittany and its descendant, the American Brittany.
Personally, I think any dog can be taught to retrieve to some degree, but Brittanys have the natural instinct and intelligence to do it on a fairly high level. Many have also suggested theyâre one of the most easily trained breedsâthe Brittany is a dog for both the rookie or seasoned pro.
âAll my dogs retrieve, otherwise itâd be like hunting with a three-legged dog,â said Bill Dillon, whose Plum Creek Kennels in Armour, S.D., turns out some of the countryâs best French Brits. âIâm not into fighting over which breed is bestâI think that creates too much division in our ranksâbut the Labâs conformation has always been as a retriever.
The French Brittanyâs main function in life is as an upland dog, but when it comes to water retrieves theyâve always gotten it done for me as well.â
While Dillon is primarily an upland bird hunter, he has sold dogs to duck hunters. And, because he hunts pheasants in the Prairie Pothole Region, he figures his dogs complete about six water retrieves per hunt.
âTheyâre not strong enough to bust ice like a Chessie, but theyâre great with kids and other dogs,â Dillon said. âTheyâre also smallerâ40 pounds or lessâwhich suits them to smaller boats.â
Rich Louter tends to create a small scene when he competes in retriever hunt tests with one of his poodles.
âWhen a poodle comes to the line, all eyes are on him,â said Louter, who trained Uncle Siâs poodle for an episode of A&Eâs âDuck Dynasty.â âThe dog has to do a good job, or people will say, âI told you that poodle couldnât hunt.â Thereâs a misconception poodles are frou-frou dogs, but with proper training and breeding they have a lot of heart.â
âOne of the primary reasons I got my first poodle was because my step-daughter has allergies. The breed grew on me from there,â Louter said.
âCold is a concern,â Louter said. âTheyâre lean dogs. On a cold day with wind, you have to keep an eye on them. Theyâre probably not the best choice for big water or rivers, but for rice fields or flooded timber theyâre perfect.â
As you may suspect, the poodleâs personality is a bit daintier than the Chesapeakeâs. Expect a more cautious entry into the water, and be sure to exercise patience and care in training.
âTheyâre a thinking breed, so you have to think quickly, too,â Louter said. âThey tend to hold a grudge, so if you get on them too much in training, they remember it for a while.â
But make no mistake, the poodleâs original role (it was likely bred in France) was as a waterfowl retriever. In fact, most breed historians trace its name to the German word pudel, meaning âone who plays in the water.â According to Vickie Lambâs excellent Hunting Dog Reference Book, the poodle is also an ancestor of more venerable duck dogs such as the curly-coated retriever.
âI just love their versatility,â Louter said. âYou can hunt ducks in the morning and theyâll tear it up flushing pheasants in the afternoon.â