The Accidental Duck Dog
He sits beside me on a scrap of burlap, velvet brown eyes intently scanning the heavens. The rhythmic quivering of his body belies a scarcely-suppressed enthusiasm for the hunt. Should a pair of mallards appear on the horizon or the honking of a flight of geese betray their presence, his bodily tremors will ramp into a veritable earthquake. For although just a dog, there’s not a more enthusiastic waterfowler on the planet.
But Percy’s an oddball. No blocky-headed Lab or lusty retriever, his flanks are adorned with the feathery hair and flecked hide of an English Setter. His pedigree is flush with the ancestral paragons of his kind, beautiful, athletic canines flowing through aspen groves in search of grouse or freezing seemingly in mid-stride at the whiff of a nearby pheasant. The breeding is not lost on this hard-charger who will run his pads to ruin on the flinty hills favored by chukars. But given the choice I can’t help think he would rather hunt geese than grouse.
Among pointing dogs, those with the genetic drive to happily carry objects about in their mouths compose a small minority. A pitiful practice in the eyes of a hunter whose companion is a Chessie that chased tennis balls from the time it was a puppy, many pointing dog trainers “force break” their pupils to retrieve, a practice that is exceedingly unpleasant for the dog and all but the most hard-hearted humans.
As luck would have it, Percy’s sire was an uncommonly good, natural retriever. In puppyhood, his progeny displayed an erratic, modest inclination toward retrieving. Sensing an opportunity to have a competent retriever without the repugnant process of force-breaking, Lisa (my wife) and I profusely showered him with praise and tasty niblets at any playful attempt to fetch. Progress came slowly at first, but by the time the five-month old youngster took to the field in search of the resident gray partridges and sharptailed grouse near our home in autumn, he was regularly retrieving a dummy tossed into the weeds or on water.
Percy’s first opportunity at retrieving a bird resulted in what my eldest son heartlessly described as an “epic failure.”
I knocked down a sharptail on a snowy November morning in the foothills of the Beartooth Mountains. The pup enthusiastically raced to the grouse, mouthed it, then absolutely refused to pick it up. I thrust it into pouch on my hunting vest, annoyed with the dog and myself for not affording him the chance to try a real bird before encountering one while hunting.
Over the next year I worked the semi-enthusiastic setter on dummies with wings taken from birds (partridges and pheasants) attached with zip-ties. The following spring I managed to secure a couple of Eurasian collared doves with a pellet gun. After a couple of skeptical sniffs and mouthings of the warm birds, Percy brought them to hand as commanded, certainly not with the rapt enthusiasm of a seasoned Lab, but at least with the duty-bound diligence of a trained animal accepting the bidding of its master.
By the close of the following fall we had a bona-fide upland retriever. After several less than successful episodes in the early season, Percy made the complete retrieval of a rooster pheasant in November. Unwilling to mouth the big bird, he came dragging it by the wing in ungainly leaps from the cattails. Later that day, he smartly retrieved two sharptails. His demeanor changed as well. Gone was the dutiful attitude of labor. The sharptails were presented to his kneeling master with elegant tail waving high overhead and the countenance of an enthusiast in rapt pursuit of his craft.
“This dog is freaking awesome,” exclaimed my eldest offspring, experiencing a change of heart.
As a 3-year-old, the pointer made his debut as a waterfowl retriever. Poorly. Executing a three-way combo excursion on the prairie, Lisa, Zoe (my daughter) and I were intent on hunting antelope, pheasants and waterfowl over a long weekend. Zoe’s first experience jump-shooting resulted in her first duck, a diminutive green-winged teal dropped smartly in the center of a mucky stock pond. Not to worry, I assured her. We’ll send in the dog to do the dirty work.
I fetched the pointer from the vehicle but he refused to retrieve. Spotting it, he plunged through the goo to reach the water, then paddled swiftly to the teal. An exploratory smell found him turning his strokes back toward the earthen impoundment upon which stood a trio of hopeful hunters. I coaxed, scolded and sternly commanded the canine to perform the appointed task. He sullenly swam back to the teal, sniffed and came back to shore, looking as guilty as a school-kid encountering his first unsavory outdoor latrine. “Sorry, dad, I just can’t get past the smell.”
Thankfully, a slight breeze slowly brought the bird toward shore. Dangerously close to sinking in the muck, I finally scraped it to hand with the help of a dead branch.
Later that afternoon, we flushed a half-dozen shovelers from another pond. Hearing the shooting, Percy came sprinting from the car where he’d been left with open windows. Zoe and Lisa had both connected on birds. One conveniently dropped on dry ground, the other bobbed limply on the ripples at the epicenter of the pond. The setter stroked toward the shoveler uncommanded. We stood at water’s edge shouting all manner of meaningless encouragement.
“Good boy.” “Fetch ‘em up.” “Find the duck.”
As the disheveled pointer forged toward shore towing the shoveler by the wing, Zoe pumped her fist overhead yelling “Go, Percy.” When it was delivered to my feet I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry. The reluctant retriever had but the final inch of the bird’s longest primary feather clutched delicately between his front teeth. As he looked upward for approval, I gazed down into his intelligent eyes and couldn’t speak to the girls for several long moments for a throat-full of lump.
Later that season, we partnered with a friend and his black Lab, floating a winding river in search of ducks, occasionally ditching the raft to hunt pheasants and chukar partridges. Percy was the first dog to find and fetch a not-quite-dead rooster pheasant and pulled a gadwall from the river without hesitation.
On an exceptionally cold morning just after Christmas we headed out to hunt chukars. The chosen spot required a half-mile hike alongside a river, so I nestled No. 4 steel shot in the chamber of a Weatherby semi-auto in case we jumped some mallards. When a Canada goose came honking and flapping from a cut-bank, I couldn’t resist.
The current was pushing the goose toward us, but the impatient setter would have none of it. He plunged into the icy river and brought the big bird out by the wing. We took a single chukar from a hardscrabble hillside above the stream. On the hike back to the car, the heeling dog spent his time scanning the river and sky for waterfowl.
Now in his prime at five, the setter is an absolute joy. When the shotgun is accompanied by decoys and he’s shucked into a neoprene vest his anticipation is boundless. There’s nothing that seems to excite the dog more than waiting in a make-shift blind. He certainly isn’t as cold-hardy as a Lab, nor possessed of the bull-headed determination of a Chesapeake. But he swims strongly, has developed a knack for grasping large ducks and geese by the neck and is stealthy when jump-shooting.
With the post of a couple photos to social media from one of his waterfowl hunts, I opined I might need a traditional duck dog to help the setter with his waterfowl retrieving. A reply from a friend and long-time waterfowler in Oregon suggested otherwise.
“Looks like you have all the dog you need.”