Finding the hunting partner of a lifetime in a surprising package.
We named her "River" with hope she would end up being one of the best waterfowl dogs a man could have. Over 41 years of hunting waterfowl, I have gunned over many different breeds of dogs, some great, and some just average. I had no preconceived ideas of what the next 12 months would bring. I can only remember the owner of Castlepeake Kennels asking me if I had ever owned an American Water Spaniel before. I said no, and his comment was "you're in for a real surprise."
I then continued telling him that I was obsessed with the sport of waterfowling and the new pup would be exposed to lengthy hunts, cold temperatures and little rest between hunts during the 105-day waterfowl season. He laughed and said, "That's where they excel, and I'm glad one of my pups is going to your home."
We live on a lake out in the country about 15 minutes from town. As I drove home from work nightly, my thoughts were on River as I was eager to greet her and head out for our evening training and walk. This nightly event went on for nine months. She was so small in the beginning she could hardly keep up.
As the weeks went by that became less of a problem and then I had to work on her ranging. She was obviously very birdie and very smart. Many a night I would come home with stories for my wife about all the goofy things River had done. She always kept me laughing, with something new on each adventure. My training skills are only average, so my thoughts were to make up for the lack of skill with time in the field. It seemed to work.
October was just around the corner and River was now 11 months old. She was very strong and fast. She ended up being very large for the breed at 65 pounds. Some thought she was goofy looking, I found her to be unique. Her personality was over the top. There is never a day that she doesn't find something new to keep my wife and I in stitches.
I knew I would be asking a lot out of my Water Spaniel. I hunt alone, and I hunt big water. I frequently hunt on the Pend Oreille River in Washington State and close to the Canadian border. It can get cold, very cold. My obsession gets me out every weekend, and the odd week day for the full 105-day season. Not much time for rest.
The first season we primarily hunted out of my marsh boat. The year came and went and to her credit she had 105 retrieves. We had such a great time, with plenty of laughter and new experiences. Of the 41 years of waterfowling, I had never enjoyed a year to the magnitude of this one.
As I look back on the season, never once did I have to raise my voice to her; she knew her place in the boat and respected my every wish. By late January she clearly knew what I was thinking and what I was going to do before I did it. We were becoming such a powerful team. I knew at this time I found the hunting partner of a lifetime.
Season two came, and I threw a curve at my new hunting partner. I committed to layout hunting with her. I purchased a two-man layout boat. My thoughts were to have a layout boat large enough to hunt myself and River.
To my surprise there was a seamless transition from hunting out of my broadbill marsh boat to the layout boat. She would curl up inside the layout boat as though she had hunted her whole life in one. I rigged an electric motor on the layout boat to accommodate solo hunting. It worked perfectly. I carried the layout boat on top of my johnboat to the hunting location, and set my rig of 150 decoys mid river.
River and I returned to shore, anchored and at first light motored out to my set. The season was extremely productive as we deceived the migrants on their late winter journey. I can recall many mornings when we filled our limit by the first hour of daylight.
Never in my entire life did I have bluebills, redheads, and canvasbacks decoy with such authority. At times I would lie down and laugh with River as they cupped their wings, just feet over my head. As season two came to a close, I noticed the look and maturity of my water spaniel to be very powerful and regal.
Season three found me hunting primarily out of my Barnegat Bay sneak box deep in the marsh. After reading the book "Four Months in a Sneak Box" by N.H. Bishop, I was encouraged to spend some overnight hunts out on the river. My first overnight hunt found me in Idaho on the Pend Oreille River. I remember as though it was yesterday, cooking hash browns, bear sausage and eggs for dinner on the back of my sneak box. Smelling the aroma of black coffee as daylight gave way to darkness in the marsh.
I was very tired from a full week of work and can remember River standing guard as I zipped up the canvas hatch on the sneak box. She was not ready for sleep as there were too many distractions keeping her alert. Around midnight she pawed on the curtain and slipped inside to curl up next to my sleeping bag. She awoke me before first light anticipating a large flight of waterfowl during the "magic hour" in the marsh. What an incredible day!
My second overnight trek found me in Washington State gunning for early geese on the Pend Oreille River. I was full of anticipation with hope of bagging a limit of geese by early morning. As I finished cooking dinner, the sun was starting to set in the marsh. The young groups of geese were pouring out of the fields and landing on the island where I anchored the Barnegat for our morning hunt.
The author and his AWS after a good hunt.
I zipped the canvas closed for the night. River was determined to chase the geese off as they landed within feet of the boat, not knowing the season didn't open till morning. There was so much anticipation in the air, we didn't sleep well. I am thankful for that day.
Season four open
ed and closed with much success. River was not a strong and powerful retriever, but she fulfilled every dream I could have asked from a partner.
She retrieved numerous ducks, and geese up to 12 pounds without hesitation. There had been long days with lots of snow and temperatures well below zero. She has been on quail and pheasant hunts with the same unlimited endurance, to where I finally had to give in to her with my own exhaustion. I don't have to say much in the blind anymore.
She knows what to do and how to do it without my commands. We just sit and look at the sky for incoming waterfowl. There have been days when the sky was empty and days with abundance of birds. No matter what the outcome is, I feel like I am one of the most blessed waterfowlers today. I finally found that perfect partner, And NO!! She's not just another retriever, she is an American water spaniel.