November 15, 2022
By Chad Fix
Just because your retriever can navigate a spread of 2-3 dozen mallards and a six pack of Canadas doesn’t equate to them effectively finding a bird downed among 20 dozen diver decoys. Chances are, they’ll be playing “Where’s Waldo,” except Waldo won’t be in a white and red striped shirt—he’ll look like all the rest of your fakes that your pup will probably get caught up on or drug around.
With so many lines in the water and harsh late season conditions, diver duck hunts bring an increased hazard level. If one of your decoy anchor lines wrapped around your dog’s legs also gets wrapped around a longline, make haste. It can spell quick disaster to even the strongest swimmers. This scenario makes for dangerous and discouraging work for your dog, but you can setup for safety and success by following a few simple rules
Rule #1: Don’t be a Soccer Mom – Use Your Head
This is where you come in. “Yeah, but my dog has insatiable drive,” you scorn back. Your dog could be an AKC Master Hunter or UKC Hunting Retriever Champion but that may not matter. 99 percent of dogs don’t achieve that level, and yet most owners think their dog is the greatest thing since sliced bread; they’re soccer moms! That large processing center between your ears is meant to think and use logic to weigh outcomes. If you’re certain your dog can make a retrieve, send your dog. Soccer moms send their dogs on a retrieve outside of what they’re capable of because they send them on hope—not certainty—and are left encouraging their dog like a soccer mom from the sidelines (the blind). This mindset may set your dog up for failure that can quickly escalate to a fatal outcome.
The way of knowing if your dog can do it is first established with training in the off-season. You can acquaint them with a longline or two in a controlled, undemanding environment. Add some single drop decoys and it shouldn’t take long for them to give decoys some space. Add a decoy raft and they’ll learn they can climb over it or swim around it instead of viewing it as an impenetrable flotilla. Come hunting season, you’ll be very cognizant of what your dog can and cannot accomplish, and they’ll also be in shape physically and mentally, with confidence, which are nearly as important as Rule #2 below.
Rule #2: Steadiness
The cardinal rule for any waterfowl dog isn’t retrieving. Rather, steadiness or “place” is everything. A dog that is all over in a boat loaded with decoys, hunters, and gear is a nuisance when deploying and picking up the spread. A dog that rips out of the blind or boat upon the crack of a shotgun is a danger to all in the boat, blind, and to itself—a risk at hitting loaded firearms or hunters with loaded firearms is never safe.
Now the dog is 15 feet behind a lively bird dropped in the decoys and no one can finish the bird off because, your dog is in the line of fire. The bird will either account as a lost bird counted against your bag limit or nullifies any chance at shooting other flocks in the sky because you must fire up the boat and chase after the bird as your dog is making a fool of itself and, in turn, you. Therefore, establishing his place on a Cato board, MOmarsh Final Stand, or a nook in the boat is critical. It also is further enhanced when using multiple dogs—sharing is caring (and helps keep them fresher).
Send and Recall
Ensure the bird is dead before sending your dog. There’s no sense in sending your dog for long retrieves on wounded birds in hypothermic water conditions. Remember, it can take a box of shells to kill a sea duck or diver on the water; do the math. If a steel, bismuth, or tungsten curtain ripping at 1300 fps can’t kill a bird diving before the shot arrives, why do you think your dog can swimming at 3 fps? Aim him to the mark once the bird is dead. If you’re hunting current, point him in the direction down river where he’ll make contact with the drifting bird (much like a quarterback throws to the location where they anticipate the receiver to be). The same can be said with using wind. Remember, your dog’s nose is exponentially more powerful than his eyes, and swimming amongst a pile of fakes to find a bird at water level is challenging enough. Sending him slightly downwind of the bird aids in a faster retrieve.
Recalling a dog is typically where more danger occurs. All too often a bird that appeared dead gets new life when the dog approaches, making for a taxing and unlikely retrieve. Your dog should be able to recall to a whistle, no matter how strong his drive is. A loud, pea-less whistle like a Fox 40 or Mega Whistle to recall your dog should be around your neck next to any mallard or goose call.
Your dog may get hung up on a decoy or two, some vegetation, or both. In those instances, walk, paddle, or drive to the dog to alleviate him from the unnecessary trouble. Lastly, make it as easy as possible for your dog to get back on dry ground by using a boat ladder or some other means.
Navigating Super Spreads
It goes without saying that you want to set your dog up for success. That’s why building your decoy spread needs to take your dog into account. Decoys can get hung around dogs. Making a massive kill hole can alleviate that nuisance. Also, putting the bulk of your spread upwind not only helps serve as a blocker to birds but also allows your dog to use its nose to find dead fowl floating down to it.
Ensure your longline decoy drops are at least 24” (or even 36”) so your longline is deep enough for your dog to swim over. Decoy Rafts shouldn’t be an issue. Despite how shallow they are, dogs seem to be able to climb over them. If they swim around them, just be mindful to handle them far enough around to not get caught on the anchor lines and use jumbo carabiners from Rig ‘Em Right to secure multiple rafts together. Single decoys should be deployed at a maximum of a dozen in the spread; their only purpose is to break up the straight lines from longlines and the boxy look from the Decoy Rafts. The less single drops, the less likely a dog will get caught around a decoy line. If you deploy jerk rigs, make sure they’re on the edges of the spread or your send and recall are on the opposite side of the strings.
Location, Location, Location
Just like building a spread, keep your dog’s needs in mind to make it a safe hunt when selecting a hunting location. Divers might be pouring into a mass of wild rice or other thick vegetation that can easily inhibit a dog’s swimming performance at the “X”. If the vegetation can hang up an outboard, chances are it’ll be even more taxing on your pup. Establish limits for how far and where your dog can and cannot swim. If there are beaver runs, handle your dog along them—there’s a reason why beavers paved these paths.
Trees that may have been cut down by said beavers or were blown down serve as great hides but are arduous or fatal for a dog swimming. Send and recall your dog around them, not through them. The same goes for longlines in current. Regardless of how long the drops are, current diminishes any depth a longline has.
Position your dog’s place board or walk downstream with your dog past the last decoy in the longline and send them. I’ve had to rush out too many times to untangle unsteady dogs that try to swim over longlines in current; it can be a gnarly mess that quickly turns disastrous. Ocean waves or large lakes with “walleye chop” can also diminish the drop lengths on longlines, so a similar entanglement can occur. The waves crashing in on shore can be hard on a dog too (especially when ice glazes over rocks). This is why it’s always best to make it as easy as possible for your dog to get back on dry ground.
Be smart with ice. It might be cool to watch a dog break ice to get to a bird, but that late season ice can cut both physically and mentally. It’s also deceiving; what may be walkable can easily be insurmountable if your dog breaks through thin ice from an underwater spring and cannot be saved.
Two of my buddies nearly lost their healthy, hard-charging Labs to hypothermia in consecutive years—both were wearing neoprene vests too. Don’t be fooled to think your dog is any different. They both now stash hot packs in their blind bags. Additionally, I take a quick-dry camp towel and dry off my pup’s hindquarters, neck, and head after each retrieve. Then I drape an old hunting jacket over her to at least provide some warmth and shelter from the wind and weather. She typically sits on a MOmarsh Final Stand where the bottom is mesh (great for draining, but COLD in late season), so I’ll lay a piece of neoprene (can source that from an old pair of waders) and top it with an army surplus wool blanket under her.
Much of this goes in an old blind bag—who doesn’t have one of those? It might be over the top, but I’d rather have a dog be comfortable than one that is using every fiber of their being to stay warm. At minimum, at least pack a field first aid kit, a space blanket, and some tampons for plugging holes and wounds. If there’s room for a Mr. Buddy heater in the boat or blind, bring it—it’ll keep you both warm. You can aim it to output under the MOmarsh Final Stand if you don’t want to pack a blanket or neoprene. Plus, who doesn’t like cuddling up to their pups between flights?
No parent throws their child in the deep end of the pool and expects them to front crawl like Michael Phelps. Establish the base foundation of steadiness. Dial in aiming, sending, and a high proficiency to recall with some added wrinkles of diver duck hunting rigging in the off-season. If you can handle or cast your dog in various directions, then the rest is just gravy. When it comes time to hunt, you both will be smarter and more confident.
It’s up to you to be mindful of ensuring your dog is successful in and out of the decoys regardless of the conditions and location. Avoid the soccer mom mentality; as fun as it can be to go down the pipe dream of impressing your blindmates with a jaw-dropping retrieve, its best to kill birds before sending your dog. It’s safer for the dog, and quicker, cleaner kills are always encouraged. Be smart—only you can control the outcomes of the dog you’re responsible for. Make it easy for them, hunting divers and sea ducks is already hard enough.