October 18, 2021
By Tom Dokken
Ask most duck hunters when they really want to be in a blind and you’ll probably get two answers—early season and late season. The early season is special for obvious reasons, but mostly because you’ve got the chance to target local birds and the action can be pretty reliable. The late season, with its (hopefully) colder temperatures and waves of migrators is equally as special, again, because of the promise of action-filled mornings.
Tucked between the two is the mid-season, which can be really hit or miss depending on where you hunt. If the local birds are largely gone and the migrators are stalled out 200 miles north of you, the action can nearly slow to a halt.
This is a bummer for us, but can be something else entirely for our dogs, especially young, inexperienced dogs. Down time during duck hunting is a given, but how much of it we allow our retrievers to sit through should be carefully monitored because too much of it can result in bad behaviors.
Depending on the age and experience level of your dog, you might see him start to lose interest in the hunt as soon as 45 minutes or an hour with little to no action. He might stop scanning the skies as diligently as he did during the early season when the woodies and teal were absolutely suicidal, or he might start trying to pace around the blind. He might spin a few times and curl up for a snooze or lay down and start chewing on your shell bag. He might do a lot of things that signal his boredom, all of which tell you that it’s time to break the monotony.
The reason for this is that you don’t want your dog to not like duck hunting. You want your dog to love it, like you do, and you want him to stare skyward nonstop while waiting on the next flight of birds—just like he did the first couple weekends of the season. It may seem strange that a dog could look to be on top of his game one month, and totally disinterested next month, but that’s how the young ones operate.
This is more obvious in training sessions, when he’s had enough of the same retrieving drills and starts to display some avoidance behavior or simply lose steam. With hunting, it doesn’t seem possible for them slip too far, but they can. And when they do, you’ve got to rein them in and make sure nothing too negative comes from it.
There is a reason grade-school kids get recess. They need it. They need an outlet for their energy and a break from math and science to run around and enjoy themselves. A young retriever is no different, which is why I always carry a dummy or a dummy launcher into the blind with me.
While it might cost me a few birds to get out of the blind when the action slows to give my dog some fun retrieves, in the long run it is worth it. This allows them to get out and have some recess, which they simply need. This is an easy way to gather up enthusiasm and show your dog that enjoyable things will happen in the blind regardless of how many greenheads commit to the spread.
With that increased (or at least maintained) enthusiasm comes the reality of a dog that will be more devoted to what his job entails 99 percent of the time while duck hunting, which is to sit still and pay close attention to the sky. That’s it, and it’s important.
Youth Versus Experience
How well a dog can cope with down time tends to correlate with age, but it also depends on experience. What this means is that the amount of birds shot and retrieved matters, a lot. But it’s not enough to have one or two good days where the skies are raining dead ducks. Instead, consistent hunts with enough steady action to condition your dog to the reality that good things come with enough blind time are what you want to target.
This is a hard thing to achieve during a young dog’s first season waterfowling, which obviously means that initial year demands that you pay close attention to the amount of action your dog is getting and what he’s doing (and what you’re doing) when things slow down. By the second season, hopefully your dog has been there and done that enough to tolerate some longer dry spells, provided the action eventually comes. But again, it’s all dependent on the amount of birds throughout a season.
This is crucial, and it places an extra burden on us as duck dog owners when the mid-season lull is fully upon us. Instead of hunting the old reliable spots that were good a month ago, or in other words, hunting just to hunt, we should instead be looking for where the birds are now. It might take more scouting and less blind time, but it should result in more productive hunts when you do actually choose to go. You benefit from this, obviously, but so does your retriever.