January 02, 2024
It’s easy to outdrive your headlights when it comes to a new retriever. In my world, this often happens when people try to move their new duck dog through too much training, too fast. They want to skip the foundational work to move on to the double-blind retrieves, when the dogs are still in a stage where they need the basics, and only the basics. This too-much-too-fast mindset invades hunting, too.
While it’s most dangerous with young retrievers who are in their first or second season, pushing it too hard during hunts can be trouble for dogs of all ages. This is most evident during the hunts, or worse, stretches of hunts, where the birds just aren’t feeling it. I would bet almost anyone who reads this column is familiar with the duck doldrums, and how it feels to think they should show up any morning now, but the action just isn’t happening. This is tough as a hunter with high expectations, but also affects our dogs, and is something for which we should plan.
I’ve written about this a few times, but it’s worth repeating—you should treat first hunts with a retriever as short-duration affairs. The most well-bred pup out there only has so much to work with attention span wise and overdoing it with the waiting can have lasting effects on a dog’s desire. This means that the first hunts need to be short with the promise of action. I know you can’t guarantee that the woodies or the greenheads will show up, but you can hedge your bets. This is kind of like taking a kid fishing and making the decision to go to a local park to use live bait for panfish. Sure, the kid isn’t likely to haul in something worthy of a taxidermy bill, but the action should be reliable. If instead you took that same kid out on your 20-foot boat to toss huge bucktails for muskies all day, in the hopes of getting a single follow or hook-up, things are going to turn out different. And not in a good way. With young dogs, plan for short hunts where you’ve scouted plenty. Have a bumper or two with you to break up the dead spots if need be and keep it simple. The more people in the blind with you, and the more work you’ve got to do to get set up, the easier it is to hunt too long for the dog’s attention span, so remember that.
Senior Duck Dogs
It’s a thing of beauty to watch an old dog with tons of experience in the blind. Even if you haven’t seen a single duck for an hour, that veteran will be feverishly scanning the skies the whole time. There are few things I like to watch more, because it speaks to their desire and to the fact that they are all in on waterfowl hunting. A dog that doesn’t do that, like say, one that goes to sleep at your feet five minutes into first light, is a different story. Retrievers that didn’t experience proper early hunts often turn into the kind of dog that snores in the blind.
This also happens with dogs that don’t get to hunt very much, no matter their age. Weekend warrior retrievers, who might only get half of a dozen sunrises in the blind each season, are in danger of not loving the game. After all, would you be super into it if you only hunted a few days each season and were lucky to get to fire a handful of shells? Probably not. The same goes for your dog, so if you aren’t the kind of person who can get out there for 40 days a season, think about how you’ll ensure some action. It stinks to have to call it, or not hunt when you can, but planning around the more promising days (and conditions) will help you solidify and maintain a love of the game in your dog.
Doing Your Part
There are times when duck hunting is just rough. Warm weather, zero wind, and hunting pressure can conspire to ruin the best laid hunting plans. Sometimes the migration is working against you, but other times, we are working against ourselves.
If the duck action has dried up, it might be because the birds have stalled out in the flyway. But it might be because you’re hunting your favorite blind for the sixth day in a row or slipping into the same point of cattails that you always hunt and never scout. To keep your retriever in action, consider a change in your plans. You might have to glass some small water ponds to see if you can find some amenable teal or wood ducks, or maybe just do a small-production hunt in a place where you know you’ll never kill a limit of greenheads but should get some quick shooting in at sunrise.
Sometimes, we have to make concessions to keep on the birds, but it’s better to be in some action than to go all-out on a low-odds hunt. This is why I try to have many different areas scouted, and to keep looking for the best opportunities all season. This is an ongoing process, but the time you put in scouting is worth more than the time put in hunting. In fact, the best duck hunters I know probably average two days of scouting to every day of actual hunting.
Duck doldrums happen. Some seasons it seems to be the rule that the hunting is always going to be slow, while other seasons there are just stretches of low-action mornings. Knowing how to deal with them, and how to avoid them as much as possible, is good for you—and your retriever.