Tips for Protecting Your Bird Dog on Cold Water Retrieves

Tips for Protecting Your Bird Dog on Cold Water Retrieves

freeze_1A good friend and I were hunting from shore on the Potholes Reservoir in Washington State. We stared skyward over the huge expanse of water while mallards and pintails sliced through the brutally cold air. It was the mid-1970s, and both of us had well-seasoned retrievers at our sides; they dutifully retrieved numerous birds in they choppy water.

At the end of the day, we commanded the dogs to retrieve the decoys, which were in water much deeper than our chest waders would allow. This isn't too common today, but back then we trained our dogs to bring in the dekes. They started this chore, but almost on cue, both stopped.


It was evident they were completely worn out and unable to function in the cold water any longer. My retriever was so cold, her back legs were giving out. We were fortunate they hit this wall while wrapping up the hunt. It's  a powerful lesson I've carried with me all of these years. No matter how good your dog is, he has limits. The quickest way to find out what those are is to push it in extremely cold conditions.



Every year hunters run into the same problems we did four decades ago. Whether it occurs on a late-season diver hunt, or perhaps a December mallard hunt along your favorite river, your dog can get into trouble. If this happens, it's likely because your dog was ill-prepared for the conditions. Most of the time, our dogs start out with fairly warm, mild conditions during the duck season.

As the season progress it will naturally get colder. This is not a big deal to the dog that gets hunted every day of the season, but for the weekend warrior, or the working man who has to wait a few weeks between hunts, things can change a lot. This affects our dogs and demands that we stay extra vigilant when faced with a frigid reality.


Suit Up, Stand Up

I'm a big believer in the right gear for the right situation, and one thing my dogs won't go without during a cold hunt is a neoprene vest. I prefer vests that are 3mm thick so they will fit tightly and minimize where the water can get in.


A good vest should fit so well that during below-freezing hunts you should be able to slide your hand between the dog's hair and the vest and feel dry warmth. If that's the case, then you know the vest fits correctly and is doing its job.

In extreme cold, I'll outfit my dog with two vests and often use down-times in the action to give my dog a chance to do a few land retrieves to get the blood flowing. If at all possible, this is a great way to keep your dog comfortable and happy during these conditions.

Another piece of gear I often employ is a portable dog stand. Instead of having my dog sit in the cold water during the duration of such hunts, I'd much rather have him stay warmer and preserve his endurance by sitting on a platform and staying dry.

Lastly, one of the things I always do when it's cold is pay attention to my ammo choice. The steel shot I use on an early-season wood duck or teal hunt is not going to cut it late-season. If there is a chance a cripple might swim off in the black, near-freezing water, I want to hit them with everything I can, which typically means Hevi-Shot.

This is true of all ducks, but especially divers. If we scratch them out of the air, I follow them down and pound them on the water immediately if they show any sign of life. After that, I send in my dog to retrieve a very dead duck.

Spring Training

Aside from outfitting your dog and yourself with the right gear, it's also a great idea to condition him to the realities of retrieving in cold water. Although it's never a bad idea to toss a few pre-hunt dummies for your dog during the season, it's far easier to train during the spring. This is because the air and water temperatures are often very similar to the late-season fall hunting, and will give your dog a taste of what's to come.

If you do opt for this type of training, or if you push your dog during a cold weather hunt, you'll likely notice something about his desire. More to the point, you'll notice how much desire he has. Some dogs shut down after a few cold-water retrieves. Others will power through the cold over and over.

This boils down partially to training, but largely to retrieving desire. If you figure this out in the spring, there won't be any surprises come late fall when the actual hunt is on.

If this sounds like something that you're dog will benefit from, heed this last disclaimer — don't force a puppy to retrieve in brutally cold conditions. This is an exercise for older, more-seasoned dogs who have plenty of water work under their belts.

Know The Water

At this point, you may assume these conditions are only a real danger when hunting large lakes, rivers or open ocean. While big water certainly poses a threat, especially if you're hunting divers that can cover serious water when crippled, it's not the only situation that can turn disastrous.

Rivers and their energy-sapping current can wear down a dog quickly when temperatures become frigid, and even small lakes and ponds can be big trouble no matter how fit your retriever is. Two-foot waves are huge to a dog whether they occur on a 75-acre pond or a giant reservoir.

freeze_f2If you send your dog out for a retrieve in these conditions, pay extra attention to what is going on. If he takes off after a cripple, be ready to go with the boat, especially if he looks like he is going to swim out of earshot. There is nothing worse than knowing your dog is in trouble and then having to scramble to go after him.

Also, there are times when it's just foolish to send your dog on a retrieve, and it's up to you to know when that is.

This isn't meant to be a dissuasion because late-season, cold weather hunts can be an absolute blast. There is something very rewarding about taking a limit of pressured birds in weather so cold your fingers and toes go numb. Just make sure that if you do opt to brave these conditions, your dog is not only outfitted properly, but prepared as well.

And make sure you know that everything is, and will be fine, each time he leaps into the water for another retrieve.

Recommended for You

See how this new line performed in the field! Clothing & Waders

Field Tested: Sitka Women's Waterfowl System

Emily Kantner - July 19, 2019

See how this new line performed in the field!

Here's how to cash in on the spreading numbers of white-fronts. Hunting Tactics

Take Advantage of the Specklebelly Surge

John Gordon

Here's how to cash in on the spreading numbers of white-fronts.

A dainty English setter suited for the uplands has the drive for waterfowl. Stories

The Accidental Duck Dog

Jack Ballard

A dainty English setter suited for the uplands has the drive for waterfowl.

See More Recommendations

Popular Videos

Wentz Bros Outdoors - Throwback Waterfowl

Wentz Bros Outdoors - Throwback Waterfowl

This video is a classic! Take a front row seat with Carson as he hunted back in college. The clips are all either filmed with a GoPro or cell phone!

Franchi 12-Gauge Affinity Semiauto Shotgun

Franchi 12-Gauge Affinity Semiauto Shotgun

Craig Boddington and Eric Poole take a look at the new modern Franchi Affinity shotgun.

Swedish Duck Hunt

Swedish Duck Hunt

Kevin Steele takes part in a family driven duck hunt in Sweden.

See more Popular Videos

Trending Stories

As Groves, Texas duck call maker Sure-Shot Game Calls celebrates their 60th anniversary during 2019, company CEO Charlie Holder shows off the limited edition Yentzen Classic aimed at commemorating the life and times of company founder Jim 'Cowboy' Fernandez. With a special autographed box and a laser engraved call body, the Cowboy Classic is a perfect way to honor the legacy of the 1959 world duck calling champ and inventor of the double-reed duck call. Calls

Cowboy Fernandez Commemorative Yentzen Classic Duck Call

Lynn Burkhead - January 28, 2019

As Groves, Texas duck call maker Sure-Shot Game Calls celebrates their 60th anniversary during...

Consistency is what pushes today's shotshell makers to constantly improve new waterfowl loads Ammo

11 Best New Shotshell Loads For Waterfowl

Wildfowl Online Staff - August 17, 2017

Consistency is what pushes today's shotshell makers to constantly improve new waterfowl loads

Author John M. Taylor has broken down the top waterfowl shotguns for the 2018 season. Shotguns

Best Waterfowl Shotguns of 2018

John Taylor - September 25, 2018

Author John M. Taylor has broken down the top waterfowl shotguns for the 2018 season.

See More Stories

More Retriever

Properly introducing your dog to gunfire is integral for training your new partner in the field. Author Bill Gibson explains how you'll want to go about it. Retriever

Properly Introducing Your Dog to Gunfire

Bill Gibson - March 23, 2018

Properly introducing your dog to gunfire is integral for training your new partner in the...

Editors Note: Part 3 in a Series

It has taken two columns to get to this point, but your dog is Retriever

How To Finish The Trained Retrieve

Tom Dokken - August 17, 2017

Editors Note: Part 3 in a Series It has taken two columns to get to this point, but your dog...

Starting over with a new hunting pup can be a challenge. Follow Tom Dokken's tips for making a wise decision when choosing your next gun dog. Retriever

How to Start Over When You Lose a Gun Dog

Tom Dokken - June 21, 2018

Starting over with a new hunting pup can be a challenge. Follow Tom Dokken's tips for making a...

See More Retriever

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Temporary Price Reduction

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

×