Sometimes it's our blunders that turn into our most cherished memories
I guess we're hard to figure. We seem so success-oriented. We buy the best equipment we can afford, sometimes even better. We practice wing-shooting year around. We train our dogs, or have them trained, beyond all reasonable needs. And yet, many of our fondest memories are of our gaffes and our dog's gaffes. Initially, they may embarrass us, but as they slip into the past, we begin to cherish them. I'll share a few of mine with you, and I'll bet you'll begin recalling a few of your own.
The countless hours spent side-by-side will be remembered most.
The Wrong Duck
When my two now 40-something sons, Bob and Pat, were teenagers, we frequently hunted ducks at Cheyenne Bottoms, near Great Bend, Kansas. This is a sprawling shallow marsh with many large millet patches scattered about. The State has built mounds with pit blinds all over, at 300 yard intervals. When you check in, you can request a particular blind, and if it isn't already taken, you get to use it. To reach it, you have to wade 300, 600, or 900 yards from the road on the dike.
Once when Bob, Pat, and I were hunting there, I shot a gadwall that fell into a millet patch. I sent my golden, Duffy, after it. After he entered the millet, I could no longer see him, but I could follow his movements by watching the millet move. He explored the entire patch several times and was gone a very long time. Finally, the millet's movement indicated he was heading straight back toward me. When he emerged, he presented me with a cold, stiff duck that had been dead at least two weeks. It was so water-soaked that he must have gone underwater and found it on the bottom.
As I took this duck, Duffy looked up at me as if to say, "Sorry, but this is the best I could do! That other duck vanished."
All three of us laughed almost to the point of tears. At length, I patted Duffy on the head and said, "Good boy!" After all, I had shot a duck and he had retrieved a duck. Besides, who could fault his ingenuity?
The Hard Way
Another time at Cheyenne Bottoms, I saw a very amusing incident involving four hunters who had only one pair of waders. To get from the road on the dike to their blind they had to wade 300 yards. So, after a few coin-flips, one man donned the waders and carried another man (and some gear) piggy-back to the blind. Once there, he gave the waders to the man he had carried, who donned them and waded back to the dike. From there he carried another man (and some gear) piggy-back to the blind. There, he took off the waders, and gave them to his "passenger," who waded back to the dike, and so forth until all four of them and all their gear were at the blind.
When they left, they had to repeat this ingenious (if tiring and time-consuming) process. I didn't see their egress, but I hope they shot enough ducks to make all this worthwhile. Whoever they were, I'll bet they're still talking and laughing about their long-ago Spartan-like economy.
Getting My Come-Uppance
Back in that same timeframe, Duffy and I hunted ducks on Cheney Reservoir, just east of Wichita, Kansas, with two non-doggy friends. We set up on the shore of a cove off the main lake and had a great day, with ducks straggling in regularly. We shot several that fell in the cove, and Duffy retrieved them all, some as marks, others as blind retrieves.
My two buddies, greatly impressed, raved about Duffy's work. I held my tongue for a while, but finally yielded to the growing temptation to brag. I soon found myself almost waxing poetic about Duffy's super-canine abilities, while always suggesting, not too subtly, my own genius as a trainer. I was having a great time!
Then a pair of mallard drakes interrupted my soliloquy. We shot them both. One fell in the cove, but the other didn't come down until it was out in the main lake. Duffy saw only the one that fell in the cove, which he retrieved quickly.
"This other duck'll be a blind retrieve," I said as I set Duffy up. "But he'll ho-hum it."
The duck was only about 50 yards from shore, but the main body of the lake was a couple of miles across. In training Duffy to do water blinds, I had almost always planted the bird or dummy pile on the far shore of a small pond, not in the middle of the water. Thus, when I set Duffy up for this ridiculously simple 50-yard water blind, he thought I expected him to swim all the way to the far shore, two miles away and barely visible.
When I said "Back," Duffy lay down, curled up at my feet, and looked up at me as if to say, "Are you kidding?"
I tried repeatedly to send him, but without success. We never did get that bird. As you might guess, I was unusually quiet the rest of that day.
However, I learned more than humility from that incident. I also learned that, if I want a dog to do such blind retrieves, I had to train him so he wouldn't expect every bird to be on the far shore. I even included this sort of test, and how to train for it, in my book, Retriever Training Tests (which is available from the Wildfowl Bookshelf). I called it the "Out To Sea Blind."
A few years later, my son Bob and I were hunting pheasants with our golden, Brandy, in central Kansas when we saw a single drake mallard swing around and land on Rattlesnake Creek about 200 yards away. Conditions were perfect for jump-shooting that bird. The ground was level and dry between us and the creek, and the creek-bank on our side was high above the water, so we could get almost on top of that bird before he could see us.
With Brandy heeling, we started creeping toward the stream. It took awhile, but we got there without alarming the duck. When we were only about 10 yards from the bank, and still well out of sight, I gave the signal and all three of us ran the rest of the way.
When we reached the edge of the bank, not one but about 50 mallards leaped noisily from the water, struggling straight up for about 20 yards before leveling off to fly away. What an opportunity!
But neither of us fired a shot! That many unexpected ducks bursting upward like a swarm of angry bees so surprised us that we just stood there stunned and hypnotized while they flew away. Expecting one, maybe two birds to flush, we weren't mentally prepared for 50. Brandy was outraged. After the birds were gone, he looked back and forth at me and then at Bob, seeming to demand that we tell him why we hadn't shot. Fortunately, our dogs are more forgiving of our mistakes than we are sometimes of theirs.
Heading back to the car, Bob a
nd I at first said almost nothing. Then we began to talk about it. Finally, we began to laugh. We still chuckle every time this incident comes up in our family reminiscences, even when my other son, Pat, tells us how different it would have been if he had been with us. Yeah, sure.
Perhaps Bob and I learned a lesson on that day in central Kansas. However, since neither of us has had another experience even remotely similar to that one, we can't be sure that we won't make the same mistake if it ever happens again.
Okay, it's now your turn. Sit back, relax, and recall a few of your most cherished hunting memories. You may be surprised to find how few of them are memorable because of the number of birds you shot. You may also be surprised to find how many of them involve miscues or misdeeds perpetrated by you or your dog. Each will be memorable because of its humor or because of the lesson it taught you. Perhaps your best memories will have a little of both, that is, humor and lessons.
Nota Bene: Jim Spencer's books are available from the Wildfowl Bookshelf. Titles are: Training Retrievers for Marshes & Meadow; Retriever Training Tests; Retriever Training Drills for Marking; Retriever Training Drills for Blind Retrieves; Retriever Hunt Tests: A Handler's guide to Success; HUP! Training Flushing Spaniels the American Way; and POINT! Training the All-Seasons Bird Dog.