May 24, 2021
By Tom Dokken
Part of the reason that waterfowl hunters often welcome misery is because when Mother Nature dishes out nastiness, it tends to bring out the ducks. This is the case throughout the season, but it can really ramp up in the last couple of weeks when cold fronts can usher the tail-end of the migration through the flyway.
With this magical hunting comes a new set of dangers, at least if you live in the northern half of the country. Brutally cold water is a given, as is the potential to deal with ice of varying thickness. Take one or the other and you’ve got something to pay attention to in regard to your retriever’s safety, but both together (and they are always found together) can create a bad situation in a hurry.
Training for The Cold
A common theme amongst folks who have had the misfortune of falling through the ice, but lived to tell their story, is the pure shock of being suddenly immersed in truly cold water. It takes their breath away and quickly saps their energy. It’s safe to assume a dog jumping into 34-degree water for the first time might feel a similar response, although a retriever is far less likely to show it.
This is one of the many reasons I’m an advocate of training all year round. If your Lab or Chessie has been running safe, water-based drills throughout October and November, it’s a safe bet that retrieving a few December honkers in a half-iced up waterway won’t cause him to panic or, at the very least, not be able to perform.
This is crucial for dogs of all age and experience, but absolutely critical for young dogs that are in their first year or two of waterfowl hunting. A consistent eye toward training allows them to ease into these tougher conditions at a pace that builds confidence, which is the cornerstone of all valuable retriever lessons.
This confidence comes in many forms but is essential for learning to understand ice.
When you consider how often humans overestimate the thickness of ice, it’s no surprise that a driven retriever would do the same thing. In fact, it might not even cross their mind that beneath a seemingly flat and hard surface is a world of water and potentially, death.
This is where our judgement comes into play both with training and hunting. If you’re planning to take your dog where skim ice is present and he’s never dealt with it, make sure the intro happens where he’ll be able to touch the bottom. A quarter inch of fresh ice might look like it’ll hold, but if your dog is out on it and busts through for the first time, you really want him to be able to stand on a firm bottom and understand how to break his way back.
This is also where a neoprene vest comes into play. While it’s obvious that the warmth factor is a big reason for suiting up your retriever, a good vest will also provide some protection against the abrasiveness of ice if he has to push his way through.
A Rough Reality
Just as you wouldn’t put yourself in danger for a limit of greenheads, we shouldn’t put our dogs in danger. This means before we even go hunting in frigid conditions, we have to assess where we can safely go. The river that is loaded with ducks, but also flowing fast and carrying chunks of ice in its current might be okay for a seasoned, well-conditioned dog, but could be a disaster for a younger retriever.
The same rules apply to the deep reservoir with skim ice around the edges and December whitecaps rolling along the surface. It’s up to us to decide where we want to send our dogs, and also how confident we are in our dog’s steadiness and recall.
These latter points are important, because you might get to a spot thinking everything is good to go only to hit a bird that sails well out into dangerous water. If your dog isn’t totally steady, or you don’t have the for-sure ability to recall him if he does break, then you’re looking at a rapidly unfolding situation that could go south in a hurry.
The better bet, if there is any doubt in your mind whatsoever, is to not hunt during those conditions in that specific spot. It might cost you some birds, but it won’t cost you your dog’s life. Or your own life, which is a tragic story we hear almost every year in the duck hunting community where a hunter’s dog gets into a bad situation and the owner tries to wade, navigate thin ice, or swim out to the retriever’s rescue.
Sketchy ice is a reality for duck dogs, of course, but not only when they are waterfowl hunting. The late season can be amazing for upland hunting as well, and if the ducks have flown south and your retriever is now tasked with finding cattail slough roosters, the same rules apply. Some water, like standing or very slow flowing water might be easy to read but what if a feeder slough or stream flows into a bigger body of water? There might be good ice in 99-percent of the huntable cover, but one ribbon of faster moving water might produce dangerously thin ice.
Ice conditions can also wreak havoc on a dog’s paws. Your tough-as-nails duck dog running through sharp ice shards might be bleeding from all four paws in a matter of a couple hundred yards if you’re not paying attention. While a driven dog will hunt through the pain, eventually it’ll catch up to him and the trip will be over, so once again, pay attention to the environment in which you’re asking your dog to work.
And always, be honest about the risk-reward ratio.