Saturday, February 27, 2010

I Have A Genuine Duck Dog

If you head to the White River Wildlife Refuge in Arkansas the weekend before Christmas you will likely hear the frantic quacking of numerous ducks as they are frightened by shot after misplaced shot. Each year I accompany my father-in-law and a group of fathers and sons, to the Fowl Play Lodge in DeWitt, Arkansas for a wild weekend of hunting and general debotchery. Normally we come away with a few ducks for the freezer, and a years worth of stories to tell and retell. This year was special for me as I was bringing along my Boykin Spaniel "Finn" for his first Arkansas duck hunt. I have spent countless hours training Finn to be a retrieving machine, and while he does well retrieving dummies, he had only retrieved a few ducks and pheasants in his limited hunting experiences. Finn was one of two dogs we would be taking this year, and not being a fan of other male dogs we knew we would have to keep Finn and Ike (the black lab) apart as much as possible. Neither Finn nor Ike enjoy the presence of other male dogs, and it was not long before they had a confrontation in a van packed with 12 hunters and two dogs. Finn escaped with a minor scratch on his nose, and Ike with another notch on his collar. Unfortunately we didn't learn our lesson, and a second altercation ensued, this time with my brother-in-law's finger getting in the middle of it. Just another hunting trip story resulting in a new nickname, "dog finger". With the bleeding stopped we rolled into the lodge and were greeted by several guides with which we have hunted with for years. The jokes quickly began, and most of these centered around the make and model of my hunting dog which they dubbed the poodle. Not knowing what to expect from Finn's first big trip I kept my mouth shut, and anxiously awaited the next morning's hunt. That evening I was informed that we would be hunting from boat blind, which would make it difficult for the dog to see and retrieve downed ducks. This was fine by me as at least Finn would get to experience the hunt without much pressure to deliver. Finn would be the only dog accompanying us this morning as the guides decided their young labs would not fare well in this hunting situation. Ike would be hunting with his owner at a different location. Four o'clock came with the smell of cooking bacon, and following a quick breakfast we were off on a boat ride weaving in and out of flooded timber along the flood plain of the White River. While we were all feeling a bit groggy from the antics of the night before the cool morning breeze quickly woke us up and as we transferred guns and shells to the boat blind we awaited legal shooting light. Soon after light fell over our decoy spread the first group of ducks came in, it was now time to see what we could do. As the mallards set their wings they were met with a barrage of gunfire, and three green heads fell from the sky. Now it was Finn's turn. I had pulled back a section of blind material from the front of the john boat and postioned Finn on the front of the boat. At the first sound of gunfire Finn quickly jumped into the bottom of the boat and began jumping against the side of the blind as if wanting to get out. I finally wrestled him back into postion but by this time the ducks had begun to drift to our left in the moderate current of the flooded river. I tried to line him up and send him on his way but he was unsure of how to get into the water. The deck of the boat was several feet above the water line so he was going to have to dive in to the water in order to make his retrieve. Unsure of how to do this Finn stood on the front of the boat barking and whining at the water below. Having no other chioce I was forced to aid him in his entry by tossing him into the water. Finn immdiately headed out into the spread of three dozen decoys where the downed ducks once resided, hopefully his training would get us both out of this mess. I quickly blew on the whistle to stop him, a command we had practiced a million times, Finn promptly ignored me and continued on his way. After yelling and blowing I finally got Finn's attention and he began to turn back. Using handsignals that had also been practiced time and time again Finn eventually listened enough to catch sight of one of the ducks as it drifted 50 yards downstream. As Finn made this retrieve the guides retrieved the other two, as we knew Finn (who weighs less than 40 pounds) would need a little break following this debacle. Finn finally returned after a long upstream swim with a beautiful mallard drake clutched in his jaws. I was excited that Finn was finally able to make the retrieve, but I also knew it was going to take a little more precision on his part if he was going to be considered a valuable part of the team. Not knowing if Finn had learned anything or not I again positioned him on the front of the boat as we waited for the next flight of ducks. We didn't have to wait long as another group of mallards and gadwalls were quickly duped by our decoy spread. Again our aim was true, and this time Finn was ready to go. He was focused on the flock as it approached and after watching a gadwall fall he was off the deck as the duck hit the water. Completely submerging, the curly coated Spaniel popped up like a cork and promptly retrieved the duck like he had been doing it his entire life. I hoped this was a sign of things to come, and as flock after flock came to the gun we continued to shoot well, and Finn continued to retrieve like an old pro. By 8:45 that morning the best duck hunt of my life concluded with a limit of 36 ducks and Finn had retrieved every duck that we had sent him after. While Finn was not perfect, he exceeded my expectations and followed up the next morning with another great performance prompting the guides to go from calling him a poodle to asking how much I wanted for my dog. I knew taking an odd breed of retriever to duck camp was opening myself up to ridicule, but I think everyone who hunted with us would agree that watching him work made the hunt a much more rewarding experience.

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