black labrador with ducks

The Bonded Pair

Waterfowl hunting is the greatest activity of camaraderie our race has yet discovered. Whether it's full limits or just a few birds, the scents and sounds are electric, and time shared in the blind with friends and family is never wasted. However, for all the spectacular hunts with others, occasionally it just needs to be done solo (although this of course includes the dog for she is a permanent fixture). The preparation for such a hunt looks far different. There's no staying up late around the fire the night before, no big todo in the morning, and by definition, no buddies - sorry guys. Sometimes, just you and your dog must go in search of waterfowl, patiently lying in wait for those cupped wings, nestled back into the marsh. And if you have a good one, she'll even love that sight more than you do.

The alarm went off at 2:55. Apa was asleep in my office but perked up as I opened the bedroom door and squinted down the dark hallway. She rose quickly and moved to the very edge of her bed, tail wagging furiously as she waited for the signal. Man, I wish we all woke up that quickly. I let her go out back and began taking final inventory. Hot coffee trickled into the thermos as I made sure I had the right shells, the right gun, the right choke. Modified out, full in. Most of the gear was already in the truck, but I carried the last few things out before coming back for Apa and the coffee. Turning off the lights, I said goodbye to my half-asleep wife and walked out the door to the humming truck. 3:30, right on schedule.

A podcast and my traveling breakfast made the drive go by in a flash. There were only a few trucks at the ramp, so I took my time packing the gear as Apa buzzed in and around the trailer. Loading her up, I finished backing into the water, tied the boat off, and pulled out to go park. I returned in the darkness to half an inch of water in the bottom with Apa standing unperturbed right in the middle, wagging her tail like always. Shaking my head at my carelessness, I checked the spot where the plugs hang. There they were, just ready to keep us from sinking! One was already in because I'm halfway responsible, so I turned on the bilge, slotted in the second, and began idling away from the ramp. A few minutes had the last of the water discharged, so I flipped off the bilge and put the boat up on plane. 5:00 saw us in the bayou at full throttle, running under the stars.

A 7-8 mph north wind sent slight ripples across the hole as we idled in. Perfect. Knowing already where I wanted to sit, I went straight to tossing decoys, moving the boat in and around the spread to tweak, add, and remove. Satisfied, we headed to shore to unload the gear. After setting up our blind's first draft, we nestled into the foliage to check my shooting lanes and ensure Apa could see. A few iterations later, I walked to the water to look up the bank at our cover. Even in the darkness, which always makes the hide look better than it will be, I could see we were well hidden. This was the spot.

We clambered back into the boat and moved it out of sight before walking back under a glint of light on the horizon. As we settled in, I began to hear birds moving around and told Apa to retreat into her blind, checking the time again and again for the exact mark. None of the folks in the marsh shot early -which was nice- and only a few minutes after shooting time, our first duck made his descent. It was a big gadwall drake who appeared from nowhere in the twilight, swooping in low over the foliage. He made long, exaggerated wingbeats while eyeing the decoys for a place to land, and in that silent, still moment, the first shot of the morning rang out. As he careened towards the water to crash-land, a second shot finished the job. Apa shifted forward in her blind, staring intently at the splash, and I said her name.

It was a pretty gray duck with decent maroon patches. It's easy to love a mallard or a wood duck for all their florescent colors, but the intricacy of a gadwall's feathers are a beautiful maze; you can get lost in the patterns. I admired him for a bit after Apa returned to her post, but then settled back in upon hearing the teal. The light was still dim so we couldn't see much at their cruising height, but we could hear them in their collective swoosh as they moved back and forth. They were on top of us, then behind, then in front, and finally, to conclude the dance, a dozen hit the spread. Every one of them decoyed right in front of me. Apa whimpered once and I whispered for her to hush, which she begrudgingly did, sinking back a bit into her blind. I picked my bird, stood up, and took the first on the water. The remaining hit the skies, and as they moved across the spread, I took two more for a triple. Apa had moved forward then, head sticking out and as she locked onto the bird on the far right. 

I checked the sky as best I could for anything flying nearby, and, satisfied she wouldn't bust any birds, sent her. The three teal were littered about the spread, but the last one shot was a bit further (the one she was staring at without blinking). The other two lay deep in the decoys, which I thought might prove difficult in the dim light. But, after getting the first from her and checking the skies again, I gave her a line and sent her off on the second. She swam right to the area and began going up to the fakes in search of the real. No direction needed, she found it in the middle of a tight group of plastic before bringing it back to the shore. Two down, one to go, and it was hidden behind the furthest decoys on the left side of the spread. At only one and a half, Apa's ability to remember a triple isn't fully developed, at least in our training, but she surprised me by taking the third line and swimming right to it, no handling required. A happy dog returned to a proud handler following three perfect shots and three perfect retrieves.

A smaller group of blue-wings buzzed by in the following minutes. Missing one, I managed to take another out of the group as the remainder headed back out to the next pond. That was five! It was an easy retrieve for Apa and she returned to her blind, probably wondering if this would get any harder.

The teal soon stopped their early morning escapades and the marsh fell silent for a time. A few flocks flew high overhead and I got another trio of gadwall interested with some grunts on the call, but eventually, they kept their path. So the snacks came out and the coffee was poured. As an aside, before the Stanley cup, there was the Stanley thermos, and let me tell you, fads come and go, but the Stanley thermos will stand the test of time.

Anyway, we sat and waited for our sixth bird, the one to send us home. Of course, duck hunting is not about shooting limits, but I haven't met a hunter that doesn't like to do it. Plus, the only thing worse than not shooting any birds is shooting one under the limit. It just feels incomplete. So we waited with our blue and maroon, hoping for something new. 

We got it about an hour later when four green-wings hit the spread. Only one landed while the rest peeled off, and as I raised my gun, she attempted to follow. She did not manage it. I released Apa while unloading and sat back to watch the encore. With the final bird collected, I stood up and stretched, marking the beginning of packing up. We stowed the gear, took a few pictures, and began the idle out.

Post-hunt breakfast was waiting at home, so we were soon running down the bayou at top speed, headed out from a great hunt amid a wonderful reminder that the dogs are the reason we do what we do. Those days when we might not want to go because a friend backed out or a family member had another commitment should be viewed as an opportunity for something different. From time to time, the bonded pair should have a hunt together, just the two of them. A good gundog is never around long enough, so I'll never take that time for granted.

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