The Gadwall

The Gadwall

The first retrieve. For the old timers whose generations of gundogs are nearing or into double digits, along with the final retrieve, they’ll tell you that the first one is usually one of the best memories they have of each dog. Believe me, those folks have some stories. It is not yet my nor Rex’s time to go through his last retrieve, but of course I have his first and the many in between.

Slater Kennel’s founding dog's first retrieve was a juvenile gadwall drake close to Throckmorton, TX in December of 2020, which became the catalyst for my quest to mount every drake to be found in North America, geese -with great prejudice- excluded. Here is the story of the first:

A Friend's Rendition (Oil on Canvas)

It was a little colder that morning -just under 30°- as I drove my ‘05 Ram over the cattle guard back onto the house property. I had the tailgate down and the big doe I had taken with the AR-10 was strapped down in the back. To be honest, as this is a first retrieve story and I don’t have a ton of room for extra memories from that day, I don’t recall if she gave me much of a track, but I don’t think she did because I was still pretty fresh. I pulled up past the “house pond” on my left, a 3.5 acre low spot in the main pasture dug in the late 1900s by now-90-year-old Mr. Smith, a Throckmorton native whose reputation precedes him. With PO Box 2 (not 202 or 22, just 2) in his name, he is a cornerstone of the community and we love it when he comes out to the ranch when we're there.

I lamented the long walk it would take in a wide open field amid sparse cover to get to the ringnecks, widgeon, and gadwall I could see on the west end of the oblong basin. I’d get them one day. But as I continued west along the long drive, I came alongside the levee that was originally built to hold the historic ranch house's water supply, a pond we still call the "pump tank". I had seen a few birds there before, and now with the house pond ducks having put me in waterfowl mode despite the doe I would shortly be cleaning and packing away in the freezer, I decided to give jumping the pond a try. Climbing the barbed wire at the sturdy pipe strainer, I propped up my gun on the fence and began to sneak up the levee to a point I knew I wouldn’t be able to shoot from but would be able to see the whole tank. Getting to my vantage point with as much grace as I could muster in duck bibs, I peered out in the light fog to see several gadwall 40 or so yards down the bank. My heartrate rose ever so slightly. Now, only to get to them. Mentally marking the point on the levee I would need to climb to get a good shot, I slid down to regain my shotgun, a black pump-action Stoeger. 

As I was able to walk at a better pace at the bottom of the levee with it being out of earshot, I moved quickly along the bulldozed path to the spot at the base below where the birds were before beginning my quiet ascent. There were a few scrubby bushes at the peak, and peering out from underneath them, I could see the flock was still there, although they had moved perhaps 20 yards from the bank. With their slow, nonchalant paddling towards the center of the tank making my chances more slim by the second, I quickly got a good foothold, straightened up, yelled “hey hey!” to give the birds a fair chance, and struck the best target as he flushed straight up and away from my voice. 

As an aside, the age-old argument between water swatters and those that don’t, is -in my opinion- not even worth having as actually coming to a solution is as likely as the doe in the back of my truck being scored at 150. But because this is my story and not a debate, I will share my philosophy: If I’m set up with decoys out and I get a bird to land in the spread, I won. The time and effort I spent to trick him into landing is all the sportsmanship I need, and that bird is on the strap. But if I’m jump-shooting a pond, especially one that’s 20 yards from the truck, I need a bit more effort on my part to make it a sportsmanlike exchange, thus the “hey hey!”.

In any case, the one bird fell. Pumping the shotgun as quickly as I could, I realigned and took another shot at the group as it flew dead away from me. I saw no feathers and not one made any sort of aerial maneuver, so I assume some other universe was in need of the airborne steel and carted the #2 shot away before reaching the birds. That must be it, it certainly couldn't be the fact that I didn't pick a singular bird out of the flock!

Before the Retrieve

The bird was pretty far out there, certainly in water too deep for waders, and there was not enough wind to push it to the shore for quite awhile. I had not planned on attempting a first retrieve on this venison-focused trip, but my inability to get to the bird yielded the sudden realization that Rex was up at the house in his kennel, a mere five-and-a-bit months old. It was the perfect opportunity. With the bird floating on it’s back, white breast exposed to the rising sun, and I knew Rex would be able to see it.

Shuffling down the levee and climbing back over the strainer, I spun tires up the road to go get the little dog. He was full of energy straight out of the box as the young ones are, and -on theme- he made sure to relieve himself with all four feet on the grass as he hadn’t figured out the proper male technique yet. I got a head start over the pipe fence keeping the cattle off the sticker-covered lawn, and Rex sprinted right past me after he was finished. With a quail habitat project in the works, we picked our way through the bulldozer tracks to make it back to the tank. The water was cold, but Rex was determined as he shimmied along the shallows, seeing the white-breasted gadwall but unsure if it was the target. When it gave one final flap, Rex began the swim, sealing its fate. Making it all the way out there in cold December water to a bird far too big for his little mouth, he grabbed it by the narrower rump and pivoted to return.

The Retrieve

Once he hit the shoreline a bit to my left, he seemed disoriented with the feathers in his face, and he walked up the bank away from me. Making a fuss to show him where I was, he turned back and picked his way through the high grass and fallen branches to make it to me, delivering the dangling bird perfectly to hand. 

The Painting’s Picture

We walked back to the house on air, elated that the training we had done was able to result in such a special day. I ordered a little brass plaque to commemorate the retrieve as we had coffee on the porch, and then began to research where I could get it mounted, all while making sure I kept the one shell that had been ejected with my pump of the action. That young gadwall is not the prettiest one on my wall, but it’s my favorite. 

Mounted by Bill Moos of College Station, TX

So that's the story, one of unbridled adrenaline and subsequent serotonin. Perhaps unconventionally, I want to end this story with a piece of advice: always take the picture. I took a few of the bird and Rex, but a family friend at the house offered to take one of the two of us, and I am eternally grateful for that offer; I wouldn’t be able to share the memory as well during story-telling -and certainly not here in written form- if not for it. On to the next trophy!

Both of Us
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