Tag Archives: Labrador Retrievers

A Hunter’s Journal, Part Two

8 Nov

Friday, Nov. 7
Clear and cold and still. Low Temp +23F 
Forecast called for “south, southwest winds, 10-15, gusting to 25, laying down later in the day.” At Belva Deer south winds are not the best, but they can still be hunted effectively. Thursday, while I volunteered at the Food Pantry, the wind howled out of the North, and the temperature dropped to more winter-like numbers, and the sun was apparent only briefly.
The full moon was day-bright at 4 a.m. and the temperature was a cool 23F as I loaded the two Labs that make up my hunting party for the hour’s drive. As we launched, Ark, Kris, and I became absorbed in the stillness that comes with the changing of the seasons. An eerie mist was rising off the cooling waters, and hanging in tendrils straight up to the moon that made the fact I’d left my spotlight home on the counter meaningless.
As we navigated the flooded woods out of the county’s refuge, I could see with unbelievable detail the point I usually hunt on west and north winds, and we kept to the far shoreline where the forested hills end abruptly at the waterline without fear of ramming a snag as they were clearly visible.
When we got to the bay with the southern shoreline, I sat in the boat for an hour waiting for the slightest hint that the wind would indeed come from the south, if it came at all.
The wait gave me time to soak in the beauty of the moment, knowing that no matter how hard I might try, I’d never be able to convey that feeling to those who’ve never experienced it, and knowing full well that those of us who have don’t need words like these to remind them.
Finally the mist started slanting from the south to the north and I set the decoys knowing that the diver ducks like to land at the head of the flock while the mallards, geese and other puddle ducks prefer to land at the rear. I alw77ays remember at that moment a lesson from years ago, “How would you like to glide in for a landing over a bunch of birds who at any second might pop straight up in front of you?”
But all my strategic placement of decoys and careful concealment of the boat blind were wasted on this morning. Other than three LBDs (a takeoff on the mycologist’s scientific term for unidentifiable “Little Brown Mushrooms) and a lot of crows, there were no birds on the lake.
I can only conclude that the heavy north winds and sudden drop in temperature sent the hundreds of birds I’d seen on Wednesday on their way south. That’s duck hunting in the temperate climes of the U.S. – a here today; gone tomorrow proposition. There is no real reason for birds to stay in the refuge on Belva Deer. Everything they find here is available hundreds of miles south of here except for the cold.
We wrapped up the vigil and were back home before noon with nothing to show for our efforts but a hauntingly beautiful memory of a mirror-like lake bathed in the wash of the moon as spooky mists of warmer times made their escape for the season.
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A Hunter’s Journal 2014

5 Nov

Saturday, Oct. 25
Balmy weather, bright sunshine, brisk south wind
I opened the duck season without firing a shot, or even setting a decoy. I chose to scout the Sedan Bottoms near Moulton, IA, a giant state wildlife management area near the Chariton River flowage.

Friday, Oct. 31
Warm, windy, out of the northwest, bright sun
I finally went hunting for real at Lake Belva Deere near Sigourney, IA. It was really a “flag cutting” trip, but lo and behold, in the spirit of Halloween, a three ring necks fell for my diver rig trick, two of them treated Susie and me with a special dinner – we marinated them in soy and fresh ginger grilled with onions, peppers and mushrooms on ‘fire wire’ gizmos that really make shish-ka-bobbing simple. They were tasty. I got the recipe from Wisconsin hunters in North Dakota when I made a trip to Devil’s Lake with Dave Schwarz back in the late 1990s (98 or 99, I can’t recall.) The motel was full of hunters, and on Wednesday night we all, without any planning or announcement, broke out our grills and favorite recipes, and before long everybody was just roaming around sampling and getting recipes. We did little-duck breasts basted with Good Seasons Italian dressing. It was a hit, too.

Sunday, Nov. 2
Warm temperatures, bright sun, brisk south wind
I walked in for an afternoon hunt at Sedan Bottoms. Saw a few ducks, learned a bit about the lay of the land, and decided that afternoon walk-ins would be the best way to familiarize myself with those wetlands. It was thrilling to walk in, however, the first time since I can’t remember. I came home reinvigorated by the “hunting” without much consideration about success, totals, or lost birds. I wonder if it wouldn’t be worth the effort to drag our pond skiff into the water and hunt from that. I think I’ll check with a game warden and see there are any rules against such behavior (other than common sense. It might be 500 yards to the water at what I call “parking area 2 on my GPS.)

Tuesday, Nov. 4
It rained earlier in the night, low, overcast sky, temperature in the Low 40s, northwest wind, gusting towards 20 mph
Back at Belva Deer I’ve told Susie that if I get the chance to walk Kris Kringle to a down bird, and he won’t pick it up, it’ll be the end of my dream for him. He just doesn’t care about a) hunting and b) being under voice control. He minds, but he hates it, I can tell.
I had low expectations when I got the diver, goose and mallard rigs set and because the water is finally high enough, I got to set up the boat blind for only the second time since I came to Iowa. I hid it behind the spit of a point that I’ve hunted over and over again, shooting an occasional goose or a few divers. Kris really doesn’t give a rip about sitting on the dog deck; prefers to be curled up under my feet – no matter where my feet might be.
Shooting time was 6:17 a.m., and I was in the boat blind and didn’t have my gun loaded as birds started swarming the decoys. It was so dark I couldn’t see them low on the water. I hurried and got the 1187 loaded, as bird after bird dived on me, some diver groups of 20-30 birds, a few puddle duck groups of a dozen or so – who knows what species, there were birds everywhere. After about 10 minutes, I had a flock come into the decoys, obviously not divers, and two flared above the horizon, and I shot one. It hit the water between me and first decoy, and I hurried out of the boat with Kris in hot pursuit. When I got to the water’s edge, I called him to heel, and he came and sat just like a training exercise. I put my hand in front of his nose and told him to “mark” and when he saw the bird, I said, “Kris!” and he tip-toed into the water, reached the bird and gave it a sniff, but it was apparent he wasn’t certain if he wanted to pick it up. “Fetch!” I said with some enthusiasm, and he took it in his mouth – A FIRST! He’d never picked up a dead bird in the past. He brought it back, dropped it and shook. Picked it up and brought it to me. His first retrieve, just 2 months shy of his third birthday.
We got back in the blind and the birds really started decoying, and I shot like I’d never hunted before. I had about 20 shells on board when I started, and by 7:35 I had four birds on the strap and two birds that were down but lost in the tall grass. If I had brought Ark out of his retirement, I would have certainly had a 6-bird limit.
The birds were still flying and decoying, but I was down to my last shell, and a guy can’t shoot at a working bird without having another shell available – what if it was down but lively? A guy can’t waste birds like that.
I even missed birds that had landed in my decoys. I flushed them with my gun 90 percent mounted, and missed my intended target three times, shooting right over the top of him each time. I could see the shot hitting the water. Apparently I never completed the final 10 percent of the mounting process.
We chased two birds that had fallen into the lake and were blowing away from us in the boat. Both were recovered and they were the first Shovelers I have ever shot! The drake looked like an out-sized Blue Wing Teal until his over-sized bill registered on my brain. I initially thought the hen was a Gadwall, but again the noggin gave it away. I found the drake floating near shore several hundred yards down wind of our decoys, and I got out the boat, and took the opportunity to give Kris his second lifetime retrieve. He had to be encouraged to get out of the boat, but once in the water he “took his line” and tip toed over to the bird, sniffed it a few times and came home without it.
My final bird was a beautiful drake Mallard who came to the decoys with wings set, feet down and died right in the kill slot of my decoy setup. Even that close to shore, I would probably have to go get him with the boat, but I walked Kris to the water’s edge, gave him the line and he went into the water, and, when the bottom fell away, he swam to the bird. The drake was dying, but could still paddle a bit, and Kris wasn’t certain at first, sniffing of the bird as it tried in vain to escape, and, finally, at the command “fetch,” he brought it back to me, held it all the way to me, and presented it, just like a training exercise!
But there is absolutely no appearance that he takes any joy or even real interest in the bird, the swim or anything. He got back into the boat and immediately crawled down to sleep on a decoy bag at my feet.
The birds created a reef about 200 yards down wind and in the middle of the lake, and worked my decoys and the reef without any real break for about an hour after that. It was thrilling to me.
Tomorrow I’m going back. There’s no reason to expect those birds to be there. They are obviously newcomers and while tomorrow will be windy, it’s supposed to be sunny and 60. I’m taking Ark with us. Susie is adamant that I give Kris every opportunity for the light to click on for him, and I’m hoping a little competition from Ark might just do it.
But I’m no longer thinking this is going to work out. He makes a great buddy for taking walks in the woods; he’s a loving and lovable pet, but I don’t think he’s ever going to hunt.

Wednesday, Nov. 5
Balmy west, southwest wind around 10; high cirrus clouds, marking the front that’s moving in left the day partly sunny
I now call Susie the “lab whisperer.”
The ripple generated by the breeze that greeted us an hour before shooting time at Belva Deer went completely flat just as legal shooting time arrived. We had ducks aplenty in the decoys up until then, but with no motion (I didn’t set the jerk line as the decoys were moving so nicely…) the birds cut us a wide berth for the next thirty minutes or so, then the zephyr got back on the job, but by then there were several hundred birds building a raft out in the middle of the lake, and that was tough competition.
It felt strange to have Ark in the boat again. At age 12, he’s been retired for several years, but with a predicted high temperature of 60, I thought he could handle a little work, and it really paid off. Susie, who has always been great with bird dogs but who has never hunted over one, is adamant that Kris Kringle just needs experience to “catch on” to what is expected of a duck dog in my boat.
When a hen Blue Bill came out of nowhere and landed in the kill slot between the diver and puddle duck rigs, I decided that training a Labrador was the overriding purpose of the morning, so I shot it.
Kris was asleep on the dog deck, but Ark was on watch, and hit the water at the shot (he was really steady to shot when he was a puppy, then my lack of training skills overpowered his fine breeding) and Kris came to life to watch. The pup immediately put two and two together, and decided he wanted to join the show, but couldn’t figure out how to exit the boat into the water – He’d never done that before except in training out of the pond boat in our yard!
He finally overcame his reluctance to jump in just as Ark turned the back corner of the boat with the bird. For the first time, Kris showed interest in a bird, albeit a bird in Ark’s control, but interest all the same.
When I got the bird in hand, I showed it to Kris. In previous instances, he had shown no interest or excitement in close proximity to the bird, but this time, he sniffed and licked a bit, his tail sending all the right signals…
We sat through enough close call, no sale, episodes that Kris lost his new interest in sitting up and watching, and curled up to sleep on the deck while Ark maintained his vigil.
I remembered Ark as a young pup. He too had often slept on watch in his early years, but that all ended on foggy morning on the Columbia River. I could hear the geese above, but the pea soup made visibility impossible. I finally figured it was the same for them, so I started calling, and much to my surprise a pair of geese, wings locked and necks craned, sailed through my decoys. I was so taken aback that my strategy had worked, I failed to even pick up my gun.
Talk about sleeping on the job…
But the next time I heard the birds calling, I responded and was ready when the goose appeared like magic. I folded him up neatly, but his momentum carried him over a small spit of land, so his crash into the water was heard but not seen.
Ark came out of his slumber, of course, but couldn’t see anything on the water. I lined him up on the end of the spit, and sent him. When he got to the end of the grass, I whistled him to a stop, and he took my “turn left” signal as I blew the two-short-note peeps that mean “back!” in his whistle training, and he responded. As he headed around the end of the spit, I saw his ears perk up and he shifted gears, and I knew my boy had just “handled” to his first goose retrieve. I was higher than Kilroy’s kite, I can tell you.
So we sat for about an hour, and then a flock of 20 or 30 Bills made the now familiar downwind sweep of our set, and then, at the extent of the body of water we were set up on, they turned left just as all the rest had done before them, but instead of climbing for altitude and skedaddling down the lake, these guys stayed right on the water and bee-lined it to our rig. I was ready, I thought, but man oh man those Scaup are fast!
I started to “pop up” out of the blind when they were some sixty yards to the north of the decoys. When I cleared the blind upright, they were on me! By the time I got the gun mounted, they were past me, and as I swung after the closest bird, I was shooting due south! But for a change I must have gotten the gun all the way up and swinging, because the drake Bill folded cleanly… into dense shoreline grass and weeds.
But I was buoyed by having my Ark on hand, so we got out of the boat and the old boy got active as I called out, “Dead bird! Find him!”
This is a game Susie never ceases to enjoy with the boys. She locks them in the bathroom, hides Milk Bones around the house, and then, with a great deal of excitement, she cheers them on with “Dead bird!” “Hunt dead!” and the like until one or the other finds the treat.
This has always worked on our dogs (We got our first Lab in 1969, and she’s done this game over and over.) Kris too likes the Milk Bone game, but he has shown no interest in applying his interest to other pursuits.
On this morning, however, a page turned in our young Lab’s story. While Ark immediately put his nose to the wind looking for a sign from the “dead bird,” Kris started quartering through the thick cover! I’ve had him do that many times as we walked and practiced upland hunting, but he’s never found anything. On this day I watched with amazement as his ears perked, his tail went into overdrive, and his normal long-legged bound was replaced with a more animated and erratic stop-start-turn-stop-start cadence as he tried to sort out the story his nose was telling him. I held my breath. He suddenly went stiff, and I saw a hint of indecision. “Kris, fetch!” I barked, and he immediately plunged his head into the thick grass and came out with a nearly dead drake Lesser Scaup – his first, in my opinion, actual retrieve!
He brought it right to me, and there was animation in his body language for the first time. He was proud, really! I let him carry the bird all the way back to the boat before calling him in. He gently gave up the bird to hand, and I really laid the loving on him, you can be sure.
I found it interesting that Ark made no advance toward Kris while he was carrying the bird. I have always been surprised at Ark’s willingness to accept Kris to his home. My other older dogs, when we brought a puppy home, read the writing on the wall and made it obvious they’d kill the little nipper first chance. Not Ark. He has been like a much older brother or a youngish uncle. He plays with Kris from time to time, but mostly he ignores him.
On this morning, I choose to believe that in some way he understood this was a big deal in a young dog’s life, and gave him center stage.
When we were back in the boat, and the wind had dwindled again to nothing, Kris went sound asleep. I sneaked a biscuit to the old boy, and after he had crunched it up, he poked his head through the blind door and nudged my hand. I showed him it was empty, and he positioned his ear right where I could scratch it the way he likes best… I think we shared a moment.
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Puppy Chow

21 Dec

One of the treats of living a life out there is sharing it with a canine partner, and we’ve been fortunate to have shared our times with some really fun and challenging Labrador Retrievers. Yellow, male, Labrador Retrievers.

But the hardest part of letting these loving, loyal partners into your family is that they eventually have to quit. They wear out so much faster than we do. You give your heart, your family’s heart, to them with the knowledge that down the road you’ll be grieving.

It goes the same way every time.

We’re a family with one dog until that dog is retired from hunting. Then the new dog comes on board, runs the old dog crazy, and takes over as the No. 1 dog in all things but mealtime.

It’s been that way for more than 40 years.

The first lab was “Shackaboo,” a 2 and ½-year-old beauty rescued from a family that didn’t have any idea of what it had, and no time for it if they’d figured it out. By the time Shack came home with us, he would sit, stay and come if it pleased him and he thought the only purpose in my throwing a retrieving dummy was for him and me to play “catch me if you can” once he had it in his mouth.

He was hyper to say the least. And protective. If you came to the car he never growled. If you reached in, as if to pet him, he just bit you. It wasn’t personal, just business.

We got him in Michigan in April and drove him home to Rhode Island. He was a mess, and after nearly daily calls back home to report how my efforts at turning this dog into a working retriever were going nowhere, my late father-in-law, Ken Roush, who arranged the rescue of this pup, finally, in July, told me “find him a good home; we’ll get you a puppy that’ll train when you get back here.”

Then something clicked for Shack and me.

On August 20, 1970 I separated from active duty and we packed ourselves back to Michigan with Shack taking up the entire back seat of our 1969 Pontiac Firebird. The week before we departed Rhode Island, we went to a street fair in the village of Narraganset. Shack walked at heel (on a leash that never went taut) all day. At one point, when we wanted to see the inside of an historic church, we left the leash loop over the top nut on a fire hydrant, told Shack to “stay,” and went inside.

After 15 or 20 minutes, we came back to find Shack sitting where we’d left him, with a huge puddle of drool under his muzzle and two little boys teasing him with the last bites of their ice cream cones. But that dog’s butt had never left the concrete where we left him.

After discussing the pros and cons of teasing a strange dog with a treat, the boys agreed this well-behaved dog had earned the treats they’d offered, and with Susie murmuring “gently” Shack took each in its turn without touching a finger.

Shack lived to be 14, and hunted until he was 12. The last two years of his life, he lived with Whiskey Creek White Lightning III. In every hunter’s life there are key moments, key markers in time and any number of “THEs” as in “THE best dog,” or “THE best shot” or “THE best day.”

Lightning was a “THE.”

In his prime, Lightning weighed 103 pounds with minimal body fat, and was a gentle giant in every situation. When our son was young, he learned to stand by crawling over to the dog, taking double-handfuls of his back and holding on as the big guy slowly got up, stood there a tolerable time as Casey grinned and cooed, then shook gently, disengaging the little guy, and slowly walking upstairs where he could sleep in peace.

Lightning’s salad days happened to mesh with mine in terms of hunting. I was crazy about ducks and geese, and he made 19 consecutive retrieves on the opening day of the 1980 duck season in Michigan. It was Lightning’s first birthday, and Gene Baxter shot 18 pintails at 10 points per bird right in the kill zone in front of the blind. All day I just sent Lightning and welcomed him back. By the end of the day, Gene turned to me and said, “David, I think this dog’s got it, don’t you think you should shoot at least one duck today?”

I did, and that drake mallard was the first of hundreds Lightning would bring back in his 12 years. He hunted right up to the end, and we went a year without a hunting-age pup, but “Mazaska Lake Jake” was already in the wings, waiting his time.

All of our Labs have been great house pets in addition to what they added to our days afield, but Jake was a handful. He and I got divorced almost monthly between January and October because of his aggressive and disobedient behavior around the house.

But our love affair was reborn each fall. This dog was THE meat hook. One of the first retrieves he ever made was on a poorly shot mallard that started swimming for the cattail marsh as soon as Jake was sent. I took one look at the distance separating the two and turned to “The Doctor” Bruce Plante and said, “You’re not going to eat that duck.”

But 10 minutes after both critters disappeared into the cattail maze, we heard Jake find the lakeshore and start our way. He found an opening somewhat adjacent to our blind, and the next thing we knew he was swimming back to us complete with a very lively mallard.

We hunted for three more years before we lost a cripple with Jake. That bird out-swam him and dived under the ice. Jake had seen that act before and brought back the bird, but this time he was too far behind when he dived under the ice and had to turn back – which I was really pleased to learn he could do.

We got the current ruler of our roost, “Indy’s Lost Ark Raider” in July of 2003, and immediately took him on a July 4th expedition to Lake Superior. In fact, his first 4 weeks in our household found him spending more nights in other places than home.

He became very familiar with our 17-foot Aqua Sport as we trolled lakes Michigan and Superior for game fish, and drifted our own Mazaska Lake for walleye and bluegill.
Ark is/was a pointing lab. Now 8 going on 80, he’s the victim of a touch of heat stroke that he acquired on the opening day of 2008 in Oregon. As soon as I realized just how hot he was, I rushed him off the mountain to a hose outside the landowner’s house.

I thought it was in time, but the next day he was less than interested in the game, and on the following day, during our morning walk that had always included an up-close and personal visit with a covey of quail, he never gave them a second look.

Every now and then after that, he would show a bit of his former self, but for the most part, he’s been a wonderful partner in a duck blind. Now he’s regressing at an unbelievable rate. Even when he marks a down bird it takes a number of false starts before he’ll finally take a line and fetch the bird.

This new regression to puppyhood has cost us some lost cripples. Now he’s just as apt to bark at decoying birds as he is to retrieve one.

Our dogs are a “womb to tomb” deal. We’re not the NFL. We don’t ditch pups for having a bad year. Ark will live out his life in comfort with occasional misery when I take off with the “interloper” and leave him behind. Susie will feed him treats and loving pats that will take the sting out of being benched. Of course, if we catch a break, he’ll be sleeping on the good ear when we leave and he’ll never know we’re gone.

So now we’re in the classic Balcom family mode of finding a puppy.

“Susie, there’s a litter of pups just up the road in Oskaloosa. I wanna go up and give ’em a look, whaddya say?”

And her answer will be true to the last three times this conversation started: “You go look. I’ll go buy the Puppy Chow.”