Pay special attention to your bird dogs when the temps dip on late-season hunts.
By Tom Dokken
A few years ago a good buddy and I were sitting on a cattail-covered point during mid-November. The divers were riding stiff winds into our setup and though it was brutally cold, the hunting was on fire. We'd already shot several birds and were creeping our way toward a limit when a flock of bluebills swung in.
We dropped one clean and when it hit the water all signs were that the bird was off to duck heaven, so we didn't feel the need to put an insurance shot on him.
That was a mistake.
When my friend's Lab neared that fallen bluebill the bird came to and decided that he was going to try to evade the retriever. Since we were on a good-sized lake his plan was a simple one — dive and swim toward the middle. With the wind kicking up two-foot waves, that Lab set out to retrieve the wounded duck.
It didn't take long for us to realize the dog was out of earshot and our whistles. It also became clear he wasn't going to get the bird. We had stashed our boat on a nearby point so I took off after it, but only after instructing my buddy to keep his eyes glued to his dog's location so he could direct me.
When I got to the Lab he was exhausted and all he wanted to do was get into the boat. The scary episode lasted only a few minutes but was a good reminder of how quickly things can go wrong when you're hunting late-season birds on big water.
And it's not just big water that can be dangerous. Years ago on a Nebraska river, I watched a Lab get into the current to retrieve a bird. That retriever ended up a long ways downstream before he finally grabbed the duck. After that he had to get back to us, which was no small chore. When you're dealing with current in cold weather, the possibility of things going wrong increases.
And in all extreme conditions, the margin for error is razor thin.
There is a misconception you can train for cold-weather hunts. Unless you're willing to sit by a lake for three hours and intermittently toss a dummy into the water for your dog, it's not going to happen. It's too hard to simulate a real late-season hunt.
You can train your retriever in cold water, which might help some but the real danger of this type of hunting is what being wet and cold does to stamina as a hunt progresses.
Duck hunting is filled with down time, and during that inactivity your dog will get colder and colder and his energy level will start to slip.
If you really want to prepare your dog as well as possible, keep him in killer shape and make sure he is not only fed well, but also properly hydrated. That is the best way to give him an edge before your hunt starts.
During an actual hunt, it's a different story.
Using a neoprene vest is an excellent start, but I like to take it further by also keeping a towel handy. Every time my dog goes into the drink to get a duck and then comes back to the blind or the boat, he gets toweled off. This helps him stay drier, which keeps him warmer longer.
It's also a good idea to keep a training dummy handy. During slow periods when ducks aren't coming fast and furious, get the dog on land and throw the dummy. Six retrieves will allow him to stretch his legs and get his heart rate up, which is a good thing during cold-weather excursions.
After the Hunt
While it's our jobs to keep our dogs safe throughout the hunt, that responsibility doesn't vanish once we've unloaded the guns and carried the decoys back to the truck. After the hunt is over, it's absolutely necessary to give him a chance to warm up.
If your duck dog travels in a crate, don't kennel him in the back of your truck while he is still wet. This is especially important if you don't have a topper on your truck.
Take the time to dry the dog off, and if at all possible, use an insulated kennel cover. I'm a firm believer in not only insulated kennel covers, but also for some sort of dry bedding in the kennel.
I also like to take it a step further and place a piece of Styrofoam or a thick rug beneath the kennel. This adds a layer of insulation between the bottom of the kennel and the cold, metal truck bed, allowing my dogs to stay more comfortable when we are en route to the house or the motel.
In both cases, I also make sure that my dog comes inside with me when we get to wherever we are staying. I've heard horror stories about dogs being left in crates all night long after a day of late-season duck hunting. A tough dog can handle this, of course, but it's not the best way to keep them healthy and allow them to recover fully for the following day's hunt.
Again, even though the dog may have been in and out of the water all day, it's still important to ensure that he has access to plenty of water. Dehydration can happen in the cold as well, because their bodies are working extra hard to stay warm throughout the hunt.
We take a serious amount of pride in what our duck dogs can do, and there is nothing wrong with that. After all, who doesn't like to tell a story or three about the sheer talent and drive their retriever possesses?
The downside to this is, of course, we sometimes give them too much credit for being the baddest dudes in the duck dog world.
When it comes to making the retrieve, all dogs, regardless of skill and tenacity, have their breaking point. They are living, breathing animals subjected to grueling conditions, which if given enough time, will break them.
That's the reality of late-season hunting, and it's the reason why it is so important to pay attention to the conditions surrounding them and the hunts on which we take them.
It's our job to keep them safe at all times, and there is never a time to take that job more seriously than when the divers are riding a freezing late-season wind into the decoys.