Twenty years ago and three Labrador Retrievers I sat in a thick cattail and waited for the first flocks of ducks to swing over the decoys.
It was opening day and the prospects looked bright for me and my energetic 10 month old Laboratory Mercury.
While we spent the minutes waiting for legal shooting time, dozens of blue-winged teal and a couple of wood ducks hissed at our decoys, some of which ended up inside the set. Both teal and wood ducks are very gregarious ducks, a trait that makes them both easy to spot and a little easier to lure using bait within shooting range.
Shortly after the clock fired legally, I dropped a pair of beautiful Drake Woodies, which Merc cleverly retrieved. A little later, a teal was added to our bag before the action subsided and the ducks ran out.
For the next hour, Mercury and I continued to scan the horizon for incoming waterfowl without seeing a single sight. Then a soaring swarm appeared blue-green, almost directly above us.
I took careful aim and swung well in front of the leader, taking into account not only the height of the bird but also the flight speed, and then pulled the trigger.
When the cannons were reported, the target teal buckled, then recovered enough to set its wings and sail out over a tree population, only to suddenly fall from the sky into a ripe bean field. With that one shot, the hunt went from easy to arduous.
The distance was so great and the obstacles too great to send the youngster Merc alone after the bird. I could tell by his excited demeanor that he was tagging the bird, but I waded with him to the point where the bird had left the lake with the full intent of leading him through the forest and into the beans to to rescue the bird.
When we reached the bank of the heavy cattail, Merc plowed away from me, stormed through cattails, climbed a hill, and disappeared into the woods. Immersed in the weeds and dirt, there wasn’t much I could do other than try to reach the field and help him find the bird.
As I slowly drove cattails for an easier grip, Merc appeared like lightning, a drake blue wing gently clamped into his jaws. The look on his face told me that all of our months of training had worked and that I should have stayed in the blind.
After a couple of “good guys”, we made our way back to continue our hunt. I never left the blind man. I left the duck collection to a confident little Mercury.
This story shows how well-designed hunting dog training can pay off in the field. In addition to making a great story, Mercury performed the most important hunting dog task: bringing back wounded birds or recovering birds from terrain inaccessible to hunters.
While training dogs in home yards can pay off, training in a group or with a professional is the pinnacle of dog training. When you combine the two, the training will produce seasoned, confident hunting dogs.
Local professional trainer Roger Hess started a club known as the Minnesota River Retriever Club. The idea is that during the spring and summer, members pay a small daily fee of $ 5 on the weekends to exercise with others in the group.
The result is dogs that come to work amid myriad of distractions such as other dogs, live birds, bait sets, and live gunfire that closely mimic real hunts.
Work is carried out on fields at numerous locations as well as in water features.
The best part is that Roger is always there to provide advice and encouragement to the handlers.
Sometimes training obstacles can seem insurmountable for amateur trainers. When this happens, Roger offers invaluable solutions that will move dogs to higher grades quickly.
Working with a large group is excellent medicine for overly energetic dogs as they will have to sit and watch 10 other dogs at work before their chance presents itself.
Complicated hunting scenarios can also be easily arranged as dog handlers are available to throw birds out of blinds, shoot down dummy rifles, or set up blind retrieting scenarios where the dog is sent by hand signals to find a bird that he can did not see falling.
Training on your own can make a great dog, but often it takes a lot of time and a lot of specialized equipment. Training with a group of friends can raise the bar even higher, and joining a hunting dog training group can turn a good dog into great success.
You may never be asked to retrieve a teal hundreds of feet away, but it always makes hunters smile when they know they can do it when asked to. Plus, the resulting stories are the stuff of great memories.
Mark Morrison is an avid hunter and fisherman and has been a freelance outdoor writer and photographer for more than 20 years. Mankato, who has been based in 1979, can be contacted at [email protected]