My Dog, Rock – 1995-2009

Duck hunting has been hard for me during the last couple of duck seasons. As the Ducks Unlimited biologist here in Montana I have ample opportunity to pursue waterfowl in some of the most beautiful and challenging settings imaginable, and I am truly blessed. The downside has been that my favorite hunting partner Rock was getting older, and he just couldn’t put on the miles and brave the elements like he used to.

Rock came into my life the year I started working for Ducks Unlimited. From the time I was a little kid I had always wanted a dog. Circumstances when I was growing up didn’t allow me to have one and I knew that the obligations of military service and college were not going to give me the free time to train and hunt with a dog either. Finally, in 1995, I knew the time was right. At the age of 33 I had just started with DU as the state biologist and was stationed in the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado, one of the best waterfowl-hunting locations in North America. I needed a dog.

Bob Sanders and his dog, RockI can still remember the day I picked up Rock. I had looked at dozens of litters of Lab pups that fall and never quite found the right one. When I pulled up to Rick and Polly Beasley’s house near Bailey, Colo., and a fine-looking female yellow Lab and 12 healthy pups came up to the fence to greet me, I knew I was going home with my first dog. Having 16 pounds the most beautiful Lab pup I had ever seen curled up on my lap for the three-hour drive home made me the happiest guy on the face of the Earth that day. I still remember stopping on top of Kenosha Pass on the drive home in a full-blown blizzard to let him take a pee break and looking down at that little bundle of fur squatting in the snow, imagining what great times lay ahead for both of us. I didn’t know it at the time, but my life had just changed forever.

Rock and I became inseparable. I had always been what I consider to be a “dog nut.” I just love dogs, period. You always know where you stand with a dog and I believe that dogs know a “dog person” when they meet one. Rock and I did everything together, and I mean EVERYTHING. Eat, sleep, walks, travel, train – you name it. The DU program in Colorado was just getting underway at that time and I was traveling more than 70 hours a week throughout the state looking at wetland project sites. Rock had his spot in the passenger seat of the old Ford pick-up, nose out the window, sniffing out the next adventure. We camped out in all but the worst weather and I smuggled him into hotels when the temperatures got too low. Everyone knew Rock – agency partners, landowners, even the kids working at the local Wendy’s would see me pulling through the drive-through and line up a couple of burgers for him. He had it made…and so did I.

Rock was 10 months old when his first duck season arrived. We had trained from the day we met, first a duck wing and mini-bumper, eventually graduating to full-sized bumpers, multiple retrieves, blind retrieves, the works. Don’t get me wrong, we had our frustrations just like any other good partnership, but when the dust settled we knew we had a job to do, and Rock and I took our hunting very seriously. On opening day of the 1996 season we were in North Park, Colo., at my friend Bert’s pond. It was late afternoon and the area was thick with teal. I swung on the first bird, a fast, low-flyer, and crumpled him with a load of #4 steel. The bird skipped twice across the water and crashed into the cattails about 30 yards away. Rock plunged into the water on a direct line to the bird. He swam in and out of the cattails for about a minute before I came out to help with the search. No bird. I was sure I had hit the teal hard but try as we might we couldn’t find that bird. I knew we would have plenty more opportunities, but I didn’t want to start Rock’s hunting career off with a lost bird. We shot the remainder of our limit (I count lost birds as part of my limit) and sat and watched ducks work the pond as both Rock and I admired our four beautiful teal. I couldn’t have been more proud. In those days I had an old wheeled cart that I carried my decoys and gear in, so I gathered up the decoys as Rock sniffed and explored the area around our blind. We headed for the truck with the decoy cart bouncing over the hummocks. That’s when I noticed Rock with a bird in his mouth. At first I thought I had dropped a dead bird out of the cart and I was very pleased that Rock was able to make sure his buddy Bob didn’t carelessly leave a harvested bird in the field. I brought him to heel, gave him tons of praise then took the bird from him. I was startled when the bird nearly jumped out of my hand. It was our lost bird!

Rock on the retrieve

I could go on and on about the adventures that Rock and I had over his 14 years. Duck hunts in sub-zero temperatures, backpacking trips in the mountains, grilled elk steaks that mysteriously disappeared from the table a few minutes before dinnertime, almost losing him through the ice on the Rio Grande on a cold February day – the list goes on. Rock shared a blind with more people than I can remember and dozens of kids shot their first ducks over him. Rock even made it on an episode of the DU-TV show and had his picture in the Denver Post a couple of times. Of the literally hundreds of DU project sites that I have worked on, I can’t remember a single one that Rock didn’t visit with me. He sired 63 pups in his day, many of which turned out to be top-notch hunters. I could go on and on and probably write a book on our adventures, but sometimes those memories are best kept in a guy’s heart.

Rock died on Saturday, Nov. 7, 2009, 20 days short of his fourteenth birthday. It was really tough for me. Even now as I write this, I have tears streaming down my face. I have been in Montana for four years now, and even though I have some very good friends here and they all knew and loved Rock, none of them knew the young, hard-hunting, unstoppable dog that he was in his earlier years. My long-time friends that knew Rock and how close we were have been very supportive. They remind me that 14 years is a long life for a dog and I know they are right. Every one of us that has put our heart and soul into a dog, and had them give us the unconditional love and devotion that only a true friend can, knows the feeling. You can try to describe it, but sometimes things are just better left unsaid. All I know is that I gave Rock everything I had and he dedicated his life to me in return, and it just doesn’t get any better than that. Rest in peace, my friend.

Advertisements

When It All Goes Wrong…

Chris JenningsMurphy’s Law is an adage that is typically stated as: “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.” I’m under the impression that this is my waterfowl hunting creed. I’ve stepped into 6 feet of suspected knee-deep water, been attacked by spiders, lost in the woods and even lost my decoy bags – if you’re hunting with me, it will go wrong.
 
Hunter at sunriseI’m notorious for hunting blunders and hosting a bad case of terrible luck. Last weekend, a good friend of mine called me to share his experience and I have to share it with everyone because it ranks in the top tier of Murphy’s Law regarding waterfowl hunting.

My friend, name omitted for fear of ridicule, lives south of Denver, Colo., and leased some property outside of Greely, Colo., along the north fork of the Platte River. He built a blind along the edge of the river so he and his golden retriever, Indy, could spend a few mornings hunting this fall.
 
Making the nearly two-hour drive Friday morning, his optimism soaring as the temperature had dipped into single digits and the weather forecaster was calling for a crispy 1 degree morning. He left the truck well before shooting time and walked towards his blind. I can picture him and Indy marching in the darkness, the cold air creating a fog as they exhaled with every step. The excitement of the morning hunt surrounding them, there was quickness in their movements.

Hunters calling

The Platte River’s water level is extremely high and with his blind being built earlier in the year; the water has risen, nearly touching the bottom of the blind. Merely a few steps in front of the blind the dark swirling waters of the Platte rush passed. Reaching the blind, he leans over to knock the ice off the Master Lock he keeps on the blind to discourage trespassers, then he reaches into his pocket for the keys and doesn’t feel them. As he pulls his hand from his parka the keys must have caught on his parka sleeve and before even Indy can blink an eye, the keys fly from his pocket into the Colorado pre-dawn darkness.

“I just want to tell you how discouraging it is to be standing there in the dark and hear the unmistakable sound of your car keys hitting the water with a bliiiimpppp,” my anonymous friend claims. “It’s one degree out here and you just kind of stand there asking yourself, ‘Did that just happen?'”

View from the boat

Oh, yes, it did happen and two hours away from home his keys were washing down stream. When I spoke to him, he was sitting on a log along the side of the road waiting on a farmer to drive by so he can hitch a ride into town to rent a car. Fortunately, he contacted the property owner who lives in the area and the guy let him borrow his truck to drive home and get a spare set of keys.

Fourteen hours after leaving his house in his truck, he returns in his truck. The long day produced memories from the field that will never be forgotten, ever. He calls me to explain how he just got a voicemail from the dealership to tell him the replacement key will cost $230 because of the theft protection system, another jab from Murphy’s Law, but more than expected at this point.

I ask him if he is planning on going again this week and he explains that he is, but the issue now is that his blind is locked. He just laughs, “Isn’t duck hunting great!”

Share your experiences regarding Murphy’s Law while waterfowling.

A Holiday Tradition

Tyson KellerIn my life, holidays have always been a time to get outdoors. Whether it be fishing during the summer or hunting during the fall, a holiday break is always considered a time to be in the field. Every year, I look forward to continuing the tradition of getting together with friends and family to hunt during Thanksgiving. Typically, the late November holiday yields great success as plentiful waterfowl numbers are usually close by.

This season has been quite a bit different according to other hunting buddies across the nation and according to my own observations. The unseasonably mild weather throughout November has allowed many birds to stay farther north than usual. The cold blast we had during early October throughout the Dakotas had many hunters licking their chops in hopes of early migrations. In reality, the cold front in early October pushed a few birds but the following mild temperatures allowed many birds to remain north, way north. For the past eight seasons, I have been able to traditionally count on great hunting in my area for Lesser Canadas, Snows, Specks and Mallards by the first week of November. This year was different. A slow trickle of what I call “Calendar Migrating Geese” have been taking place for nearly a month but many birds have been flying over and have been reluctant to stop. Although a few geese have staged along the way, we have not seen concentrations that resemble the past. We are still awaiting the northerners that are on the way. On the other hand in different areas, the birds have been in great numbers.

During this past summer, some of my old stomping grounds were clipped by heavy rains, resulting in large areas covered by shallow sheet water. Up through Thanksgiving, many crops such as corn and soybeans had not been harvested due to the amount of water pooled in low lying areas of many fields. This wet climate created some of the best duck habitat known to man; standing flooded corn and beans. During the month of November, many traveling birds were stopped as the conditions were favorable and food sources were plentiful. The cooling trends just before Thanksgiving concentrated many birds into numerous consolidated areas. This was likely the last “Big Flock” concentration before the wintery weather froze the water holes and broke them apart. The sight was spectacular but that sight has come to an end with a major cold front. Although a few birds remain to battle out the cold and keep water open, many birds have begun to migrate south.

With the season ending throughout that region in less than a week, many hunters cannot believe that the birds lasted this long. Typically, ice fishermen are out drilling the first holes by Thanksgiving but that did not happen this year. I do know one thing, the mild conditions and abundant food sources have allowed the birds to put on the feedbag and produce some very healthy ducks!

My First Duck

It’s been some time ago; however, I remember the first duck I shot.

I also recall the first time I hunted ducks with my dad, my first duck boat, the first time I hunted by myself and my first dozen decoys. At some point, I began to consider myself a duck hunter. These “firsts” were key parts of the process of initially being infected with the duck-hunting bug and ultimately having it develop into a chronic disease.

Last weekend, I believe my 11-year-old grandson caught it as well. He’s been exposed for several years. Early outings were more boat rides than hunting trips. After that, earlier mornings, overnights, BB gun, duck calling and his first mallard characterized a gradual aging in waterfowl hunting. Last weekend, however, we had an opportunity to permanently burn the visual image of mallards over the decoys into his young memory. And the result was a limit of mallards with a pintail and a redhead as exclamation points to a memorable morning.

He certainly was impressed with shooting a limit of ducks. However, I was impressed with his comments about the sunrise, the dog work, how good the hot chocolate was, him poling the duck boat a half-mile back to shore and his desire to continue watching ducks work even after he was done shooting.

However, this note is not so much about my grandson and his first limit of ducks – well, maybe a little – but more so about how “duck hunters” are made.

What is the difference between someone who shoots ducks and someone who considers themselves a “duck hunter?” What were the events, the turning points, or the associations that led you to now consider yourself a “duck hunter?” How important was who you hunted with, where you hunted or how successful the hunting was?

Every Dog Has Her Day

A duck hunting lodge isn’t complete without an old dog. Even the finest duck lodges in the nation have a weathered Labrador retriever limping about, sniffing around for discarded lunch scraps and possibly a duck or two to pick up, only to get the feathers in their mouth one more time. Bay Flats Lodge in Seadrift, Texas, one of the finest lodges I’ve visited has several dogs, but one looks and lives the role of “duck lodge dog.”

Brooke is a 15-year-old chocolate Lab whose feeble back legs look as if they could give out at any moment, yet, it’s her job to keep an eye on the place and everyone who visits. Of course, she has designated and devoted herself to this tedious task.

Lexi is no stranger to airboats or long retrieves. Here she is resting on the front of the airboat as we pick up decoys.

Walking down the stairs from the main kitchen and eating area, the last step onto the concrete is answered every time with the click-clack of Brooke’s toenails as she creeps along making sure every hunter or fisherman has everything he needs. The click-clack has a slow-but-steady rhythm, because “speed” is a word no longer associated with Brooke. Brooke relied on her speed back in the days of retrieving ducks for her master and Bay Flats Lodge owner, Captain Chris Martin, but these days she epitomizes the slow atmosphere and relaxed aura of the Texas coast. As hunters and fisherman relax on the covered patio, enjoying the sunsets and sharing stories about their day’s adventures, Brooke can always be found off to one side, watching over her clients and dozing a few minutes here and there.

Capt. Martin & Sadie

Capt. Chris Martin walks back to the blind with Sadie following a miraculous retrieve on a cripple.

It’s a non-stop job keeping an eye on this place, one this retired hunting dog obviously takes great pride in. She’s devoted to every guest, much like the guides, cooks and Capt. Martin. Every morning at 3:30 a.m., when I stepped from my room in search of coffee, Brooke met me on the walk to the kitchen. As a dozen men loaded gear and donned waders, Brooke stood beside them, going from guest to guest, offering them a silent “Good luck this morning, boys.”

Brooke’s body is deteriorating and she has been known to walk out in front of a golf cart or two in the early morning, never hearing it coming. A quick yell from the driver, and once the headlights hit her, she realizes she’s made a mistake. She takes a calculated step back to let the cart pass, but shows no shame as she keeps moving in the same direction, still headed off to do whatever it was she had planned. After hunting with the guys from Bay Flats Lodge, I understand where her pride comes from. Long saltwater-flats retrieves on diving redheads and pintails is how Brooke lived her life. Nestled into the brush or blind, eagerly awaiting another mesmerizing Texas coast sunrise, is where she grew up. She’s spent more time in flats boats and air boats than most and has retrieved more birds than 50 other dogs I know combined.

She runs with an eight-year-old black lab, Crash, whose bad hips have kept him from the long boat rides to the flats and freshwater marshes where flashes of wigeon and gadwall litter the coastal backdrop. Their eyes tell the story. They know they are duck dogs, even until the end. They have too much pride to rest when guys pile out of boats and trucks returning from a morning hunt. Both dogs greet the hunters like lovers awaiting a war heroes’ arrival. They are more than likely jealous of the other dogs, but they don’t mind slipping back to sleep in the cool grass when everyone disappears from the docks well before the sun rises.

Red

Red's passion and excitement is an excellent representation of a true waterfowl hunting dog.

They sleep in the shade provided by airboats, trucks and a golf cart. They don’t ever have to move, yet, Brook and Crash greet hunters as if they are the owners and operators of Bay Flats. Sitting under the covered patio, both dogs seem to materialize like a flock of green-winged teal when bacon hits the grill. The wag of a tail and a head on a knee might not be enough to convince some to fork over a sample of whatever is coming off the grill, but Brooke knows she has earned as much bacon as she wants. She merely steps back, cocks her head to one side and stares at you with a noticeably piercing glare seen only in the eyes of hunting dogs. I gave in immediately. Her eyes are beginning to cloud slightly, but the intensity holds in her pupils and I can imagine her picking out a flock of low-flying redheads coming across the bay from 500 yards, or marking a downed pintail drake in a rolling bay. Now it’s the bacon that sets her eyes ablaze.

There are other dogs. We hunted with Red, Sadie and Lexi, all showing the professionalism of their owners and class of the lodge they represent. These are Texas-coast duck dogs. and their puffed-out chests and muscled physiques explain it all. Unlike my dog, they don’t have to practice every day—they hunt every day, and they do it well.

Chris & Brooke

Brooke and I at 3:30 a.m. as hunters were loading up for the morning hunt.

I spent time sitting in a rocking chair, enjoying the breeze coming off the bay and sipping on a glass of sweet tea while Brooke sat next me. I imagined the stories she would share if she could talk, and I was amazed just thinking of them. She was a bit camera shy, but so are most hard-working, humble folks I know.

Before I pulled away from Bay Flats Lodge after enjoying some of the finest wing shooting I’ve experienced, I thanked Capt. Martin for a great experience, and then I went to say goodbye to old Brooke. She was standing at the edge of the parking lot looking out onto the bay. She stood there staring as if she could see the large rafts of redheads, wigeon, gadwall and pintails. Her scan of the bay complete, she walked over, gave me a slight nod and slowly strode to a shady spot under the deck. She had to get rested up—she’s not as agile as she used to be and she has a new group of guests arriving in just a few hours.

Restringing Decoys Texas Style

avatarJRDiscussions in the local diner have shifted toward waterfowl hunting and it made me realize that duck season would be here before I know it. It also made me realize I had a lot to do before I was ready.

jrTexas1I sat at home last night digging through decoy boxes and bags preparing for the season ahead. As I pulled out each decoy, old and new, I carefully checked each one with a fine-tooth comb for any details that need to be touched up. This season I am going to have a new approach with my decoy spreads which will make it easier to transport and store them from week to week. Seeing the Texas rigs, I shopped around for the best deal and found that you can make your own for cheap.

I begin by cutting off the old decoy string and weights and I neatly place the old weights aside for future use. Cleaning up dozens of old decoys can be a daunting task, but a fun one because you are constantly remembering past duck hunts and dreaming of the ones to come. I wipe off all decoys with a wet rag and as they dry I take Armor All to them to give them a hint of shine. As the decoys are sitting, shining in the last bit of the day’s sun, I start re-stringing them.

I make loops at one end of the decoys and crimp them down, which leaves me with a loop at one end of my decoys to attach a carabineer. Then I slide the weight on the decoy cord and loop the other end through the keel of the decoy and crimp it off. As I finish a dozen decoys, I hook them to the carabineer and hang them on the wall. As you hook the looped end opposite of the keel, the weight slides down the decoy string to make it almost impossible for them to tangle. Since I will be mainly hunting shallow-rice fields and timber, I only need about 3 feet of decoy cord. As the last dozen decoys are nearing completion I put them through a little tangle test to see how my new rigs are going to work. I whirl them round and round, put them in and out of the decoy bag and end up with no tangles. The decoys all fall back in place and are easy to take back off the carabineer. My new strung up decoys are going to be great for transporting around this year and much easier to store, hanging on the wall.

jrTexas2

Doing little things every week to prepare for the season helps get me in the mindset that duck season is right around the corner and now I am ready for opening day with my new Texas-rigged decoys.

My Time

Virginia GetzRegardless of what you’ve been told your entire life, there are not four seasons in the year. There are only two; hunting season and getting ready for hunting season. I like the first one the best and thank goodness it is finally here. I am tired of washing, patching, and painting decoys and believe me; I own a ton of them. A girl can never have too many decoys and if you could see my basement and garage you would see that I practice what I preach.

I am normally a pretty responsible person but during hunting season something seems to go haywire. The house doesn’t get cleaned, the mail doesn’t get opened, telephone calls don’t get returned, blog entries get submitted late, and my family becomes convinced (yet again) that I have truly gone crazy. It’s not crazy, it’s just duck fever.

Annie - My TimeBird dogs also like the hunting season far better than the getting ready season. These dogs were born to work and they are happiest when they have a job. My dog Annie doesn’t seem to care if the house is a mess or the mail doesn’t get opened. She also doesn’t seem to care where we hunt or what kind of birds we hunt for, just that we hunt and hunt often. Annie and I are a good match.

I do most of my waterfowl hunting in California’s Sacramento Valley which is the most important wintering area for waterfowl in the Pacific Flyway. The early October aerial survey conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported more than 329,000 white-fronted geese and 321,000 pintail already present on the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex alone. It’s only going to get better. Waterfowl hunting in the Sacramento Valley is at its best during early December through mid-January. I will get after it hard in the Valley starting in late November. In the meantime, I will do most of my hunting in other areas. Right now I am in South Dakota. Yesterday the pheasants won. Hopefully, we will do better today.

I love this season. It’s time. It’s my time.


The Official Sponsors of Opening Day



Opening Day bloggers

Justin Tackett  Profile | Posts
Tyson Keller  Profile | Posts
Mike Checkett  Profile
Virginia Getz  Profile | Posts
Peter Wyckoff  Profile | Posts
Chris Jennings  Profile | Posts
Dale Humburg  Profile | Posts
Bob Sanders  Profile | Posts
Guest Bloggers   Posts