The echo from the 12-gauge hung in the air, then reverberated endlessly toward Pocomoke Sound. Almost simultaneously, a hen widgeon splashed down among our decoys. Together, the sounds remained thick in my ears. The drake baldpate, immediately behind the hen, sensed the danger but with its landing gear locked couldnt change course fast enough. The first shot stunned it, but it remained airborne and it cupped its wings, caught air and raced downwind in a frantic effort to escape. A final shot brought it down hard, but far from our dekes.
Willy Agee and I stood up and surveyed the water.
Watch that far bird; he still has some life left, Agee cautioned. As always, elation from connecting on the birds briefly gave way to quiet pangs of remorse. The task of retrieving the food kicked in, making it a much simpler situation.
I sent my Chessie, Huck, after the first bird, and he quickly brought it to hand. Like me, Huck is still learning the waterfowl game, so I was pleased by his competence, albeit basic. His progress from novice puppy to capable gun dog has been modest at best not because of his limitations, but because of mine. I came to waterfowl hunting late in life by most hunters standards, introduced to it by Kevin Colbeck, an avid bird hunter from the time he was knee high to a goose blind.
After the drake set down more than 200 yards from our spread, I raised Hucks head above the water so he could get a mark on the bird. But the wind kept pushing the bird farther away as the miniature swells hid it from Hucks line of sight. Now all I could do was urge Huck to continue on and hope the limited training wed done stuck with him.
Bounding over the waves until he was forced to swim, he quickly gained on the winged duck until he came snout to bill with it. He seemed puzzled at first. Then with quiet determination he moved toward the bird. The duck dove and popped up a few yards away. Huck spun around and was on it, but again it submerged. This time Huck stuck his head beneath the water, too, like a kid diving for dimes in the community pool.
Like a cork the bird resurfaced, then dove, with Huck in hot pursuit. Im not embellishing here when I say on his final foray under the seas, Huck swatted at the bird with his paw. The bird gave up and Huck carried his prize to shore, almost as proud as I was. The long retrieve proved to be Hucks watershed retrieve, the occasion where he performed in the spirit of his lineage.
Just as each hunter has his own style, I am learning that dogs do as well. Im far from an expert, but it seems to me that the best ones are not retrieving robots, but rather thinkers. In my circle of waterfowling friends, there are several fine retrievers whose love of the hunt, and personality, matches their owners: Kevins Chessie, Cobb, has the heart of a lion and the roar to match; his brother Chris yellow Lab Tupelo is sweet as honey on the retrieve; Paul Willeys headstrong Lab, Cedar, fixates on birds in flight better than most hunters. Ive witnessed Bobby Mazingos steady black Lab Buddy make impressive long retrieves.
Now that the season is over, I am left with lasting memories of Huck emerging into a true gun dog. I also realize that, more than anything else, it is the special dynamic between hunter and retriever that draws me deeper into the world of waterfowl hunting.