I should’ve nixed the retrieve the moment the wing-tipped mallard fluttered over the canyon’s rim. The stretch of canyon my Labrador and I were hunting near was steep and deep, boulder-strewn and brush-choked, and covered with shale. Though not impossible to descend, it was tricky and in some spots treacherous. And dusk was shifting to dark. I won’t go into what I could see of that retrieve, but I knew I’d made a mistake—perhaps a big one—as soon as my Lab faded into the dim light of the canyon. Suffice it to say the dog made it through the retrieve, exhausted and footsore, but otherwise intact. It could have easily gone the other way.
Who among us hasn’t made errors of judgment and shot birds at the wrong time or in the wrong place—over thinly iced ponds, rivers with shelf ice or floes, quagmire mudflats or, yes, precipitous canyons? Then we compounded our first blunders with a second, by sending willing dogs to retrieve those mistakes.
Although any gun dog can be put in harm’s way on a retrieve, waterfowl dogs, by virtue of their jobs, are prone to being placed in circumstances that compromise their safety or even their lives. Hunting ethics and sportsmanlike conduct rightfully demand that we make every reasonable effort to retrieve downed birds. The key word is “reasonable,” which is another way of saying, “Don’t risk your dog’s life for a bird.”
Here’s a rule of thumb that safety-conscious hunters live by: If you have doubts about sending a dog on a retrieve under questionable conditions, then don’t send it. Pay attention to that intuitive “inner voice” we have that so often warns us of trouble. If your voice is passing danger signals about a retrieve, listen to it. Another ground rule that I consider fundamental is that a dog expected to retrieve in a variety of conditions should come—without hesitation—when called. You might save your dog’s life if you can call it off a retrieve that, for whatever reason, is going sour. Here’s one more safeguard to keep in mind when hunting waterfowl in an area that’s potentially hazardous: If your dog isn’t reliably steady to shot or can’t be called off a retrieve, secure it on a lead or other restraint until you know it can be sent without compromising its safety. Losing a dog under any circumstance is difficult; losing a partner because of poor judgment or lack of training is worse.
Treading On Thin Ice
A majority of experienced hunters consider ice to be the single most consistently dangerous environmental element a retriever can face. Whether on a river, pond or lake, ice thickness and strength are variable, thus unpredictable, particularly so on some spring-fed waters or those with a hefty current. Ice shelves that push out a distance from shore and end in open water are especially dangerous; if a dog swims or is forced by current under a relatively extensive shelf, it’s almost impossible to save it. A similarly unfortunate situation can occur if a dog breaks through ice over deep water well away from shore and ultimately becomes hypothermic and/or exhausts itself trying to gain a foothold to climb out. Waterfowling lore abounds with gruesome tales of retrievers going through ice or getting trapped under it as their owners stood helplessly on shore, or got themselves in trouble attempting to reach their dog.
Sportsmen have a wide range of safety rules when hunting around iced-over waters, though most tend toward the conservative side. Some refuse to send a dog across ice they haven’t tested themselves. Others won’t hunt on flowing water with broad ice shelves close to the downstream side of their blind to eliminate the possibility of current carrying a dog under the shelf. Ice floes are another problem during late-season river hunting that spooks some gunners, primarily when the floes are large, numerous and propelled by a strong current. A chunk of ice scattered here and there is usually not dangerous.
Lengthy water retrieves present another hazard, particularly when the current of a big, powerful river (that includes tidal flows) is rafting a shot duck rapidly downstream, or when a stiff wind over a large body of water is blowing a bird away from your dog. Both situations are compounded if the bird is a strong-swimming cripple. Whether on a river or lake, under rough water conditions if a “dinged” bird falls well away from the blind or is outdistancing your dog or otherwise tolling it farther away, you should think hard about not sending your dog or calling it off the retrieve. Exceptionally long retrieves—always keep in mind that retrieves are never one way—in frigid water fighting current or wind-driven waves (a dog might face both if hunting a wide river, especially if it’s tidal) can sap the strength of the toughest dog.
Stuck In The Muck
One scenario that coastal hunters can run into is backwaters temporarily reduced to hazardous sprawls of mud by an ebbing tide. It was on one of these backwaters that I almost lost a retriever I sent after a wing-tipped duck. What I didn’t realize about this backwater was that only a few inches of incoming tide covered the deep, glue-like muck—and my dog was lunging through it after the duck making for the woods on the opposite bank.
My retriever was powerful and well-conditioned, but halfway across the flat he was wearing down. By the time I grasped what was happening, I didn’t dare call him off the retrieve. My dog was equidistant from any shore, and if I stopped him he would be mired in place and that would be the end. I couldn’t go to him, and in little more than an hour the tidal flow would drown him. All I could do was hope he stayed focused on the duck and kept moving toward solid ground.
The upshot is that he gained the bank—barely—and stood trembling, as I made my way around the backwater, then he wobbled into the woods. I found him flopped on his side, resting and breathing heavily, with his head across the run-away duck. The next day he was fully recovered.
Several years later, near this same backwater, I shot a ruffed grouse my springer had flushed that reversed direction when hit, and beat out over the mudflat and collapsed. Without a second thought, I clipped a lead on the dog and walked away. I’ve also prevented dogs from retrieving upland birds when equally unpredictable flight changes dropped them on frozen rivers or in whitewater I deemed unsafe. And I once shot a woodcock that tumbled into an old, half-hidden farm dump full of broken glass, rusty cans, nails and other sharp edges. If I hadn’t stopped that retrieve, my dog’s paws and legs would have been cut to pieces.
Space precludes offering more than a few examples of conditions that might dictate you hold a dog back from a retrieve. There are many others, whose specifics are often determined by regions or climates. Indeed, a gun dog’s working world, whether in the uplands or on the water, is loaded with hazards, some of them potentially life threatening. However, every retrieving situation is different and has details that must be judged on the spot; likewise, individual hunters have different risk-tolerance levels. Some environments are clearly dangerous, and common sense says to avoid them. Others are questionable, and sportsmen who choose to hunt them often adjust their tactics to the conditions—such as picking shots and, as I said earlier, restraining a dog until a bird is judged safe to retrieve.
Conscientious hunters are always loath to leave a bird unretrieved, but occasionally we must listen to the wisdom of our internal voice, put our dogs’ safety ahead of all else, and say “No!” to a retrieve.