By Larry Dablemont
What happened to the ducks this fall? Well we had far too little water here in the lower Midwest, but the big problem was the lack of water in northern breeding grounds of Canada and the Dakotas. Way less than normal in the spring and summer.
And that meant far too few waterfowl nests, and far too few ducks coming our way in the fall and even in December. Decoys don’t work well with a combination of really low water and bluebird days, with high skies, no wind, and daytime temperatures warm enough to create sprouting acorns before 2022 got here.
I didn’t see many ducks at favorite places on lakes and rivers around me. But there were a few on farm ponds, so that is where ol’ Bolt and I went. Bolt is nearly 12, and his vision is gone. On the way to our favorite ponds, he just walks along beside me and waits while I sneak up over the pond banks.
The first one had a good flock of mallards and I missed a nice drake as they took to flight. Mallards nowadays seem faster than they once were when Bolt and I were both younger. But I followed that retreating greenhead and hit him hard as he flew away to the right. I turned my attention back to the rest of the flock as he dropped a little but then just kept flying. Some trees to that side made it so that I couldn’t see him anyway.
But Bolt and I headed down to the right of the pond and walked through the field below it. I would never find that duck where he eventually fell, but my big chocolate Labrador didn’t need to see him, his nose would find him if he was there. And halfway through the field, he quit walking behind me and came out before me, obviously tuned into a scent he knew well. The mallard was about 20 yards away, lying dead in heavy grass. Bolt was like a young dog again. He brought me the dead duck and I made a big deal of it, bragging on him, setting down there in the high grass, just as happy as he was and making a big deal of his retrieve, hugging my old companion, and telling him what a wonderful dog he was. Bolt was so proud and happy, but there was a tear in my eye, remembering the first time he brought me a duck, years ago. I knew it might be his last retrieve ever. Few hunting Labs live to be much older than he is.
But there was another pond about a mile away so we took our greenhead and walked toward it, and old dog and old hunter. I stopped and rested on a log and thanked God for giving me that duck and my dog and the health that allows me to walk where I want to and still find a few ducks, even if it is nothing like it was in duck blinds 50 years ago.
At the other pond, there was another good flock of mallards too far out in the pond to be in good range. But when they flushed, one hen came over within range and I dumped her stone dead, out in a tree-top that had fallen in the pond. I seldom ever shoot hens, but with Bolt along I wanted him to have another opportunity. But then I wondered if he might somehow get confused trying to get out of the mess that tree-top represented to a blind retriever.
He would find the duck, I knew, but what if he couldn’t find his way out. We walked away and left the mallard hen there. But there is more to the story. At home, Bolt’s grandson, Lad is a year and a half old. In human terms, that makes him still a pup in training, equal to a ten or eleven year old boy. He is full of energy, comical and promising half the time and aggravating half the time as well, but one of the most beautiful Labs, and one of the most intelligent ones, that I have ever raised, since I started raising them 50 years ago.
As Bolt curled up in his bed in my office, I looked at Lad and wondered. But I wasn’t about to leave that mallard out there in the top of that downed tree to be eaten by some otter or turtle. So that day, we set out to see how good Lad might become. If everything went well, it might be the day of his time for his first retrieve. But that story will have to wait for next week’s column. All columns and photos (those of Bolt and Lad) can be seen each week on larrydablemontoutdoors.blogspot.com.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Larry Dablemont is an outdoor writer from Bolivar, Mo.