Aside from an early surge that saw roughly a thousand birds on our 40 acres of ponds for a brief visit prior to the start of the season, we’ve not seen much since. Despite the best decoy spread I’ve ever put out, including a jerk line of swimmers and dabblers to give some life to the blocks, I’ve fired three shots in two mornings of hunting, resulting in the demise a single, hapless and very unfortunate spoonie.
On the positive side, I’m working to convince myself that there are plenty of ducks to the north just waiting for the cold front that will send them our way later in the season. We’ll just have to wait and be on hand to greet them when they arrive.
In the meantime, our springers Gus and Jack and I have returned to our passion for drainage ditches. Slimy and dirty with agricultural runoff loaded with fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, they are the same ditches where we’ve hunted pheasants over the course of many years, and in the last ten years or so have become popular with a growing population of mallards, which I suspect may be more local than migratory.
In any event, the ditches and their visiting ducks please us greatly and are making the current season far more fruitful and memorable than it would be without them. Fundamental to all of this is that Gus and Jack are hunting dogs, and I am a hunter. In the simplest and most honest of explanations I can provide, we need to hunt, and we do, but not without certain complications.
First of all, the area we hunt is a bit over 100 miles from home and takes an hour and 45 minutes to reach, including a brief stop at Mary’s Donuts for coffee, a cinnamon twist and chocolate cruller. Neither the drive, the time nor the donuts are something we can or should have every day, so a couple of times each week is about right.
There is also a medical complication. In 2011 and again in 2013, Gus contracted a virulent flesh-eating bacteria intent on taking his right rear leg, if not his life and was only prevented from doing so by frequent trips to both his veterinarian and my bank. No one knows for sure, but we think that Gus is simply and uniquely vulnerable to a strain of aeromonas bacteria, the same culprit that sometimes infects those who work in pet shops and clean dirty aquariums.
Gus is simply too important to us and too vulnerable to subject to that kind of risk again. When it comes to his apparently unique vulnerability, no other case of this type has been reported by veterinarians or other dog owners to our knowledge. Gus is simply special.
Jack is too, but thankfully shows no ill signs as a result of his frequent immersion in the fetid ditches. Give him a quick post-hunt shampoo with Pert Plus, and he is as cuddly and snuggly as ever. I mention all of this, because it dictates how we hunt. Birds that fall in the ditch or require crossing a flooded ditch to be retrieved are Jack’s domain. Those that fall in a field belong to Gus.
In three hunts this season, two of them on the way to the duck club, we’ve managed 11 mallards and the retrieving duties have been almost equally divided with six for Jack and five for Gus, with both of them making some outstanding finds and retrieves of birds that would have otherwise been lost.
English springer spaniels have been bred and developed for hunting for well over a century. It is in their blood and helps to explain why and who they are.
I trust that my breeding has been less deliberate with regard to hunting, but outdoor magazines gleaned as a child, the stories of older relatives and a fortuitous exposure to the outdoors at a young age apparently added hunting to my blood nearly 60 years ago.
The bond between dogs and men in the pursuit of game first formed centuries ago, and continues to evolve. It is not in the blood of every dog or every human and I can’t disagree with those who contend that is a good thing.
On the other hand, it is in our blood, and within a framework of seasons and limits – it is what we do. I feel no shame in saying how much we enjoy it or how important it is to our quality of life.