For more years than I care to acknowledge, my hunting friends and I have opened the duck hunting season at a vast public hunting area not too far from Brainerd. The marsh features thick stands of wild rice, many points and bays and, best of all, the irregular shoreline remains mostly unaltered by man.
It is a paradise for waterfowl and hunters.
It’s also a very popular hunting location that attracts scores of camouflaged hunters, duck boats loaded with decoys and other essentials — and usually a hunting dog or two. And where there are dogs involved, there are stories to tell.
Opening day waterfowl hunters were not allowed to shoot until noon not too many years ago. Later, ducks became legal targets at 9 a.m. Now, of course, shooting hour begins at one-half hour before sunrise.
But even in the days of a noon opener, my partners and I, along with many other hunters, arrived in predawn, the better to secure what we hoped would be a hot spot.
One of my friends years ago owned a male Chesapeake Bay retriever. It was a big dog, pushing 100 pounds, was full of energy, but was not particularly well-trained. The problem was my friend hunted from a canoe. A rambunctious oversized dog bouncing around in a tippy canoe in the dark is, well, an accident waiting to happen.
My friend solved the problem by paddling his canoe from the remote boat landing to his hunting spot while his big Chessie swam alongside the boat. Remember, Chesapeake Bay retrievers are tough dogs, and these occurrences were on opening day when the water isn’t particularly cold. All good, right?
Well, the dog was so excited to hunt that it barked loudly every second or so for the entire trip of about a third of mile to a point of land where my friend hunted.
Waterfowl hunters know how sound carries in the predawn, especially when the air is calm. “Ruff, ruff, ruff, ruff,” echoed across the marsh for the entire 15 minutes or so it took my friend to reach his destination. We thought it was hilarious, although we weren’t sure other hunters felt the same.
Another friend had a female pudelpointer. She often bided time waiting for shooting hours by leaning over the gunwales of the duck boat and grabbing whatever she could find — a stick, clump of weeds, whatever. The anxious dog would then haul the item of choice aboard and chew it to pieces.
Over the past decades of duck hunting, the most-annoying award went to a male Deutsch Drahthaar, a dog owed by yours truly. His name was Axel. Overall, Axel was a good hunting dog, but he had zero patience when it came to waiting in the dark for his human comrades to load their guns and begin shooting when legal. He would whine constantly. Not just soft whimpers, but loud, intolerable squeals, with an occasional bark thrown in.
I tried my best to squelch his verbal expressions, but to no avail. “Axel, no” I would say in a soft voice so as not to disturb the solitude of the marsh. The whining would continue. Eventually, my commands were as loud or louder than Axel’s pitiful moans.
Axel was my canine hunting companion for 12 years. As a young dog, he was not so verbal while in the confines of a duck boat. But as he aged, his complaining got worse. So bad that one day a hunter who I did not know said, “So that’s Axel. I’ve heard you scold him many times in past years.”
Embarrassing? Yes. But I always admired Axel’s enthusiasm for the hunt. Oh, and by the way, there were plenty of times I also said “Good boy, Axel” after he delivered a downed duck to my hand.
Bill Marchel is an outdoors photographer and writer. He lives near Brainerd. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org