Salty water has a smell that easily separates it from fresh. It carries with it the aromas of sea life, the sand and surf and the salt grasses flourishing up from the bottom and reaching for the sky. It was this smell that greeted the hunters launching their shallow running craft at the local ramp just outside Port O’ Connor, Texas.
They were heading into the darkness, bound for the south shoreline with south winds blowing in from the Gulf of Mexico. There they would set decoys, hide the boat, and sit among the natural cover of mangroves sprouting from the sandy shore and greet the sunrise. And the rafts of wintering ducks flying down the bay in the morning light.
Captain James Shuler of Fin and Feather Outfitters waded back to the decoys and his clients, the eastern sky growing lighter over his right shoulder. His yellow Lab Booger walked at his side while simultaneously scanning the sky. They arrived together, joining the excited clients sitting on portable seats tucked in the green mangroves.
“It’s shooting time, boys; load ‘em up,” Capt. Shuler commanded while loading his own gun. Booger sat on his left side, eyes riveted on the open water where ducks had started trading. A big group of ducks flew over the open bay heading on a course that would take them across their point and over the decoys. “Redheads at 2 o’clock,” Shuler said, “Y’all get ready.” The flock, numbering at least 25, focused on the spinning-wing decoys in the middle of the spread and lost altitude in unison.
When the smoke cleared, several redheads remained behind, including two cripples swimming quickly away. One was dispatched easily; the other was at the edge of shotgun range and moving fast. Booger was heading for the dead bird when James stopped him on a whistle blast. James waded out into the shallow bay, closing the distance between himself and his dog. He drove the dog back with a sharp cast. Booger spotted the swimming duck and gave chase. He swam hard, his big frame driving beneath the waves. Soon the distance was closed and the fun began. The duck dove hard with the dog turning frantic circles trying to locate it again. The redhead surfaced less that ten feet away from the dog and dove immediately. This time Booger was ready and dove under. He emerged with the duck in his mouth. A job well done by a seasoned bay retriever.
A great bay hunting dog must possess two main training tools, crisp handling skills and the ability to track down crippled diving ducks. There are plenty of puddle ducks around bay systems too, of course; in Texas and Louisiana pintails and wigeon frequent these areas. But diving ducks—redheads, bluebills, ringnecks, and canvasbacks in the East—are the staples of the open bays.
Cripple one and it is a real challenge to put in the bag. Here a dog with a strong drive is crucial; it has to stay with the diving bird until the retrieve is made. While there is no substitute for experience on diving cripples, drills can be run in training to better prepare the dog for that task.
Brad Arington owns and operates Mossy Pond Retrievers in Patterson, Georgia. He and his talented staff train retrievers for hunt tests and field trials for clients all over the country. But they also have a solid hunting dog program engineered to prepare a retriever for anything they could encounter in the field.
Brad has a simple method for introducing and fine tuning a dog for handling cripples. “Over the years we have taught all of our gun dogs about cripples,” he explained. “A few supplies are needed but a simple ‘cripple replicator’ is what we use. Start with a length of paracord, enough for the dog to pick up the dummy and return to the handler. Then two training bumpers are needed.
“I use Avery’s EZ-Bird because it simulates a diving bird better than just a regular bumper. Two are necessary, one for the dog to retrieve and one on the other end of the line so the cord is not lost in the water. An anchor completes the setup. I like to use a hitch for a receiver without the ball as it can be stuck in the mud and it has a hole for the line to run through.”
Two people are needed for this drill, one to handle the dog and one in the water to control the retrieving object. Arington stressed that the dog needs to have early success to build its confidence on cripples. “Start out by getting the dog’s attention and throwing a short mark in swimming water. Once the dog is close to picking up the mark, pull the training bird down.
“Don’t keep the training bird under water for more than around 5 seconds on the initial runs, as you want the dog to be successful. Start increasing the duration the bird stays under water as the dog gains experience. Within a couple of weeks, the bird can be held down for up to 30 seconds. After this drill, the dog is ready to handle a cripple on a hunt with no problems.”
Teaching advanced handling skills is a long process and one that has been covered in print and on film for many years. A bay dog needs those skills to ensure recovery of birds that otherwise would be lost. The key is being able to “no” the dog off dead birds floating in the decoys and push past them to retrieve fleeing cripples. This requires a disciplined animal, one that has been exposed to this concept long before during many hours of intense training.
It begins with recreating the scenario, throwing short marks in decoys with a longer mark beyond. Pushing the dog through those enticing distractions to that long mark in training is not easy, even harder when the birds are real ducks. But the work put in to accomplish this skill set pays off big dividends in the form of birds in hand that surely would have been lost without a highly trained retriever on the hunt.
Southern bays are tough but the huge bays of the northeast present another set of challenges. Rough conditions, heavy surf and cold waters even spawned its own breed, the Chesapeake Bay retriever. Built sturdily with heavy, wavy coats, these dogs have been the standard for toughness. That means a northern bay dog needs everything a southern dog has plus better conditioning to fight the elements.
Banded and Avery Outdoors Pro-Staffer Lawrence Mauck is a Virginia native who travels extensively and hunts the big bays often. His perspective on what a bay dog in this part of the world is born from experience.
“Ensuring a dog is in top physical conditioning would be the very first thing I would work toward in creating a bay hunting dog,” he said. “Just like any conditioning, start small and increase the intensity gradually. Once the dog is in shape, my focus shifts to water work. Stretch out retrieves as far as possible, increasing endurance and giving the dog confidence to make long distance swims.”
Mauck recreates the hunting scenarios his dog will face as closely as possible. “In the bay, hunters utilize bigger boats and layout boats. Dogs are apprehensive facing things for the first time, exposing them to as many elements they will face on hunt the better.”
Mauck also stressed the role of the handler out on the bay. “You need to understand how your dog operates in the water to better anticipate handling situations. In the big water the goal is to get the dog there and back as quickly as possible. Understanding the dog’s strengths and limitations is critical. The dog must trust the handler so simulation is key. Take the dog on long boat rides, replicate the set-ups, build the dog’s trust by showing it the job early and not throwing it into a situation never seen before while hunting.”
Safety is also a prime consideration when hunting bays with dogs. “Taking my dog into the bay in fall or winter means it will be wearing a neoprene vest 100 percent of the time. The vest not only aids in warmth but adds extra buoyancy, something that will help the dog on long swims in frigid water,” Mauck added. “But the top safety concern as a handler is knowing when it is unsafe to send a dog on a retrieve. If you have even the slightest doubt always trust your instincts and take the boat to get the bird. The bigger the water, the bigger the danger, never forget that.”
In the shallow bays of Texas and Louisiana, a concern to be aware of is possible cuts from oyster shell on the bottom. A shell cut will put a dog out of commission early. If a cut occurs, flush the wound with fresh water as soon as possible. Carry some hydrogen peroxide to clean the cut and lessen the chance of infection and treat the cut with a topical antibiotic ointment. A trip to the vet will be necessary if signs of infection occur.
Bays around the country attract ducks and geese by the thousands. They offer public hunting opportunities for those willing to put in the time and work to be successful. Retrievers can and should be a vital part of the bay hunting experience. It takes more time and work to get them ready to face the challenges bay hunting offers but the rewards far outweigh the effort. Get your dog in condition, in tune and eager to tackle the bays this fall.