The game of "hide and seek" often comes to mind when I'm duck hunting. It seems that in the field, I'm constantly struggling to hide Mason, my black Lab, from the watchful eyes of waterfowl. It's hard enough to conceal the hunters from the birds, much less a rambunctious retriever that seemingly isn't happy unless he's in my lap!
To see approaching birds and also mark dead birds as they fall, Mason needs a good field of view. But that all-important "perch with a view" can be the kiss of death if approaching fowl spot the dog before they are over the decoys.
Striking that delicate balance of concealing a retriever but providing the dog a window to watch the action is a challenge faced often by avid waterfowlers. Since I wouldn't think of leaving home without Mason, I've come up with a number of creative solutions aimed at keeping a retriever well hidden yet in position to readily mark down birds.
Box blinds give hunters a lot of creature comforts, but they are among the most challenging of places for a retriever to work. Many of these blinds are built from wood and then covered with burlap, printed camouflage cloth and/or natural materials. Some of these box blinds are used from year to year and they get completely overgrown with grapevines and other natural cover.
A great many of these structures have a full or partial roof that further blocks the dog's ability to see. All of these blinds are comfortable to hunt from and they make the hunters invisible to the birds, but for the dog hidden inside, box blinds can serve as a blindfold.
Many hunters cut a dog door in the side of the blind so the dog can watch incoming birds. This hole doubles as a way for the dog to come and go while retrieving. The dog door option works well but it requires a disciplined retriever that is willing to sit and stay with its head sticking out a small opening for hours on end.
A simple solution that allows even less experienced dogs to function effectively from a box blind is to mount a small plywood box on the inside of the blind that forces the dog to stay positioned with his head sticking out the dog door. This is accomplished by making the box narrow enough so it's difficult for the dog to turn around once it gets inside the box.
A swing door is mounted on the side of the box facing the inside of the blind. The hunter simply opens the door and commands the dog to kennel. Once the dog steps inside the box the door is closed and the dog is positioned with its head sticking out the opening cut in the blind so the dog can watch for birds.
The key to making this box work effectively is keeping it small enough that the dog can only point itself in the desired direction. When the dog returns with a bird it has retrieved, open the door on the box and allow the dog access to the inside of the blind. Once the bird has been delivered, simply command the dog to kennel and start the whole process over again.
This setup not only allows the dog a clear view of incoming birds, but it forces the dog to stay focused on the area birds are most likely to appear. With some simple modifications this box can also help prevent jumpy dogs from breaking prematurely. Cut a slit in the side of the box and slide a plywood panel into place that blocks off the bottom half of the opening. This allows the dog enough room to look out, but not enough room to exit the box. After the shooting is complete, remove the panel and command the dog to fetch. Eventually the dog will get the idea and the panel won't be necessary to keep the dog steady inside the box.
Chicken Wire Field Hide
In recent years, a number of manufacturers have jumped on the bandwagon to produce portable hunting blinds for retrievers. These products are designed to be used in combination with layout-style ground blinds popular with hunters who target ducks and geese in picked grain fields.
Years ago, before these commercial dog blinds were readily available, I made my own field dog hides using a little chicken wire, two wooden dowels and four metal stakes to hold the blind in place.
A standard roll of chicken wire is 36 inches wide. Cut a length of wire 48 inches long from the roll and then thread the ½-inch by 36-inch wooden dowels through the narrow ends of the wire. The dowels on each end provide a surface sturdy enough to stake the blind to the ground. Using parachute cord, four loops are tied on the corners of the blind affixed to the wooden dowels.
Next, I thatch the wire by weaving grasses and natural vegetation into the mesh. Once the wire is adequately covered the wire is rolled up and tied in place using a short length of decoy string around the roll.
In the field, the decoy string is untied and the wire unrolled. Four tent stakes are driven into the ground using the loops of parachute cord so as to form a wire hoop about 20 inches wide, 20 inches tall and 36 inches deep. Chicken wire has enough body to maintain a nice hoop shape and this dog blind is big enough to easily accept any Lab.
If there is a little grass or natural cover on the ground to aid in hiding the dog, all the better. The chicken wire hide provides critical cover from above, a convenient place for the dog to watch incoming birds and also allows access from either end. Depending on the type of cover to be hunted in, it's a simple step to add a little additional thatch on site so this homemade dog hut blends in perfectly.
Chicken wire dog blinds work well in field hunting situations or when hunting along the edge of sloughs, ponds, rivers, etc., where there is marginal cover.
Climbing stands commonly used by deer hunters double nicely as a place to keep a duck dog up and out of the water when hunting flooded timber. Most of these stands feature two parts, including a bottom platform to put your feet on and an upper platform designed to function as a seat. The bottom section of any climber can be strapped to a tree near water level, providing a dry place for the retriever to sit between retrieves.
Since these stands are made of aluminum or steel, it's a good idea to cover the platform with a piece of plywood or carpet so the dog's feet are not exposed to cold metal. An ordinary ratchet strap is the easiest way to secure the stand to the tree.
A similar platform can be homemade from 2x2 lumber supporting a piece of 1„4-inch plywood. Again, a ratchet strap is ideal for affixing the platform to the tree. A little spray paint works well to camo up the platform.
Hunting in water shallow enough to wade, but too deep for a retriever to stand in ranks as one of the most challenging situations a waterfowler will face. It's not acceptable to keep a retriever standing indefinitely in cold water. Forcing a dog to stand in water is the equivalent of the hunter standing in a cattail marsh wearing tennis shoes!
A better alternative is to use a "bag chair" commonly used by campers. Open up the chair and push the legs down into the soft bottom so the chair is stabilized. Have the dog jump up on the chair and sit down. This amazingly simple solution to hunting in water works well when targeting ducks in cattail marshes, flooded grain fields, flooded willows and other places that the water is knee deep or less.
If the water is deeper than that, using a metal folding chair is another option. Cut lengths of PVC tubing to fit over the chair legs and extend the standing height of the chair. Simply push the PVC legs down into the soft bottom and the chair becomes a stable platform for the retriever to sit on. A piece of carpet glued on the seat will prevent the dog from having to sit or stand on cold metal all day.
In both cases, a can or two of camo spray paint goes a long ways towards eliminating surface glare and helping to hide from the birds.
Sometimes you just can't beat a commercially manufactured dog blind. Layout-style blinds designed for field hunting have become very popular in recent years. Layout-style blinds for dogs are now readily available from a number of manufacturers.
The designs of these products are vastly different, but the goal of giving the dog a comfortable, dry and concealed place to wait between retrieves remains the same.
My experience with these blinds has been mostly good. One of the problems I have noticed is that some of them cannot be staked firmly enough to the ground using the stakes provided and/or tie outs. When the dog rushes inside one of these poorly secured blinds, the blind tips over with the dog inside.
This problem can be solved by taking short lengths of parachute cord and tying loops into the corner structure of the blind. Metal army-style tent stakes work best for hammering into the ground and securing on the parachute cord loops. Rigged in this manner, the dog blind isn't going to flip over even when used on soft or muddy terrain.
Commercially produced blinds are normally made of polyester camouflage fabric. The fabric used on these blinds is a little shiny and needs to be dulled up by covering the blind with a coat of mud. Once the mud dies, shake off the excess dirt and then thatch the blind with natural grasses.
Mudded up, grassed and staked firmly commercial dog blinds provide an excellent hide for field hunting situations or when hunting near the edge of ponds or sloughs where natural cover is scarce.
Sometimes the only practical way to hunt with a retriever in water is to incorporate the help of a small boat. I often use a 10-foot long punt as a dog platform and also as a gear hauler. Once on site, the boat is pushed into natural cover and the dog has a perfect place from which to hunt. Most of the time I stand behind the boat in waders, using the boat to help break up my outline.
This setup works well in water too deep to put a chair in the water. Boats of this size made of fiberglass or kevlar weigh in at about 60 pounds. A couple grab handles on each end make it easy to lug the boat around and toss into the back of a pickup truck. At the end of each hunt, I simply turn the skiff upside down and drain out the water that has accumulated. I added grass boards to my punt so it can be thatched up with natural cover as needed.