'The best laid plans gang aft agley," wrote the poet Robert Burns, which is a Scotsman's way of saying what can go wrong, will go wrong. But you can't stop trying.
I finally took the plunge into serious dog stewardship a year ago with the acquisition of Nelly, a black Labrador pup with solid hunting credentials. She was a gift from fishing pal Mike Bailey who asked only that she be properly trained and hunted hard.
So we trundled her off last summer to Deep Run Farm in Goldvein, Va., where the acclaimed dog trainer Jack Jagoda performed his magic. After three months she came home a mindful young duck dog and the costliest gift I'd ever received.
Jagoda wanted to keep her another month but I needed her for the dove season opener Sept. 1. She did well enough then and twice more in the dove fields that we eagerly awaited her first waterfowl hunt during Maryland's weeklong October early duck season, followed by a planned trip to Oregon for upland birds.
I took Nelly out daily to review lessons and had her primed for the big day. Then the bottom fell out. Chasing behind her in the woods, I heard a yelp. Seconds later she ran back whimpering with half her hide flapping. She'd snagged an exposed bolt on a gatepost and kept on running, peeling back skin and fur from her backbone to her belly -- a ghastly sight.
Eight hours and $1,000 later she was home with more stitches than the pet emergency vet could count, out of action for at least a month. Oregon and early ducks were out.
We nursed her over the next five weeks and were happy to say yes when veteran waterfowler Mark Hoke sought assistance for a youth waterfowl hunt last weekend on Asquith Island on the Eastern Shore. Hoke, a top duck, goose, and turkey caller, frequently organizes these hunts; it's his way of passing a legacy to the next generation.
He had seven kids lined up for the special day, during which Maryland allows youngsters to go afield after ducks and geese with parents or adult friends, but only the youngsters can carry guns.
He secured a day at Asquith Island Gunning Club, which is as close to guaranteed success as duck hunting gets. The 360-acre island in Dorchester County is carved into duck ponds surrounded by unharvested grain fields -- a waterfowl magnet. And he lined up Bass Pro Shops, Avery waterfowl blinds and Zink duck and goose calls as sponsors.
The kids rolled in Friday night and gawked at Nelly's still-gruesome scar. They were up before dawn the next morning, rubbing sleep from their eyes. Nelly and I were assigned to go with Hoke and young Josh and Jesse Price of Laurel, who came with their dad, Robert.
The boys were bug-eyed as we motored in the dark past duck ponds jammed with mallards. "I could get my limit here with one shot!" cried young Josh.
The blind was only big enough for four, so Nelly and I found a little stand of trees behind it to hunker down out of sight and await the day. It's always a magic moment, waiting for sunrise in a duck marsh with your shivering dog, the eastern sky streaked with gold and the gabble of ducks and honks of distant geese piercing the cool night air.
Then, the whistle of wind over wings -- wild pintails, fresh from the north! A dozen streaked high overhead, spun and came back for a second look at the decoys. Ten sped away, spooked by something, but a pair banked for a third pass, which was a mistake.
Hoke worked his duck calls, quacking like a mallard or whistling like a pintail, luring the birds closer until at last they cupped wings and committed, fluttering down like oak leaves on a chilly autumn breeze. Hoke gave the command all waterfowlers instinctively respond to: "Take 'em!"
Josh and Jesse, neither of whom had hunted ducks before, let loose a three-shot broadside. One pintail tumbled, the other flew off unscathed.
Showtime! I focused on Nelly, who shuddered with excitement, having watched the entire tableau. I had her tethered so she wouldn't break. Fully trained waterfowl dogs should be steady to wing and shot, but she looked a far cry from steady. "Sit!" I ordered, and she did. I unclipped the leash. "Nelly!" I said, her command to go.
And like a coal black cannonball, she thundered off to do her work.
It was a productive morning. By 9:30 the boys had a mixed bag of ducks -- two pintails, three mallards, a greenwing teal and a northern shoveler. "We got seven ducks with only 13 shells," said Jesse proudly.
He had reason to be proud and so did I, as Nelly found and brought to hand all the birds without a hitch -- not bad for the first time out.
The boys have a lifetime of waterfowling ahead and, by the look of it, so does she. From a comical figure three weeks ago, stumbling around in wet bandages and an Elizabethan collar to keep her from chewing the wound, she's become a hunting dog again -- and a keen one at that.
Regular duck season started Saturday in Maryland and opens next Saturday in Virginia.
Remaining waterfowl dates follow:
Ducks: Nov. 13-26; Dec. 14-Jan. 29.
Migratory Canada geese: Nov. 18-26, Dec. 18-Jan. 29.
Resident Canada geese: Nov. 15-26; Dec. 9-Feb. 15.
Snow geese: Oct. 16-Nov. 26; Dec. 4-March 9.
Ducks: Nov. 20-Dec. 4; Dec. 11-Jan. 29.
Migratory Canada geese: Nov. 20-Dec. 4; Dec. 24-Jan. 29.
Resident Canada geese: Nov. 20-Dec. 4; Dec. 15-Feb. 15.
Snow geese: Nov. 6-March 10.