Fall has arrived and with it another hunting season. Across the region bird hunters are marshalling the strength and patience to deal with the most trying challenge of all -- other people's dogs.
Don't get me wrong. Dogs are part and parcel of the experience and at their best enrich the moment monumentally. Man has hunted with dogs at least since ancient Egyptian times, doubtless before that. I wish I had a dollar for every time I've heard someone in the duck blind or in the grouse woods say, "I don't care whether I get any birds or not, I just love watching the dog work."
Usually they're talking about their own dog, of course, and more often than not they're wearing blinders so as not to notice its blunders. If you think Little League parents are bad, wait till you meet a hunting dog owner.
There's no question that to be a successful quail, woodcock, grouse, pheasant or partridge hunter, you need a good dog. These creatures, be they pointers or setters, use their sophisticated noses to sniff out upland birds mere humans would walk right past. Even a poorly trained dog will unearth birds you'd never see, though he may be running wild and flushing them out of range, where it serves no useful purpose.
Waterfowl hunting is another matter. For years I shared the opinion that retrievers did more harm than good. It's not the dogs' fault. Most modern duck and goose hunters don't get enough time in the marshes and fields to steady their dogs. As a result, when they finally do get out, the dogs are hard to control.
Many a goose or duck hunt has been ruined by bad retriever behavior. They may be swimming around in the decoys, tangled up with the anchor strings when ducks are flying, whimpering out loud when geese are locked up and ready to land, knocking guns over in the blind or banging into your legs when you're ready to shoot. They just have a way of getting in the way.
My old duck hunting partner, Manuel Munoz-Carrasco, felt dogs weren't worth the hassle. He hunted simply -- a bag of decoys, a makeshift blind, a canoe or kayak to get to his spot. If he downed a bird, the rule was to immediately go after it. Generally he found them, but a few regrettably were lost in deep cover.
My new duck hunting partner, Andy Hughes, is a dog man through and through. He has three Labradors: Grace, who's getting old; Bess, who's not cut out for hunting; and Razzle, Grace's heir apparent, who's in his first season.
It was Grace who changed my mind about retrievers. A few years ago, Andy and I were hunting the early season (which opens Saturday in Maryland this year) for wood ducks in a Western Shore marsh. We'd had a good morning, downed a few birds, and Grace found them all, though we probably could have fetched them without her as they fell in the water or close at hand.
On the way home by boat, we encountered a man and two sons who'd been hunting nearby. They, too, had taken a few woodies, including one that fell deep in the marsh grass, which they'd been unable to find. Since I was in the front of the boat with Grace, I offered to take her out and have a look.
"C'mon, girl," I said, and she tottered dutifully alongside. The man pointed to where he'd seen the bird fall and we slogged together 75 yards or so through the muck. "Bird in here," I said to Grace. "Find it!" She lowered her muzzle and began a spirited, snuffling, five-minute search. You could mark her progress by the rattling of the dry, head-high marsh grass.
Suddenly she appeared at my feet with a brilliantly colored drake wood duck in her mouth and relinquished it without a second thought. "Good girl!"
Something came over me when I strode out of the marsh with that duck and handed it over. Call it pride of fake ownership, whatever. The man and his sons were effusive in praise and my chest swelled with misplaced pride as I took much of the credit.
That's when I decided to get a duck dog of my own and have it properly trained. Nellie is 2 years old now; she's been through months of intensive work with the best retriever man around, Jack Jagoda at Deep Run Farm in Goldvein, Va.
When I picked her up at the end of the summer she was doing things that took your breath away -- blind retrieves at 100 yards, stopping on a dime at the toot of a whistle, coming to heel and staying there -- everything you'd want.
But Jagoda warned me that field work and real life are very different things. We've been out twice for doves this month, and so far I must admit Nellie is reminding me more of all the reasons not to have a retriever than the reasons to have one. And now duck season is almost upon us.
How will it go? Will I spend my glorious autumn standing knee-deep in mud, forlornly blowing a police whistle at a wild beast paying no heed at all? Or will I burst with pride as she crashes through the reeds and pops back out with birds we'd never have found without her?
In the early going it's been more the former than the latter. But she's young, and after about 45 minutes of mayhem at the start of a hunt, she seems willing to settle down and go to work. She's made some tough retrieves. Patience.
I just don't want to wind up being that guy Manuel and I used to dread -- the one you invite to go duck hunting, who shows up with a wild dog that ruins everything and then spends the ride home regaling you with details of the dog's imaginary triumphs. Lord, don't let me turn into that guy. Please.