Hunting dogs love what they do, and they make hunting a richer experience. The first shots of the new duck season rang out in the morning’s gray light. A wigeon plunged from the sky and disappeared into the grass and willows alongside the pond where we were hunting.

Dusty hit the water, swam across the upper corner of the pond and slipped into the brush where the duck landed.

I waited and watched. It had been months since she fetched a bird. Would she find it?

I shouldn’t have doubted. She emerged from the grass with the duck in her mouth and swam back to my side. I told her “good dog,” and she resumed her vigil beside me, as still as a stump.

I liked her demeanor. There was no opening-day hyperness, no frantic thrashing in the brush. She methodically found the duck, returned and was ready to go again. It’s cool to see a dog transform from a household pet into a hunter. Dusty’s instincts came alive, and she moved with grace and purpose that was a pleasure to watch.

I barely remember my best shots from year to year. They fade like the final minutes of evening shooting light. But I remember great retrievals with the clarity of high noon on a windless, bluebird day. I can still see my old black Lab, Annie, charging across a field after a winged goose.

It was her first season, and I was concerned how she would fare against a live bird that seemed almost half her size. She hit it full speed like a linebacker into a punter that just bobbled a snap. Without stopping, she spun 180 degrees, grabbed the bird and trotted back with her prize.

I was dumbfounded. You can’t train that. She just had the will and instinct.

Years later, my friend and I were hunting the mud flats at Lake Cascade. We hit a duck that set its wings in a death lock and sailed over the reservoir before collapsing. Annie was in her prime at this point, and she took off after it. She ran about 200 yards across the flats and paused only to investigate a suspicious lump of moss before spotting the dead duck bobbing in the water. The bird had dropped so far we could barely see it. When Annie hit the water, her head was just a black dot charging toward an invisible target.

I never stepped out of my layout blind because I had complete confidence in her. She was gone several minutes, and we just waited patiently until she returned with the duck in her mouth. “Nice retrieve,” my friend said.

This is now Dusty’s third hunting season. She’s just hitting her prime, but she’s already made some memorable retrievals in her short hunting career. We were jump-shooting the shoreline of the Snake River a couple years ago when a drake mallard erupted from the willows. We shot, and the wounded bird and Dusty hit the water at about the same time. I watched from a cutbank above the river. When Dusty got close, the duck dove, and she circled wondering where her quarry had disappeared.

When it surfaced, she was back in pursuit, and when it dove again, she followed. I had seen this before, but never from a box-seat vantage point, and it was amazing to watch her swimming underwater to catch the diving mallard. If I shot a triple on greenheads (it has never happened and probably never will), I would sooner forget that than the thrill of watching her make that underwater retrieval.

Of course, not all the memorable fetches are spectacular. I remember my old chocolate Lab, Java, on one if his early hunts. A wounded duck fell, and it hunkered down on the flats. Java pursued, but when the duck stood and faced him, he skidded to a stop a few feet away. Instead of grabbing the bird, Java started prancing and barking while the duck continued its stare down. I had to hike across the flats to break the stalemate.

It was an Alamo ending for the duck, and I know this delves into sensitive territory, but I can’t help smiling at the memory of Java dancing and barking at that defiant duck making its last stand. Dusty and her predecessors have unique personalities, but share a similar trait: They love to hunt. I’ve often said my dog is the true hunter and I’m just the chauffeur. As long as they show that passion to hunt, I will gladly keep driving them.

Roger Phillips’ columns can be found in Idaho Outdoors in the Sports section on alternating Tuesdays.

Image courtesy Roger Phillips

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