Blame the dog trainer and gun owner for the Michigan Wood Duck hunt that ended up a comedy of errors.
Both of them would be me.
To be sure, I spent lots of time training my Golden Retriever Gabe when he was a puppy, dutifully following the rigid training timetable in Richard Wolters’ classic book Water Dog. And he was doing really well, sitting at statuesque heel when I threw colorful retriever fenders, whistle-stopping and following hand signals, and delivering those plastic dummies to hand. He seemed a prodigy of sorts when, as a five-month-old puppy, Gabe flushed and retrieved the first game bird he ever saw: a red quail on a June preserve hunt at the fine TLC Ranch near Millersburg, Michigan. That fall he retrieved the first duck he ever saw shot, a hen mallard at the Muskegon Wastewater Managed Hunting Area, although his first giant Canada goose on the ground had him loping back to my layout blind with his tail tucked between his legs. He did way better on the second goose.
One thing I couldn’t quite break him of, though, was breaking loose when a flock of ducks came into decoys. His most costly episode of this happened on an island in the middle of a Northern Michigan lake with two fellow hunters—who never invited me nor the dog back.
So when my friend and waterfowl mentor Kevin Essenburg of Holland, Michigan and I set up some decoys in a small farm-pond lake on opening day of waterfowl season a couple years ago, I had him tethered on a short leash attached to the belt of my camo pants.
In preparation for this hunt, I brought a brand new semiautomatic shotgun and some steel shotshells that I’d purchased about 20 years prior. Kevin had said the shooting would be close, and that Number 4 shot would have ample knockdown power for any Woodie or bonus mallard that came into our spread.
The October morning was warmish and clear, as is often the case in Southern Michigan. While setting up, we’d heard the telltale “whee, whee, whee” of Wood Ducks, so our confidence was high as we concealed ourselves in trees several yards back from the water’s edge.
After about 10 perfect minutes of waiting, a hen Wood Duck wheeled in and plopped right in our decoy spread.
“Dave,” Kevin whispered. “Go ahead and take it.”
I had been standing, leaning against a tree, and silently assumed a shooting stance. Gabe had seen the duck too and, probably aware of the leash, had stayed stone-still even when I stood straight.
We both remained motionless, me with the shotgun raised, thinking the duck would soon realize her new friends were hollow and plastic and take flight. Except she just happily dabbled away among the counterfeits. So I made a vocal shot sound, something like “PA-KOWRSH!”
This utterance scuttled Gabe’s training to stay at heel to some other part of his canine brain, and he bolted straight for the water, the belt-leash snapping tight and spinning me around and down onto the moist earth. I somehow landed on my backside, still holding the shotgun at the ready. I clicked the safety off and shot as the duck launched from the water, whereupon my shotgun made a sound only slightly louder than my voice had. The ancient load burbled from the muzzle like a grade-school science project volcano.
The hunt got better, though, and Kevin knocked down a pair of the tree-dwelling ducks.
Although it made for a funny story (that Kevin has been gentlemanly enough never to tell among our hunting buddies), having a dog pull you down while you’re holding a loaded firearm is serious stuff and the event could have been tragic. I’ve since disposed of those old loads, and Gabe and I have been working hard at staying steady to shoot for the September 21 start of duck season in Michigan’s North Zone.
Wood Ducks in Michigan remain consistently populous year after year, their reproduction usually not being affected by bad weather since they nest in trees. They are appealing to hunt because you don’t need a raft of decoys or have to be a master with a duck call to get these beautiful specimens into shooting range. In Michigan, you can find lots of smaller public lakes or land along rivers (as well as private ponds) to hunt on. Add the fact that these acorn-eaters make excellent table fare, and you understand why some folks passionately pursue them.
Just make sure your dog is steady and your loads are good.
Images by Dave Mull