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Everything but the duck: father and son shorthairs are up to the challenge on their first waterfowl hunt.

He had started this new thing, a howling yodeling noise I hadn't known

a dog could make. It was embarrassing, especially since previously at group training sessions I'd expressed my annoyance with other people's dogs who made a fuss in the crate when left behind in the truck. Now, inexplicably, my 12-year-old German shorthaired pointer, Josey Wales, was becoming one of the worst offenders.

One day when he and I were out hunting by ourselves on familiar grounds, I noticed that he had shortened his range and looked back at me a lot. It came to me that his hearing, which had been failing in recent years, was probably completely gone. Later, when I returned to the truck to swap dogs, putting him away and walking off with Jamie, his son, Josey cranked up right away with the noise.

I returned and opened the back hatch. "Stop it," I told him, "I'm not leaving you; I'll be back." He stared mutely at me, and I saw the wisdom in his eyes, born in our shared years, and then I got it. He was not afraid I'd leave him; at some level he was aware of his own decline and beginning to know a truth. It was inevitable. He was the one who'd be leaving.

That's when I started to plan our first duck hunting trip.

I'd seen pictures of duck hunters in magazines, and it seemed apparent you'd need to dress as if you were climbing the north face of a mountain during a blizzard. It took numerous phone calls before settling on Alton Whitehurst and his nephew Charlie Sager, River to Woods guide service, who have leases along waterways leading into Currituck Sound, North Carolina, near Coinjock.

I'd chosen North Carolina thinking that in the world of duck hunting, it would be comparatively warm. And of course the week I was there, the week before Thanksgiving 2014, temperatures were about 20 degrees lower than normal. I planned to swap dogs, taking one each day.

* DECOY RETRIEVES Alton, a retired Virginia Beach firefighter captain who mouth-calls for swans, has a high-sided Maycraft and I sat on the floor for the trip in the dark across the open water to the river, facing backwards, holding a dog. Alton and Charlie looked like camouflage mummies with glasses, and Charlie has a Duck Dynasty-style beard that Jamie likes to search.

Very early on his first morning of duck hunting, in response to ducks coming in and lots of shooting, Jamie had made stellar retrieves of three mallards, a black duck and two green-winged teal. Unfortunately, he had yet to find any of the dead ducks and has instead been returning proudly to the blind with various species of decoys.

He had also retrieved a fairly big log, a long, spindly pine branch and a spent shotshell. I consoled myself that at least he was no longer swimming upright like a seahorse, his front paws pounding the water like he was performing a drum solo for a rock band.

We have to take him out to the river's edge and "reshoot" the dead duck, making the water splash in front of it. When we do that, he does go out and retrieve the duck. I know it's unlikely this type of commotion will enhance the duck hunting, but at least he retrieves ducks after seeing them re-shot.

He also learned to look up whenever somebody blew a duck call, although he only stared quizzically at Alton when he mouth-calls for swans (Charlie has a permit). However, if he's asleep when somebody blows a duck call, he torpedoes out through the thatched marsh grasses of the front of the blind and enthusiastically retrieves a decoy or chain of decoys or anything else he encounters that is not a dead duck.

On the way back, when we get into the low wake area near the boat launch, Jamie stands with his front paws up on the front of the boat, flexing his elbows from time to time, adjusting to the slight waves. With his neoprene jacket and air of confidence, he looked like a seasoned duck dog. He exuded such an aura of pride that I felt if I cupped his ribs from behind, he would throw wide his front legs like he was on the prow of the Titanic.

Alton and Charlie praise Jamie's behavior in the boat--his first boat ride--and in the blind. They tell me he's a strong swimmer. I felt they were grasping at straws and were very kind men.

* THE OLD MAN'S TURN Alton and Charlie called Josey the woodpecker. From the moment he saw the shotguns loaded in the boat, his teeth began chattering loudly. I felt his body quiver as I held him during the ride, and his adrenalin continued in the blind.

When the first duck was shot, Josey entered the water without hesitation, a perfect V forming behind him. The wind is not right for his search, but he touched decoys with his nose until he found the soft body. It was a long search among maybe 30 decoys in very cold water, and when he came back with the duck it practically broke my heart to see how happy he was.

We had a full day sprinkled with bouts of duck action. When I look back on the week, we saw a fine mix of bufflehead, green-wing teal, black duck, northern shoveler, ruddy ducks, hooded mergansers, blue-winged teal, bluebills, mallards, long-tailed ducks, common scoters, tundra swan and Canada geese.

Josey, with 10 more years of experience than Jamie, had done a capable job. With the additional flotation gained from his neoprene jacket, he swam strongly.

With his adrenalin flowing, the years fell away and it was impossible not to see how happy he was returning with each retrieve. And I was overjoyed to see him work so hard.

On the way back in the boat, the sun was out and Josey grew heavy in my arms, falling asleep. The decoys in their bags behind me dug into my back, and the tendons behind my knees were screaming, but I wasn't going to move a muscle.

I dozed in and out too, and sometimes I wasn't sure who I was holding, their heads are so similar and one morphs into the other. This is how it will be, I guess, when someday I won't have Josey and Jamie will remind me of him.

In the cabin that I'm renting the kitchen clock is broken and it's always 9:35. I wish there was some way to really stop time. Josey's legs twitch a little in his sleep, and I hope he's dreaming of duck hunting. I'm not going to move a muscle.

DUCK HUNT ADJUSTMENTS

By the time ducks have a couple hundred miles under their downy belts, they have also made progress in their knowledge of danger. If you think a feathered creature with a small brain can't make that jump, you've never hunted turkeys. And here's what I say emphatically regarding the hunting of birds--it's a lucky thing they can't smell us too, or we'd never get one. As the duck hunting season progresses, hunters need to make many adjustments, to their gear and strategies.

GEAR CHANGES

Ducks like to fly when the wind is in their favor, say North Carolina duck hunting guides Charlie Sager and Alton Whitehurst. Alton's father and grandfather guided duck hunters in the Currituck Sound and river areas; Alton and his wife Melanie didn't have children, so he's welcomed his nephew Charlie to the guiding business, Rivers to Woods.

So if you want to hunt ducks when they're moving, you need to be prepared to survive long windy cold days in the blind or on the water. The thin face mask you use for archery season won't do the trick; you'll need heavy fleece masks, neck warmers and hats that are waterproof.

It's also good to add a heavy jacket and bulky gloves, because if you're going any distance in a boat the movement will add to the effect of the wind chill. When you arrive at the hunting location, you can leave the jacket and gloves in the boat for the return trip.

My favorite piece of gear I brought with me on the duck hunting trip was a muff-style hand warmer. I tossed in a chemical hand warmer and wore a pair of light gloves, or left my hands bare. The temperatures ranged from 20 to 70 in a six-day span, and that set-up covered any weather condition.

STRATEGIES

Alton said that on calm days, ducks congregate to feed and he puts out lots of decoys, sometimes as many as two dozen. But some ducks don't associate with each other, and some ducks don't associate with swans and geese.

If you're traveling to hunt, how do you know which decoys to use and how? Do your research specifically by region, keeping in mind that although the migration will have some standards of arrival times by species, each season will be different.

Alton and Charlie were always scouting and planning, and adding what they learned about the changing conditions to the patterns that they'd learned happened historically during the migration. If you want to target a certain species of duck, such as the black duck that many North Carolina duck hunters seek, it's important to know which decoys to put out adjacent to each other.

Just as turkeys do, ducks may become call shy as they travel south. As the season progresses, experiment with light calling and no calling as ducks fly by, or circle to take a look. After several weeks of travel, ducks may have already been "lied to" many times. That means that the ducks on the water and the ducks in the air may have learned to be quiet--and you should adjust your calling to reflect that.
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Author:Price, Lisa
Publication:Gun Dog
Date:Oct 1, 2015
Words:1652
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