Hail to the king!

“What kind of duck is that?” I said half to my ten year old self and half to my grandfather who was working on a carpentry project in the corner of his pine scented workshop.  He took a quick glance over his shoulder to look at the painting, and said “Canvasback…Tough birds to bring down”.  He promptly wentback to his work, but I was immediately immersed into the framed display.   Large maroon heads with a distinct broad crestatop a black bill drew my gaze first, followed by electric white of the belly with broad gray wings set for a landing over tranquildecoys.   I still recall thinking, wow, that is such a majestic bird.  Little did I know at the time that this was indeed the King of ducks, a desired and revered species that is the gold standard for many waterfowlers.

Over the years I’ve always yearned for a sight of the mythical duck in my hometown in central Minnesota.  I’ve witnessedalmost every species that is native to the area, but a Canvasback was never to be spotted.  It wasn’t until five years ago that I even had a chance.  Deciding to take a day off of work, and hunt for divers with my lab Penny, I needed to watch a sunrise alone on the lake.  We harvested a few ring-necks and mallards earlier in the morning, but I elected to stay longer and enjoy my time off.  Stretching my legs after the morning sit, a rhythmic whoosh filled my ears.  I stood paralyzed as a large shadow flew directly over my primitive blind.  Slowly grabbing my shotgun, I crouched to get ready for a shot.  As my eyes edged upward, I held my breath as a lone drake canvasback hovered over my diver blocks.   In disbelief, I took a second longer than I should have and the drake started to dash upward.   I fired one shot and the drake was sent quickly down to the water. However, I hadn’t a moment to celebrate as the mighty bird gained his balance, and began to swim away.  Quickly launching two water volleys tobring him down, I stood stunned as he seemed impervious to my shot.  I promptly sent Penny after him, but she was quickly outpaced by the masterly swimming of the old drake.  I rushed to launch my boat and set quickly to paddling. Every ounce of my muscle was working overtime, straining to gain ground in this noble race.  As I pulled my twelve-gauge upward for one more desperate chance, the drake set his wings, and exploded off the water into flight.  Absolutely aghast, I pulled Penny into the boat and exhaustedly headed home.

Ever since that moment, I’ve waited for my chance to meet the King again.  I’ve pushed my endeavors to western Minnesota and North Dakota, picking up two hens along the way.  It wasn’t until this year, that I was able to get another chance at the king.

A multitude of black silhouettes continued to fall like raindrops from buzzing clouds above.  I stood on the breezy shoreline a half mile away in awe.  Small slices of wind grabbing at my nose, and crossing my arms to stay warm.  “I think we have our spot for the morning” I commented to my friend Jeff. Jeff stood five yards away in the same entranced stare, unable to take his gaze from the hundreds of mallards putting down on the west end of the lake.  As Buffleheads buzzed around the edges of the lake, as we loaded into my truck, and made our preparations for the morning.

Picking our spot at a central point protruding from bottom of the lake, we instantly knew that the wind forecast was wrong.  A forecasted southerly wind was scant to be felt, as the northwest wind blew in our faces.  We decided to stay put, and hope that our decoy placement would work.  Over the course of the morning, a few mallards paid us a brief visit out of shooting range, but it was the divers that wanted to take up residence in our homely spread.  Goldeneyes, Buffleheads, and Scaupdecoyed easily into our spread, and the action was fierce.   

Sitting and having a chat after the barrage of birds had quieted down, a whish of wings beat ferociously in front of us.  From west to east they surged. Majestic and sturdy, ten canvasbacks skirted the edge of our spread and sailed past.  My friend and I huddled in awe and silence, praying that they would return.  It was a minute later that they returned, still just out of shooting range, and flew past once more.  My hands began to sweat, and I was afraid that we had missed our opportunity.   Every passing second felt like an eternity, and I began to doubt we would ever see them again.  Then, I saw it.  Emerging from the west the lead drake led the group from the adjoining tree line, closer to the shore and hovering two feet off the water.   They moved in close, and slowed down just enough for a shot.  “Take em!” Iroared.  We both sprang into action, we both took the lead drakeand he tumbled over and over again on the water.  Instinctively, I swung to the right, and hit the last drake of the flock.  I stood stunned in disbelief, as these two beautiful drakes lay motionless on the water.  

I’ve definitely celebrated after harvesting a duck before, but this was different. A rush of pure excitement flooded my body, and all I could say was “Finally!” Packing up the decoys, you couldn’t have wiped the smile off of my face with a bulldozer. I had finally harvested my drake canvasback, and it happened to be a double.

My Best Friend Remembered

It started with a handshake. Completing the deal and signing the last of the papers, I looked down at a fluffy ball of blonde fur who apparently was now mine. She quizzically stared back at me as if to ask, “what are we going to do now”? As the next twelve and a half years would tell, we had our share of adventure together. From the early years of potty and house training to the numerous sunrises and sets in the marsh or in the woods, my Penny girl was always up for some shenanigans.

I vividly remember when she was teething as a puppy, how a beloved Christmas dvd vanished into thin air.   My wife and I searched high and low for the disc but stopped looking the following week when we noticed something a little peculiar in the backyard.  As we gazed across the summer grass, tiny dots sparkled with the noon sun in a mosaic pattern.  Upon closer inspection we had found the dvd, evenly distributed through numerous Penny droppings.  We could only laugh at the seemingly indestructible internal organs of our newly acquired pup.  

Then came the field training. My twenty-five year old self was very naïve as to what it would take to get my new pup and turn her into a bird hungry hunter. Although I had read a few books and a plethora of articles, translating that knowledge into reality took quite the effort. Starting by releasing game farm pheasants for her to retrieve, my sheepish grin turned to grimace as Penny looked back at me with a confused look on her face. I could only stand and watch the elegant long grey legs of the pheasants as they dashed off into the wild, and my thirty dollars along with all of them.

After a few years, all my pressed efforts seemed to be paying off. Penny could retrieve most household items on command, and her prowess for hunting grouse was a thing of beauty. Her blonde coat streaking through the thick northern woods reminded me of a lioness surging after its prey on the African plain. It was at this sweet spot that I made the switch to hunting waterfowl. Penny loved the water, and her ability to soar sixteen feet from a dock made me believe that she would be a superb water retriever.

The truth is, we really struggled. The seamless transition that I was hoping for was met with whines, barking, and utter confusion when in a duck boat. I almost stopped bringing her with me completely when I talked to an older friend of mine who had owned numerous waterfowl Labradors throughout the years. I explained my frustration with her behavior, and what he said next completely shocked me. “It sounds like you want a robot for a dog”. Over the length of our conversation, he explained to me that every dog he’s ever owned has had its own little quirks and bad habits. It’s up to the owner to show patience, and to make the relationship work. After that conversation, our experiences waterfowling turned a corner. Instead of showing frustration at every whine, I would just focus on the working birds or the majestic sunset before me. In turn, Penny showed just how good her nose was by blind retrieving birds that had dropped in the deepest cattails or show her excellent swimming ability by chasing down cripples in the thickest muck imaginable.

Over the course of the next years, we spent many days in the marsh.  Whether we were watching the sunrise together or staying close on November mornings to stay warm, we thoroughly enjoyed each other’s company. When her hips were getting too stiff to hunt, I reluctantly kept her home as I knew her mind was willing, but her body was not able. Watching her struggle through that pain was unbearable, as she could barely stand or walk after a weekend of hunting. 

After a few years of well-deserved retirement, those old hips of Penny’s couldn’t produce enough energy to get her around. That’s when it ended, with a handshake. A tear-filled handshake to the veterinarian who helped her pass into the woods and marsh in the sky.

Her last retrieve

It’s been very difficult saying goodbye for my family and I, so I decided to carve an urn for Penny. I decided to carve a ringneck drake, as that bird was her first unassisted water retrieve. Placing her ashes in the decoy, I felt that she would be hunting with me for the rest of my life. A steadfast reminder of the hours we spent in the great outdoors.

This fall I set her in the water for the opening day of duck season. Being she was in a ringneck decoy; I kept her 15 yards away from the puddle duck decoys we had placed for early season birds. Over the course of the morning, my friend and I sat back to drink some coffee and have a chat. I briefly looked up at the decoys and couldn’t believe my eyes. A hen wood duck sat two feet from Penny’s decoy. I had time to rise as the hen exploded of the water and was quickly sent down again with a thunderclap. I had to smile, as I new Penny sent me that duck. It was definitely an easy retrieve.