Late in the season I return to the swamp where we had a very successful opening. There aren’t as many birds and it is 20 degrees colder with a brisk southerly blowing. My mate gestures towards the area of the swamp he is going to hunt; I give him a wave and pause to consider my sanity, but resolve sets in and I gather my gear to head out for the afternoon hunt with my trusty canine companion bounding around oblivious to the temperature. He cares little about the conditions —he knows why we’re here.
There are small mobs of blackies and teal winging around the swamp as we settle in the hide. Rip, my two-year-old black lab, sits beside me and his eyes are immediately on the sky; it makes me smile, his enthusiasm is infectious!
I check the direction he is looking and sure enough, there are a pair of blackies heading our way; they are high and they are motoring. A couple of calls has no effect, or does it?
They appear to have dropped a little bit. In range? Yes, I think they are, so pull out on the lead bird and fire two shots in quick succession. He wobbles and there are feathers, but continues on at the same pace, damn it. I try hard to ensure birds are in range before shooting but it seems my range estimation is off.
I look down at Rip and he is still watching the bird, and rightly so. It’s as if he knows that bird is coming down; it crashes into the water at least 150 m away and is out for the count.
Rip is up on his toes and waiting for the fetch command, but I spot out of the corner of my eye a pair of teal heading straight at the decoys. I quickly reload and tell Rip to sit and watch, the command I use to alert my dogs there are more birds.
He looks in the direction of the gun; the teal spot something that gives us away but they are well in range. One bird drops in the decoys, the other I take over my shoulder and it crashes down 50 m behind us but is wounded. Now I have three birds in the water, with one on the move.
I break Rip’s focus on the bird in the decoys and bring him around on the wounded bird, which has disappeared into a small patch of cumbungi; he hasn’t seen this bird drop and cannot see it now.
I line him up and cue him with the command I use for retrieving unseen game ‘blind’. He takes a pretty good line but ends up 2 m on the wrong side of the breeze and the cumbungi.
A quick whistle and cast puts him straight in the cumbungi; he takes a couple of minutes to find his quarry but that duck had no hope of alluding this dog!
When he returns I congratulate him on his good work but his focus is immediately back on the bird in the decoys. I look out to where that long blackie dropped but it takes me a while to spot him; it had probably been five minutes and he had drifted considerably.
This has to be the next bird collected. I call Rip around with my cue for memory birds: “where is it”. He looks to where the bird has dropped: “good boy — fetch” is the command and he takes off at great pace, heading straight for the spot, smashing through chest-high water.
I believe he got to within metres of where that bird dropped before going into hunt mode, a great effort at such a huge distance. It takes two whistles and casts to get him to that bird, which had drifted probably another 50m, so all up, a retrieve of about 200 m. I could walk out and pick up the last bird myself but I know that when Rip returns, he will hand it over and refocus on that short bird. Sure enough, he can’t get going any quicker.
We don’t get our bag but it doesn’t matter, half-a-dozen birds are enough to restock the fridge.
On return to the car, my hunting mate is waiting. He has had a good shoot, but had relocated from his original spot to a creek bordering the swamp; this time of the year it can be deep, cold and hazardous.
His yellow lab has retrieved hundreds of birds for him over the years, but there were two birds missing to complete his bag, both falling over the creek.
His dog had not seen one fall and the other, she just could not find, so he asks if I will take Rip down to try to recover these birds. I agree, but we need to get a move on as dusk is approaching.
My mate’s dog has had some training, about the equivalent of what is required for Novice level in Retrieving Trials. When we arrive at the creek where the water is fairly high and flowing, I line Rip up on the bird my mate’s dog had not seen come down. He gets out the other side and holds the line. He travels about 50 m before finding the bird; we have that one back in no time.
The second bird proves more difficult, I line him again to the spot where my mate’s dog has been hunting across the creek without success. Rip also starts hunting and probably spends four or five minutes working the area, but then takes off at 45 degrees. With nose down, he works his way through the bush for about 30 m before diving under some branches to pull out a very much alive woodie.
Rip’s ability to track is the result of his training for trials and hunting.
I know some hunters are amazed at this type of dog work but to people who hunt and compete in retrieving trials, this is just what we expect our dogs to do.
The competition and training that goes into trial dogs rewards you with a very capable retriever. The more training you put into your dog means more birds in the bag!
Competing in Retrieving Trials will take your dog to another level again.
Mark Davis has been a Field & Game member since 1983 and is happy to answer any questions about dog breeds and training methods. Send any questions for our gun dog team to firstname.lastname@example.org and include a photo of you and your dogs if you are already an owner. You can read more about Mark and Wendy Davis’ breeding operation at www.beereeganlabradors.com and find out more about retrieving competitions and clubs nationally at www.retrieving.org.au or www.fieldandgame.com.au