Still missing my duck hunting buddy

unnamed (1)In 1988 my sister Edie was godparent to a litter of Chesapeake Bay retrievers – seven little bundles of energy in dark coats, two with light saw-grass coverings which seemed ideal for hiding in the swale grass of nearby Hopkins Stream, my duck hunting paradise.

Oh, how I wanted one! And I engaged my kids, ages three and six, in the effort to convince wife Linda that we needed one. We visited the pups more than once. I pleaded. She demurred, more strongly. Finally, that magic moment came when a pup looked into Linda’s eyes and she melted. I was ecstatic that it was one of the saw-grass males. I seized the moment and we were home with the pup before Linda had a chance to change her mind.

Dad quickly rehabilitated the old chicken house out back for the puppy’s outdoor recreational needs, and we debated names. Blake Hill Buddy was the final choice (we live on Blake Hill Road), Blake for short. And he really was a bundle of joy and energy.

NOTE: I just read the previous sentence to Linda, and she remembers Blake a bit differently! More about that later.

It was Blake’s energy that got to be a problem. Determined to train Blake myself, I plunged into the training books, including Water Dog by Richard Wolters and How To Be Your Dog’s Best Friend by the Monks of New Skete. Both are excellent.

Blake was a quick study, actually retrieving dummies and duck wings in the water by the time he was four months old, trained to the whistle and holding steady. Cementing that bond between master and dog which is so important, I kept him by my side throughout the day, as much as possible, his leash wrapped around my ankle. We looked quite a sight stumbling around the house and office.

It was when I took the leash off that trouble began. I gave Blake the run of the house and he quickly sensed that this was his domain, and everything in it. This was the period when he bit some rather large chunks out of our new couch, chewed the coffee table a bit, and ate some of the kids’ clothes and toys.

NOTE: Linda says Blake ate a My Child Doll that she had just purchased for Hilary. Linda had made the doll a Christmas nightgown that matched one she’d made for Hilary. Blake ate the face of the doll and tore the nightgown to pieces. “How do you explain that to a three-year old child,” she asked? Hmmmm.

It also became apparent that I had failed to properly potty train Blake. I trained him on paper. Found out later from the Monks of New Skete that this was a grave mistake! So it was off to the Kennel Shop in Augusta for a large kennel, in which Blake was quickly potty trained and settled into an excellent routine (and yes, this is according to my memory, not Linda’s).

Dreaming of Ducks

Sitting in my office that June, I watched ducks barreling into Hopkins Pond and Stream, thinking about all the fun ahead. Sure, Blake had cost more money so far than anticipated. I promised Linda he’d have a light appetite and be a relatively small dog. He ate like a horse and at eight months of age was already huge.

Sure, the furniture he chewed on was new and expensive, and we had to replace some of the kids’ toys and clothes. I know. I know. That kennel was expensive. So were the training books, training paraphernalia, collars, leashes, and those five feeding dishes he destroyed before I turned to a metal bucket.

But when he takes that first plunge into Hopkins Stream to retrieve my downed duck the next fall, I knew it would all be worth it. It really would. That’s what I told Linda. Many times. And always, she responded, “It would have been easier and cheaper to go to the Village Inn in Belgrade Lakes and order their roast duck.” You can’t argue with that kind of logic!

Duck Hunting

Our first year was a challenge, but when the 1989 season arrived, I felt confident that Blake and I were now a team. As I paddled across “my” beaver bog, the handsome Blake sitting in the front seat of our dinghy, a bunch of Black ducks rose to our left out of the weeds, and a cow moose with twins splashed to shore on our right. We passed the huge beaver house as we glided into a small island in the middle of the bog.

A startlingly beautiful red sunrise, which could have graced the walls of any art museum, blessed us as we settled into our island blind. Actually, that entire 12 foot by 20 foot island served as our blind, and we wandered about, depending on where the ducks were. They landed all around us.

At first light, the ducks were moving and action was brisk. We quickly downed a Black duck, and Blake bounded into the water to retrieve it. In that instant, as he leaped out of the blind and into the water, I couldn’t imagine a greater hunting thrill. Although I know it comes naturally to this breed of dog, I also believed my training polished Blake’s considerable skills. Oh, if only we could do this every day for the rest of our lives!

Action slowed after the first hour and by 8 o’clock we were enjoying a hot drink and blueberry muffin as an otter paddled past. We could hear the chop, chop, chop of a beaver in the nearby woods. Blake’s ears picked up and a fraction of a second later, goose bumps rose from my forearms. From somewhere over the hill to the east, the haunting honking of a gaggle of geese floated down into our bog. Dropping the drink and muffin, I hunkered down with Blake, praying for a miracle, letting our eyes take only short peaks at the horizon.

Alas, the geese stayed to the east and moved along toward the Maine coast. But we remained thrilled by just the possibility that, as they did once before, the geese would alight all around our tiny island and provide an entree’ for a memorable meal.

At 8:30 we pick up the decoys, startled a beaver returning to his house, and paddled back across the bog. We’d bagged two ducks, our limit on each species, and enjoyed a finestkind of morning. And we’d be back the next morning!

Later that season

The canoe glided along Hopkins Stream, leaving only the slightest of wakes. I dipped the paddle once to skirt past an exposed boulder and we rounded a bend. Blake was on full alert in the front of the canoe. My Remington 12-guage 870 magnum pump was on my lap, loaded with 1 /38 oz. number 2 shot.

The small body of a hen mallard emerged from the reeds just ahead on our right, as I quickly let off the safety and lifted the shotgun to my shoulder. The stream’s current cooperated, tilting the front of the canoe just enough to the left so I was facing the mallard. As the duck lifted off, I had a very easy shot, about 20 yards, straight away. She went down. But I was unprepared for what happened next.

At the sound of my shot, a dozen Black ducks erupted from the reeds beside us. Quickly pumping out my first shell, I had another easy opportunity, only about 15 yards, wings spread, looking about the size of an eagle at that range. Hard to miss. And I didn’t.

At this point, unable to contain himself any longer, Blake bounded out of the canoe to retrieve the first bird. Barishnikov he isn’t, but he managed to jump cleanly over the side of the canoe without dumping me into the stream with him. He quickly brought the first bird to me, still sitting in the canoe mid-stream, and I pointed him back to bird number two, which he also retrieved. Both were dead, part of a string of five successful killing shots I made that morning, a far cry from the previous season when I had real trouble adjusting to the new steel shot requirement.

When Blake tried to get back into the canoe, disaster loomed and I called him off, paddling quickly to shore, where he was able to step in without incident.

A memorable morning, and when it was over, we had our personal limit of ducks and a bag full of new hunting stories. We’d started the day in a quiet beaver bog, and ended it poking around in the flooded alders behind the beaver dam located beside our house.

He’s Gone

After ten memorable years of hunting with Blake, he started limping, eventually finding it hard to stand. The vet said he was suffering a degenerative hip problem, and, on our final visit there, he told me Blake was much worse and needed to be put down.

It was, as you can imagine, a very tough decision, but I agreed, and went outside to stand by my vehicle while Blake was put to sleep. When the vet came out to tell me it was over, I was standing there bawling like a baby. His assurance that Blake’s suffering was over, and I’d done the right thing, helped a little, but I miss my duck hunting buddy still, 18 years after he died.

I tried hunting without a dog the next fall, a very unsatisfying experience, and I stopped duck hunting altogether for a while. Now I make sure I have friends with dogs, so I can get out a few times. I always reminisce about Blake when I am duck hunting, and will never forget him or the good times we enjoyed.

George Smith

About George Smith

George stepped down at the end of 2010 after 18 years as the executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine to write full time. He writes a weekly editorial page column in the Kennebec Journal and Waterville Morning Sentinel, a weekly travel column in those same newspapers (with his wife Linda), monthly columns in The Maine Sportsman magazine, two outdoor news blogs (one on his website, georgesmithmaine.com, and one on the website of the Bangor Daily News), and special columns for many publications and newsletters. Islandport Press published a book of George's favorite columns, "A Life Lived Outdoors" in 2014. In 2014, George also won a Maine Press Association award for writing the state's bet sports blog. In 2016, Down East Books published George's book, Maine Sporting Camps, and Islandport Press published George and his wife Linda's travel book, Take It From ME, about their favorite Maine inns and restaurants.