I know how to build a pile of ducks. A nice willowy pond, a good flight line, maybe two blinds (mai mais to Kiwis) if terrain allows for it.
Best to have the whole show in a district where there will be plenty of other teams moving birds around. Feed well with barley in the weeks leading up to the season — legal in many parts of New Zealand — and decoy the hell out of it on opening day.
There are hundreds of ponds just like this around this country. In the weeks leading up to the big day you watch the Mallards rip and whiffle in at sundown, cupped and set, listen to the constant busy chatter and occasional strident “waakwaak-waak” from the trees. That’s one way to build a pile. It may not be the best way to build a young dog. Eight months is a funny age, old enough to do some work, but for most not quite old enough to handle loads of sudden noise and — if all goes to plan — ducks falling everywhere. That’s a soft attitude, some will say. It’s easy to imagine a gravelly old voice at the bar giving it the thumbs down, his old Bolter did it, and he turned out just fine. I guess it all depends on what “fine” means.
All the seasoned dog guys laughed when I told them that after decades of running shorthairs, a Lab was next. Born half-trained they say, any fool can get a Lab working. It’s true to a point. Young Tom, like most of his kind, will happily retrieve almost anything. If “Go fetch” is all you want, maybe it’s okay to chuck them in at the deep end.
Or not. It’s easy to talk about the ones that muddled through a baptism of fire, less so about all the failures — dogs turned gun shy by too much noise too soon, or slinking about in confusion, ears down, trying to follow directions they haven’t been taught properly. For all those years with gundogs I don’t know much, but I do know this: once they get a bad habit screwed into their heads, it takes a lot of unscrewing to get it out again. Train fast, train twice. More promising young workers have been ruined by “harden up” than anything else.
All of which is why, a week into the season and with the faraway ponds still sounding like a small guerrilla war, young Tom and I find ourselves walking a small stream at first light. The occasional pothole with a duck or two, easy open terrain to mark birds down. Puddle jumping. It’s a pleasure to be free of decoys and all the gear, but no coffee and banter, no bacon and egg pie, a big tradition over here. You can’t have everything I guess.
Tom can work off some puppy energy at heel, better than trying to bottle up the lightning in the confines of a mai mai. There’s no operatic yowling, no hotfooting it to the horizon, just silent concentration. If he were a GSP I’d send him back under warranty, but this will do nicely. The occasional shot and plenty of time to find and pick up one bird at a time for the win. Three Mallards from three and that’s our morning done.
Back home I look at the bag and laugh, remembering the big piles of yesteryear, before reality hits. I hardly recall any individual birds from those days, but can still see every one of these three hanging in the dawn-lit sky, watched by an old set of eyes and some new ones. You always keep the memory of those first ducks over a youngster. He might even dream about them tonight, and with luck I might remember them 30 years from now. Dog people are like that.
He did it well, burned for it, but steady to shot and only started to run in once. Held them nicely too, though a bit slow to let go. So some things to work on, as there always are. But I like him and he likes me. We finish our little day as good mates.
Yes, I know how to build a pile of ducks. But there are times when it pays to look beyond yourself. Our small pile is enough more than enough.
There will be other days.