First Light

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.

Field and Game - - ACROSS THE DITCH -

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.

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