Gypsy, the duck camp queen

If you've never hunted ducks in a snowfall, let me tell you that it is a remarkable thing. The ducks appear as if out of nowhere. How they even know that there is water down below when the air is as thick as one of those shaken snow globes I'll n...

If you've never hunted ducks in a snowfall, let me tell you that it is a remarkable thing. The ducks appear as if out of nowhere. How they even know that there is water down below when the air is as thick as one of those shaken snow globes I'll never know. But down they drop, brazen-chested, feet dangling and wings cupped, suddenly appearing before startled hunters who rise cold and stiff, shotgun barks muffled by the wet air. And so it was this day, both blinds seeing great action, six men relishing the experience, and one very happy retriever.

That happy retriever was my female black Labrador, Gypsy. Gypsy's most remarkable gift was that of her sense of smell, a sense no other dog I've owned or hunted over has ever equaled. And during this snowfall in North Dakota, she had ample chance to demonstrate her gift, for Gypsy was covering for two blinds a hundred yards or more apart on a long, deep prairie pothole. The mallards and pintails poured in through the snow, some meeting death, others escaping to the south. Gypsy and I were kept busy retrieving everyone's ducks, and she fetched more birds that day than many a dog does in a full season.

Once, after cleaning up some downed birds for my friends in the south blind, the dog and I returned to our station in the other, only to learn that guys there had been busy, too, and several ducks dotted the water. Gypsy made short work of them, and the pile in the snowy blind grew ever larger.

Jeff Nelson, my wise, elder duck hunting friend, took one look at the most recently retrieved birds and told me that one was still missing. I asked how he knew.

"Because I know I knocked down a fine drake pintail, and there are none in the pile," he replied. "If it was a cripple, I'd guess it swam off into that stand of cattails on the other shore."


Jeff had been hunting ducks longer than I'd been alive, so I never doubted his word. Wondering if I'd ever again get the chance to pull the trigger myself, I climbed from the blind. From the water's edge, I gave Gypsy a line, and sent her across the water and into the cattails. Once she hit the far shore, she sped into the dense cover but almost immediately popped back out. That was quick, I thought, and was waiting for her to begin her return. Instead, she stood on the water's edge, staring at me. Her mouth was empty.

I motioned her back into the cattails, and again she entered, but she did not hunt dead. Almost immediately, she emerged birdless, and stared back in my direction.

One of the things I've regretted in my life is growing angry with a dog when it really didn't deserve my wrath. But I was young and hot with the thought she was disobeying me in front of all my friends. I fired some choice curse words across the water as I grew angry at her refusal to scour those cattails. She just stared back over the water. Finally, I decided that it was time to walk around the edge of the pothole and give her "what for." We had had several of those kinds of discussions over the years ...

Just as I was about to hitch up my waders and march over to the dog, a remarkable thing happened. I noted that not only was she ignoring me, she was staring out into the pothole, her head slightly up, her big nose working the breeze. Without a command from me, she eased into the slushy pothole, and swam out to the middle, where she paused, treading water.

She swam in place, snorting, the sound of it coming to us even through the snow-muffled air. Then she paused, ears perked up, staring down at the water's surface.

Now, if you recall, we'd shot a bunch of ducks in this slough, and there were feathers floating everywhere out there. I guessed that she was merely smelling the traces of some previous retrieve, and was about to call her back and scold her into scouring those cattails, when she disappeared beneath the water.

I have since owned a lab (Rascal) that swam underwater as well as an otter, but this was not something Gypsy had ever done. Yet here she was (or wasn't, for she was nowhere to be seen) diving into a pothole growing ever thick with fallen snow. Everyone in both blinds looked at me, as if to ask the same question I was asking myself -- what the hell does she think she's doing?

Some anxious seconds went by, and just as I began to grow worried that she had somehow gotten mired in the thickening water, she surfaced, her back to us. Seventy yards away. And then she got her bearings, turned toward my whistle, and when she did, we saw she had a limp pintail drake in her mouth.


There have been several times in my life when I've been very proud (and some times when I've been red faced, too, but that's for another time), but I don't know if there was a much prouder moment than that. I admired her for her skill, and her heart, and even for the fact that she was smart enough to ignore me and risk a possible whooping in order to get that duck.

There was seemingly no way, with all the duck feathers and duck oil floating in that slushy pothole, that she should have been able to distinguish the scent of a bird deep underwater from the scent floating on top. Yet she had, had found the exact spot where that pintail drake had made his last dive, had the nose and the smarts to go under and yank him from his weedy, watery grave.

As she climbed the bank and delivered the duck to me, the men in both blinds stood up and applauded. In their lives, they had all seen many a fine retrieve. But to a man, all said they had never seen anything quite like this one.

That night, Gypsy was the queen of the duck camp.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Duluth outdoor author and photographer Michael Furtman wrote this essay about Gypsy, his first black Labrador retriever. Gypsy is long since gone, but her legend lives on.

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