DULUTH — We were back in the game, Blue and I, after being sidelined for nearly two years.
We were hunting ducks, and doing pretty well, despite the warm weather and lack of practice. Over four days last week in God’s country, we had typical, early-season mixed bags each day, with ring-necks, mallards, wood ducks, blue-winged teal, gadwall, a wigeon and a Canada goose sprinkled in.
And Blue, the 5-year-old Labrador retriever, was there to swim out and bring them all back to the boat.
For the most part, Blue settles in quietly, watching the sky from a small window or door in the boat’s blind. He assesses our prospects and reports back with his tail. My past dogs seemed to be able to pick out the proper targets. They would see ducks and tell me, by their body language, where the still distant skeins in the sky were coming from even before I could see them.
Maybe it was our pandemic-imposed 23-month absence from a duck blind, or just another of his many neuroses, but Blue clearly believed anything that flew was potentially retrievable, and thus wag-worthy.
Know that this is a very active tail wag and, while usually just moving air, it occasionally brushes on the Cordura blind or sometimes bangs the side of the aluminum boat. The beat and volume increase as the birds get closer. I should have insisted that he stop or risk scaring the ducks. But I didn't care. He was happy. I was happy.
He wagged his tail at gulls. He wagged his tail at cormorants. He wagged his tail at eagles and loons and magpies and crows and red-winged blackbirds and a great blue heron. He wagged his tail at a muskrat swimming nearby and mergansers and coots. Oh, how he squealed wanting to get at coots swimming through the decoys. He assumes anything swimming nearby is his to retrieve, even if I haven't shot.
After each bird-spotting tail wag, he’d stick his head back into the blind and look over at me, waiting to see if my shotgun was going up. More often it did not, and he’d stick his head back out and watch for more birds. But he also wagged his tail at a lot of ducks and geese, and he got those chances to get wet, to retrieve, that he absolutely goes bonkers for.
Blue did not, however, wag his tail at pelicans, which brings us to our story.
It was our last day of the trip, approaching mid-morning, time to pick up and head home. Blue had three retrieves in warm, glass-calm conditions: two woodies and a mallard. It was a slow duck day. But the birds, the retrieves and the mottled pink-orange sunrise under a dark bank of clouds, all made the 5 a.m. wakeup more than worthwhile.
I toppled the blind, motored out of the phragmites and was busy picking up decoys when, from behind me and not far away, I heard a muffled splash and a woosh, like something landing softly on the water. Blue barked before I could turn around and see what it was. Then he growled.
A pelican had landed not 30 feet from the boat and was now swimming right at us. Blue barked again, paws up on the gunnel now as the big bird came closer. Then he growled his long, low, throaty growl usually reserved for shadows in the dark, black bears or our next-door neighbors.
“Blue, sit,” I hollered. He briefly sat down, growled and then he jumped back up. I truly expected him to jump in the lake and try to retrieve that pelican. That’s what he would have done with almost anything slightly smaller swimming just a few feet away.
But he stayed in the boat. I’m pretty sure Blue was scared of this bird. I could tell by the hair on the back of his neck standing up. He growls when he’s scared. And who could blame him? Pelicans can be 5 feet long, have an 8-foot wingspan and weigh upward of 25 pounds. Those beaks could do some serious damage.
Blue had finally found something he didn’t want to retrieve.
Then a second big, white bird landed near the boat. They were now vying to see which could get closer to our boat. Double the concern for Blue.
I knew exactly what was going on. Pelicans are common on our lake, and a group of about 100 immature, nonmating birds hang around all summer to mooch off the First Nations Ojibwe fishermen who net walleye here. The pelicans learn to get the unwanted fish the netters toss, as well as the leftovers after fish cleaning, by flocking to the netters’ boats. The boldest birds get the most fish. These two clearly assumed we were netters.
Sorry, guys — no fish.
I eventually bagged the last decoy. Blue eventually stopped barking and just woofed instead. And the two pelicans eventually turned and slowly swam away.
As we motored back toward the cabin, Blue put his paws up on the gunnel and woofed once more for good measure. The pelicans couldn’t hear him over the sound of the outboard, but Blue wanted to make sure they knew how he felt.
All in a day duck hunting with Blue the wonder dog.
It’s good to be back in the game.
John Myers reports on the outdoors, environment and natural resources for the Duluth News Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.