By John Pollmann
It was a hunt that should have been one for the memory books for all the right reasons, but duck hunts don’t always go as planned.
The wind-whipped air was cool on a slightly overcast November morning. To my right stood my good friend, Steve Bierle. My yellow Labrador, Murphy, sat patiently on his dog stand to my left. Surrounding us was a field of corn flooded by a series of fall rain storms. Above us, a cloud of different sorts circled a small opening in the field. The mallards were hungry.
“We’ll take turns shooting a single drake from each flock,” we told each other, and when legal shooting light arrived, we did just that until we each had a pair of greenheads hanging from our leather game straps.
It was Steve’s turn to shoot when a pair of drakes appeared over my left shoulder, swung downwind and centered on the small decoy spread in the shallow water. The temptation to shoot both birds was too much to resist. His first shot dumped the lead drake right in front of our decoys, but his second shot sent the other mallard crashing deep into the corn behind us.
After grabbing the bird in the decoys, I gave Murphy a line into the corn, and he faithfully dove into the end rows after the greenhead. I walked over to Steve to deliver his drake, and we could hear the corn leaves rustle as Murphy tracked down the bird. However, the commotion in the corn began to fade, signaling to me the drake was making for an escape.
Soon the sounds came to an abrupt end, and I figured Murphy had finally caught up to the bird and would emerge from the field at any moment with the drake in hand.
But he didn’t appear.
Had this been Murphy’s first morning in flooded corn, I likely would have followed him more closely as he took the line into the tall cover, but that was not the case. In fact, he had made several good marks and blind retrieves on birds that had landed in corn earlier during this particular season, which is now already a decade ago.
As the minutes started to tick away that day, my concern began to grow. Steve waited at the decoys just in case Murphy returned, and I slung my shotgun across my back and started to walk into the corn, zig-zagging my way down the rows like I had been taught to do when I first started pheasant hunting. After a dozen or so steps, I stopped to listen and then hollered for my dog at the top of my lungs. Eventually, I found myself near my truck that was parked along the gravel road bordering the field to the south. In my mind, I had been walking east and slightly north. Either way, there was still no Murphy.
Now an hour into the search, I walked back to Steve and the decoys and came to a harsh realization — my dog was lost, and I had no idea how I was going to find him.
Looking back, I realize now that I had made a serious mistake in not preparing for a situation like this, especially given the availability even then of GPS-enabled collars to keep track of a dog’s location. Though more popular with upland hunters and those who run dogs to track mountain lions and other big game, I’ll contend that a GPS collar is a must-have for waterfowl hunters, too, especially those that spend any time in the timber, cattails and, yes, flooded corn.
Heading into this season, I have a long list of gear that I want to add to my arsenal, but the item that will get crossed off before any of the others is a new Garmin PRO 550 Plus GPS collar for my current yellow Lab, Buddy. The unit has the standard features of a traditional training collar, but the transmitter also features a small screen at the bottom that shows the distance and direction of the dog for up to 2 miles away.
The screen doesn’t show a map or topography or anything fancy like that (plenty of other GPS-enabled collars have these options and more). The Garmin PRO 550 Plus GPS simply provides simple answers to a pair of really important questions: how far away is my dog, and which direction do I need to go to find him? Those answers would have come in handy in the flooded corn a decade ago when ol’ Murphy went off the grid.
I am pleased — and extremely thankful — to say that the story of Murphy’s day in the corn does in fact have a happy ending.
After hours of calling his name, driving the perimeter of the field, honking the horn and talking to nearby landowners, Steve and I decided to take one more walk through the corn in an effort to find the yellow Lab.
We had returned to our long-abandoned decoy spread and were deciding on a search plan when a muddy Lab wagged his way out of the corn. With a big smile on my face, I asked him where he had been, and his eyes responded in kind, “Where have you guys been?”
After hearing this story, several friends all asked the same question: Did Murphy have the bird? It would have been great to answer that when we found him he was proudly clutching the prized drake, having held on to him for some four hours. However, his mouth was empty, except for maybe a big smile. What we did have, though, was a happy ending to what could have been a disastrous story. And, consequently, we had the opportunity to spend more days together in the field, which was reward enough for me.
Not every duck hunt goes as planned, but with a little help, I’m better prepared to handle what comes my way.
About the Author: John Pollmann, pictured here with his old dog, Murphy, and a pile of green, is a freelance writer from Dell Rapids, S.D. Follow him on Twitter @JohnPollmann.