When SCDNR biologist Molly Kneece isn’t hard at work doing her level best to improve conditions for ducks and other waterfowl species in South Carolina, the avid hunter and outdoorswoman can often be found in the field herself, with faithful canine companions Willie and Kate by her side.
by Molly Kneece
Sometimes “firsts” are bittersweet.
I’ve hunted many mornings with other dogs and left Willie at the house, or in a motel room, or in the truck— but today was the first time ever leaving the “Ol’boy” behind so I could hunt another dog that was mine.
Last night Willie had a little episode and lost control of his back legs. This seems to be happening more and more regularly and when it happened as I was preparing decoys and gear, I tried to make light of it, but deep down I knew Kate’s time to embrace her role as “duck dog” was really here.
As I pulled away from the house with Kate riding in the middle seat on the Polaris and Willie in the house, I couldn’t help but shed a tear or two. I’d dreaded this exact moment for years, but in a way had also looked forward to it since bringing Kate home. If only the Ol’boy understood why he was being left behind— his heart has the desire to go, but his legs are wearing out.
On the drive to the pond, I tried to distract myself with the fact that this morning was all about getting Kate her first retrieve in the field. I had scouted a few times earlier in the season, but the numbers just weren’t what I was looking for. However, the previous day’s scouting mission had given me hope for this morning.
Dog stand and decoys were set up and shooting time came. Numerous wood ducks presented good opportunities, but I was looking for the right bird to give Kate a good chance to work—steady to shot, mark the fall, wait to be released, and deliver to hand. We’d been training for months.
After for some reason passing on the wood ducks and after trying to work a few mallards, three big ducks began circling and giving ‘the looking.’ A few soft quacks and whistles, and the birds passed once more and began to set their wings. I saw that they were going to just skirt the outside of the decoys.
“Kate! Sit! SIT!” (while thinking to myself ‘Oh boy! I think that’s what I think it is. Don’t mess this up for her.’) And again, just for my reassurance, “Kate! Sit!”
Wrapped up in the moment and forgetting my brother-in-law is just 15 feet to my right (maybe I’ve gotten too used to hunting solo), I fired a shot without calling it. In hindsight- whoops, sorry Matt. The large, dark duck began to tumble towards the pond.
I quickly looked down to make sure Kate was holding steady. By that time, the other two large, very dark ducks were too far out for a second shot. I released Kate and it was quickly evident she didn’t mark the duck, which fell behind some willow trees and into some millet. Tough mark for a pup on her first hunt I suppose. So, Kate and I set out walking to get around the creek run without dipping my waders. I told Matt to shoot if he had an opportunity, but I needed to track down this duck that I was too excited to call out what it was. A short minute or two into the walk, a shot rings out and a ringed-neck duck splashes down 10-15 yards to my right. Kate looked its direction attentively. “Where’s your mark? Good! KATE!” A few moments later Kate returns to me with Matt’s first ever duck.
Finally, on the other side of the pond, I spotted a very dark duck floating in the planted millet. I lined Kate up, hoping for the best because she runs lines well to a target, but the rest is a little shaky yet.
She looks away from the line. “No!” Her head swings back to the line that I direct her to with my hand, “Good! That’s it, riiight there. BACK!” She lunges forward a little unsure and looks back at me. I give her a little nick on the e-collar and “BACK!” Kate takes off again, still a little unsure but ‘whatever you say, Mom’ attitude and a few seconds later, winds the downed duck.
In the moment, I was filled with excitement and sadness. This was Kate’s first hunt and she was doing well, even running a blind—but a part of me wished that had been Willie’s duck. The Ol’boy could have pushed past the willows and into the millet if his legs would have allowed. But when Kate returned to heel and held up my first black duck for me to take from her, some of the sorrow melted away.
I waited on mom to come over and take some pictures…and give me and Kate a ride back to the far side of the pond. As I waited, I couldn’t help but think back 9 years ago standing in that very same spot—Willie picked up his 25th retrieve and our first pintail. When mom hopped off the buggy, I could see in her eyes that her mind was on Willie too. I think we both fought back a few tears.
Once we returned to the house, Kate settled in by the fireplace for brief moments and left me with a little hope that one day she too might be the duck dog that Willie will always be in memories. We’ve got many more “firsts” in our future, Kate-Kate.
Be sure not to miss Part II of this essay, Willie’s Last Retrieve, penned by SCDNR waterfowl biologist Molly Kneece, next week on the S.C. Natural Resources Blog.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed on South Carolina Wild are solely those of the authors, and do not reflect official policies, positions, or endorsements of activity or products by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.