For SCDNR waterfowl biologist Molly Kneece, duck hunting is more than just a part of her job, it’s a passion and a lifelong commitment, just like the one she shares with her hunting companions Kate and Willie.
by Molly Kneece
Today was another one of those bittersweet days in the life of a hunter and their retriever—a day I long knew would come but hoped to stave off for as long as possible, the last retrieve.
Willie retrieved his first duck, a wood duck, in 2011. It was a simple retrieve but the perfect one for a young duck dog—20 yards out, open water. A great confidence builder for him and me. We had a few bobbles before that first retrieve, but once we identified a duck as a retrieve object, Willie never looked back.
Willie and I have had an adventurous 10 years hunting together. From salt marsh bayous to catfish ponds, to the trees and beaver swamps, to moist soil wetlands and tidal impoundments, to lakes and frozen rivers. The old boy has seen almost every hunting scenario and weather event there is to experience except hunting the open ocean. No matter what I ever asked of him, he has always trusted me and gave me his all. He may very well be my once in a lifetime dog.
Last fall I began noticing weakness in Willie’s back legs, then in January (2020) we began to see signs of a likely nerve-related issue. Essentially, his legs go out behind him and spasm. No matter how hard he tries for a few scary seconds, he just can’t seem to regain control and get his legs back under him. We call it his “episodes.”
Rest assured, Willie has great care and monitoring. Any strange twitch and I’m likely too quick to send a video or text message for a progress check with our favorite veterinarian, Cousin Crystie. Willie manages with some medication and my puppy, Kate, makes sure he gets good exercise each day to help keep his muscles strong.
Last year on the last day of duck season, Willie picked up two mallards. I distinctly remember mom asking out of concern, “Is that the last one? Can you retire him now?” I remember responding in a very matter of fact tone, “That decision is between me and Willie! He’ll let me know when it’s time!” I fought back tears then. I just wasn’t ready to close the chapter but it was apparent the day was coming, if I was ready for it or not—which honestly I wasn’t and never would be.
But over the first couple of weeks of 2021, the leg episodes started becoming more frequent. It seems Willie knows when a bad moment is coming. He usually walks up and places his head in my lap, then a minute or so later his legs go behind him and begin to convulse. Then, for the first time, we began to see some signs that his front legs were beginning to be affected. In that moment, I sat on the living room floor trying to comfort my best buddy while hiding the tears rolling down my cheeks. With a pit in my stomach, I knew the time had come.
Cold mornings are becoming especially tough on the boy. With the increasing frequency of the leg episodes — and now the progression to the front legs—swimming too far out of my reach just isn’t worth the risk. Later that evening I told mom that I had to take Willie hunting in the morning, I was worried if I waited much longer his legs would be worse and he’d never have that final moment I wanted so badly for him to have. “I owe it to him,” I told her.
I laid in bed that night trying to devise a plan in my head. I knew Willie had the heart to go for more than one retrieve, but I didn’t think it wise. Kate also needed a retrieve or two as well. I decided to tempt fate and take them both. I’d set up dog stands and decoys, but have mom hold onto Willie on the hill to keep him out of the water and dry for as long as possible. If I was only able to harvest one bird, it was his and Kate would honor.
A lifetime of hunting memories…(Photos courtesy Molly Kneece; click on image to view larger)
This morning when the alarm went off, Willie knew what was up. This is old hat for him. I put a vest on Kate and he gave me a bit of a disgusted look, but it quickly went away when mom and I let him on the porch. He was hopeful to get to tag along. The plan for the morning was for mom to hang out at the edge of the pond in the woods with Willie until I called for him to come get on his dog stand in the water.
Before mom was ready to leave, I took off on the UTV with Kate to start getting things ready at the duck pond. Mom followed a few minutes later with Willie. I arrived at the pond and the clock was ticking, 23 minutes to shooting time. I gave Kate a command to stay sitting at the UTV while I got set up. I wanted to keep her dry and warm for as long as possible too. I get to where I want to be in the pond and first hiccup of the morning, the legs of the dog stand were frozen and wouldn’t extend. I had to have the stand to keep the dogs somewhat out of the water. I fought for what seemed like eternity and finally I got the legs of the dog stand extended, but the stand sits about 4 inches under water. Not ideal, dogs lose body heat quickly sitting in the water and I had broken sheet ice walking in. It’s chilly.
Check the clock—14 minutes to shooting time. I set the decoys — mallard here, teal mixed in, pintails off to the side, and two black duck decoys in the back off by themselves. Clock still ticking — 9 minutes to shooting time. I quickly walked back to the UTV and grabbed another dog stand to try on a crooked willow tree. I have Kate follow behind. I place Kate on the first dog stand sitting in the water. She is less than pleased to be sitting in the cold water. As I struggle to get the other stand sturdy on the willow tree, I hear ducks chuckling overhead.
“Dang it!” I check the clock — 7:00, three minutes after shooting time. I give up on the stand hanging on the tree and call Willie to me. He’ll just have to buddy up on the stand with Kate.
Willie has always had a way of taking his precious time, typically at the least opportune moments. I hear Willie slowly sloshing through the water to me and I turn to look behind me to see where he is. As I look back toward the pond a large, lone duck alights in the decoys. My movement flushes the bird from the water and I quickly shoulder my my gun. “Kate, sit!” It was still dark to be after shooting time and I couldn’t fully ID the duck but I was fairly confident a mallard had slipped in on me. I fire.
I hear Willie behind me drop it into fifth gear and do the equivalent of a burn out. The duck is hit and goes down on the water. I look back at Willie and back at the duck. The duck is hit hard, but I can tell it still has enough life to dive and try to get away. Willie loves a good, crippled duck chase but I wasn’t sure how much endurance he would have and I didn’t want him swimming more than necessary, so I fired again.
Kate is 14 months old, but still in many ways is very much a puppy. She jumps off the dog stand and starts toward the decoys. I grabbed her by the handle on her vest, “No, no, little girl, that one is for your brother.” I placed Kate back on her stand and Willie swam by in the direction of the decoys. He had no mark on the duck when I fired either time. No wind blowing either, a less than ideal scenario. Willie doesn’t handle, but he’s picked up enough ducks that he has a few tricks. In the middle of the decoys, in water up to my waist, Willie puts his back legs on the bottom of the pond and raises his head with nose held high — as far up out of the water as he can muster — he’s trying to wind the downed bird. With determination in his eyes, ‘Mom let me come out here, I know there is a bird.’ Nose high, he looks to my 11:00 with laser focus and begins swimming to the downed duck, picks it up, and begins swimming in my direction. “Good job, buddy!” I walk his direction to get closer to him, just in case and my eyes begin to fill with tears trying to take in every last moment.
Willie gets to me with his bird, and tears begin to roll down my face. I take the bird from him in a slight state of disbelief. A bird we had a few opportunities to harvest and retrieve over the years, but I sadly just could never connect on the shot. Tears rolling and voice cracking, I yell to mom who is sitting in the edge of the woods, “A black duck.” “What?” Mom responds. “A black duck!” I yelled. Two weeks ago when Kate picked up her first duck —also a black duck, one of my first thoughts was “it should have been Willie’s bird”, and he finally got his. The last retrieve of his hunting career and it’s a species of duck that has alluded us for nine seasons of waterfowl hunting. It’s also the species of duck that as an Atlantic Flyway hunter, I have sought after and treasure the most. So, it is extra special that this is Willie’s last duck. The most treasured duck species in the flyway was only fitting for his last retrieve.
Highly elusive and more difficult to fool into your decoys than their dabbler cousin, the mallard, black ducks tend to favor smaller, sheltered waters than larger open water. In South Carolina, beaver pond habitat in the Piedmont and Pee Dee regions are valuable habitats for these ducks, but the species is most often found in tidal salt marshes and managed tidal impoundments such as those found on the Santee Coastal Reserve and Bear Island WMAs, the very habitats where my career as a biologist began.
Willie and I made our way back to the willow trees where Kate was perched on her dog stand. They fought for space on the stand while I placed Willie’s duck on two forked branches of the tree. I turned back to the decoys and three ringed necks passed left to right, three feet above the decoys.
“Sit!” I fired and one duck fell, second shot and another duck fell. I turned to look at my two knuckle heads; Willie trying to mark downed birds and Kate still fighting for space on the stand but also knowing the gun went off “something fun is happening.” I hear something and one of the birds I shot gets up and flies off. The first bird I had shot was in plain sight, but I looked away and it was gone. Where did it go? Did it fly off too?
I give Willie ‘the look’ and he bounds off the dog stand. The stand shakes but Kate holds tight to her spot, stands up and is locked in on her brother. Willie goes to the area of the fall and drifts off, then back to the area of the fall and off again. I thought to myself, “Hmm, both birds must had gotten away; the first must not have been hit well either.” Mom begins to get concerned about Willie being in the water for so long. I tell her to call him hard and have him sit with her, while I try and get Kate a bird. “Willie! Willie! Come here, Willie-boy!” She called to him. Willie ventures about 10 feet her direction, then breaks back off to where the ringed-necks supposedly fell. He repeats this act three times and I finally made him go with mom. I can hear mom talking to him in the edge of the woods, “Good job, buddy!”
Mom and Willie in the woods, “watching for birds” and myself back with Kate. We settle in to try and get Kate a chance at a retrieve. A few minutes later more ringed-necks, right over the decoys. I fire and a duck makes a short fall to the water. “Where’s your mark?” Kate looks out. “Good! KATE!” She bounds off her stand with gusto heading toward the downed duck. A few puppy moments later and we have our duck.
The morning slows. After about 20 minutes, mom shouts down from the edge of the woods, “He’s getting cold! I’ve wrapped him up in my jacket.” So, I begin to shuffle around to pick up decoys. Like clockwork, I pick up two decoys and here comes a pair of wood ducks bearing down on me. I drop the decoy lines and halfway shoulder my gun. The wood ducks break off at the last second. “Sorry, Kate-Kate.” As I’m finishing picking up decoys, something catches my eye. “Is that a piece of floating wood or something else?” I approach closer to the object. He was right, a downed ringer! I should have let the old boy keep hunting earlier. No wonder he kept veering back to the pond.
I call Kate over, “Dead bird. Back!” She takes the line and veers right in the millet. Blow the whistle, ‘Peep!’ Hold my left arm out to my side, “Over!” Kate moves to my left a ways, but doesn’t carry the line far enough, so I move in closer to her and repeat the process. We’re still building her confidence to carry lines. This time she winds the bird. “Good girl!” Willie knew it was there all along, I’m sure. I just should have given him more time.
I finish picking up and mom takes some pictures. In classic Willie fashion, he does his best to avoid looking at the camera and instead stares at the sky where 15 to 20 mallards are circling. He never stops hunting.
While life rarely plays out how we script it in our dreams, the only thing I’d change about today would be to have a band on that black duck. I never imagined Willie’s last hunt would be slightly chaotic, I always imagined our out last outing would be quiet and almost scripted — but none of that mattered to Willie.
Mom suggests that Willie ride back in the UTV with me and Kate ride with her. On the way back to the house I reflect on the morning, Willie will never know that was his last retrieve. He probably doesn’t know that his legs can’t reliably carry him in deep water any longer. He just knows he has the heart to go. Most of all, he’s just happy to smell the fresh air and spend time with me. So that is exactly what we’ll do for as long as we can, while I enjoy the memories of all the adventures we’ve had together.
Well done, Willie! Well done, boy.
If you missed Part I of this essay, be sure and go back and read Kate’s First Retrieve, penned by SCDNR waterfowl biologist Molly Kneece.
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.
Wonderful story. Thanks for sharing.
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