Hi. My name is Holly. I hunt ducks without a dog.
For a long time, Hank and I viewed this as a temporary situation that would be remedied when we had more money, more time and a sense that we were ready.
But this past duck season, we realized it just wasn't going to happen, because ... well, we're actually fine hunting ducks without a dog.
Seems like such a simple choice, doesn't it? Except here's the thing: For some people, the fact that we hunt ducks without a dog freaks them out.
Here are some of the reactions we've gotten:
"You don't hunt with a dog? You mean, you get your own ducks??? (Which is like saying, "You actually mow your own lawn when there's abundant illegal immigrant labor that will do it for you?")
"Oh, you have to get a dog!" (As if we just haven't been made aware of the necessity.)
"That's how n***ers hunt." (For the record, I despise racism and ethnic slurs.)
I have never experienced greater peer pressure than the pressure from fellow duck hunters to get a dog. Seriously, my mom was more OK with me deciding not to have kids than many duck hunters are about me not having a dog.
Some people seem to take it personally - as if my doglessness is a condemnation of their choice to hunt with canine partners.
I once wrote an article for a magazine in which I mentioned that I hunt without a dog, and that it feels weird letting a dog do my work for me. The editors responded with a defensiveness that took me totally off guard. They touted the joy of watching a good dog work, the deep history of hunting with dogs and dogs' superior ability (more on this later) to find ducks.
They wanted me to delete the passage - to omit a central fact of my hunting - because it bothered them.
The funny thing is that I'm not opposed to hunting with dogs at all, and I never condemn fellow duck hunters for hunting with dogs. Hell, some of my best friends have duck dogs. And when I hunt with those friends, I love watching their dogs work, whether it's in the marsh or in upland fields.
So why do we not want a hunting dog of our own? Allow me to explain:
Hunting space: The place where we do most of our hunting is a shallow, walk-in marsh with lots of big water. This means that unless we sail a bird really far away, we've got excellent chances of finding it before it burrows into any tules and cattails.
If we routinely hunted deep water from a boat, of course we would have a dog. It's an obvious necessity in that case.
And if we routinely hunted places with lots of thick tule beds, we would get a dog. On the rare occasions we find ourselves in such areas, we simply choose our shots carefully - we won't pull the trigger on a bird if we think its flight path and likely angle of descent would put it in thick tules.
We never say, "Oh, eff it! Take the shot - the dog will find it."
And that works really well for us. Hank and I had loss rates of about 10 percent this past season, well below the 18 percent loss rates that hunters themselves report in surveys.
For the record, I lost nine ducks hunting my regular spot this season.
One was a ruddy. I'd knocked her down, but my gun jammed so I couldn't take the finishing shot. She dove, and that was it - never saw her again.
The rest were ducks that sailed a long way, then got up and flew again when I got close to them. Pretty sure a dog wouldn't have helped.
Commitment: A dog is like a child, not just a commitment of money - though the cost is significant - but a commitment of time. Dogs need to be walked. Dogs need maintenance training and practice.
Since I started hunting a little over four years ago, I have gotten more busy, not less. I work all day, and then I work all night, doing photography or writing. Hank's schedule is similarly crammed, though you can insert "cooking" in lieu of photography.
I keep having to jettison things that used to be important to me.
Giving up cooking? Who cares - Hank cooks better than I ever could.
Giving up exercise? That's bad. Literally, chasing ducks is the only exercise I've gotten since November.
Giving up regular housekeeping? That's gross.
I've given up all three, and I'm really not sure what else I can stop doing.
Then there's the travel. Hank and I do a fair bit of traveling, and our travel plans for this year are starting to look staggering. Our kitties are fine with food and water when we leave the house for four or five days, but that just doesn't fly with dogs.
Fear: The first two reasons are, frankly, compelling enough - having a dog isn't necessary or practical for us. But there is a third reason, and it's what I see and hear all around me when I hunt.
While we all admire the well-trained dog, we've all come across dogs that are the exact opposite: The one that bays at incoming ducks (thanks for wrecking the shot, there, Rover). The one that mauls ducks (unacceptable - we hunt for the table). The willful dog (always easy to locate by the repeated yells of "NO! NO! NOOOOO!").
Frankly, if I were going to get a dog, I would beg, borrow or steal the money to have it trained well.
But I know even the best-trained dogs sometimes have problems that make them more of a liability than an asset. Then you're faced with three choices: Get rid of it (yeah, send it to a pet shelter or back to the breeder, despite having welcomed it into your home as a member of the family), retire it to petdom (meaning it will howl every time you pack up your duck gear and leave without it), or - as many people seem to do - just keep hunting with it until it finally dies.
I would be the third person, because I LOVE my animals, and I would never get rid of a dog or leave it at home just because it wasn't perfect. And I really don't want to put myself in the position of having to make that choice - I mean, why should I when I don't have to?
So that's it. That's why we don't have a duck dog and aren't going to get a duck dog unless something major changes.
If history is any indication, I'll now get a lot of comments from people who want to convince me that the reasons I've given for my personal choice are wrong. I'll be made to feel like a heretic. A disgrace to hunting.
But deep down, I'm really hoping people surprise me, and perhaps engage in a little introspection about why they have such a visceral reaction to our doglessness.
After all, I'm not asking you to give up your dog, or tell you that you're stupid to have a duck dog. I'm just saying it's OK for me not to have one.
© Holly A. Heyser 2011
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