Gun Dog Tips: Take Caution on the Ice This Season

Yesterday morning my old chessie and I hunkered down among the cattails, eyes lifted to a perfectly brilliant, deep azure sky almost completely devoid of waterfowl. Almost.

Just after first light a pair of gadwall pitched into the decoys and went on the strap. And that was it. No wind, no chill, no clouds, no ducks. Warm sunshine on my skin, flies buzzing around my head. It's as warm a late-season duck hunt as I can remember.

This morning we're in a winter storm warning, temperatures are dropping like a rock and by Wednesday we're supposed to have single-digit windchills, six inches of snow, and, hopefully, a big push of new ducks into the area. Go figure. We'll also have something that I --and many other more southerly duck hunters (and their dogs)--haven't had to deal with thus far this year: ice.

So this is as good a time as any to remind everyone to be extremely careful with their dogs around ice. It can be deadly for both you and your dog, and here's a story that tragically emphasizes that point.

From this recent story in the Rapid City (SD) Journal:
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Authorities in eastern South Dakota say a missing hunter from Sioux Falls was found dead on Sunday. The Minnehaha County Sheriff's Office says 57-year-old James Koupal was found dead in Island Lake, located just west of the McCook County line. Authorities say it is believed that Koupal may have gone onto the ice to rescue his hunting dog and fallen through. He was duck hunting with his dog in the area on Saturday when he was reported missing by friends. Authorities found him just before 10:00 a.m. on Sunday._

Every year or so it seems that we see a news story like this. We will never know exactly what happened in this case, of course, but I sometimes think we place too much faith in our dogs' physical ability to handle extreme conditions. I know I've been guilty of it in the past. Back in January I wrote about this very issue.

_"...Waterfowlers who often hunt in extreme conditions ask a lot of their dogs. Almost without exception--be they labs, chessies, goldens, spaniels, whatever--they obey without hesitation. They don't question your decision. Personal safety or self-preservation are not issues with which duck dogs bother themselves. You say go, they go. But in doing so, our dogs are quite literally putting their lives in our hands. That's a huge responsibility.

Once, long ago, I almost lost my first retriever, a lab, in a similar situation--except it wasn't a rock she went after, but a duck that had fallen well past the shelf of thick ice ringing the large and very deep pond I was jump-hunting. I was young, new to duck hunting and I stupidly assumed my dog could either break through the ice or climb back on top of it with no problem. That stupidity almost cost my dog's life. After a few tense minutes of thrashing around she finally managed to pull herself back up on the ice, but the experience of standing there helpless, watching as my dog struggled for her life left an indelible impression."
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And even now, some twenty-two years later, I still flash back to that scene every time I send my dog on a retrieve in icy conditions. I'll continue hunting deep-water ponds and lakes until they start forming rim ice, but when that ice gets thick enough to where it's not easily breakable I switch to shallow-water hunting in areas where I know I can easily and safely reach my dog if she does get in trouble. It's no doubt cost me some late-season hunting opportunities, but no duck is worth the life of you or your dog.

What's your hard-and-fast go/no go rule for hunting late-season ice?