A retrieving dog couldn’t draw a much better deal than landing in the home of a waterfowling fanatic.
Seeing his handler load decoys, guns and ammo into the boat last week had Tank – an aptly-named black Lab – revved up like an entire kindergarten class on a sugar high.
The 2-year-old dynamo was on the verge of demolishing walls and breaking human legs with his tail.
Kent Contreras almost needed a winch to get his dog off the decoy bags, down from the boat and out of the garage.
“Easy, Tank, the season doesn’t open until tomorrow,” Contreras said as he heeled him into the house, which is adorned with waterfowl art.
Tank threw up in the kitchen at 2:30 a.m.
No problem, because Contreras was already awake to clean up the mess. He couldn’t sleep, either.
“We’ve been waiting for this for nine months,” he said as Tank whined.
Even though he lives just a few minutes from a boat launch on the Pend Oreille River, Contreras met his hunting partner, Allen Riggs, at 3:40 a.m. to get under way. That’s three full hours before shooting would be officially allowed.
In a sport that’s often confounded by weather, competition and the whims of skittish birds, time is one variable a hunter can control, Contreras said.
His 10-year-old daughter, Michelle, summed up his devotion to waterfowling at “the last supper” before opening day:
“Dad never comes home from duck hunting early, except on my birthday,” she said.
Riggs, a tile worker, and Contreras, a Forest Service firefighter, became instant blood-sport brothers five years ago when they met at a boat launch and began sharing waterfowling experiences.
“We’re both about 45 years old and we hit it off when we realized that aside from our families, duck and goose hunting is our No. 1 love,” Contreras said.
From the boat launch, one could quickly observe the zeal that bagged them positions as area representatives for Avery Outdoors, a prominent international distributor of waterfowl hunting gear.
Riggs was on the bow with Tank as they slowly motored through the blackness. He used a spotlight occasionally to cut through the river fog searching for landmarks. Contreras was at the throttle of the small jet-pump outboard, monitoring the GPS unit, which showed the “tracks’ of many preseason scouting trips, icons for river hazards and coordinates for proven hunting spots.
“We were out most of yesterday spotting concentrations of birds and what areas they were using,” Contreras said.
“Scouting is a key for success any time of the season,” Riggs added.
They had seen where hunters had built a few temporary blinds for the opening weekend. “That’s no problem to us, because there are plenty of good places to hunt,” Riggs said.
“We don’t mind telling people about the hunting on the Pend Oreille,” Contreras said. “It’s a long river and having more hunters helps keep the birds moving. Otherwise, when they find a secure spot they all pile in and pretty soon nothing is flying.”
Hunters tend to be their own safety net, they said. “One cold day a few years ago we got back to the ramp and noticed a boat of hunters we had seen wasn’t back, yet. So we went out for a look,” Contreras said.
“Sure enough, they had run out of gas trying to break through all the ice and one guy had fallen into the water. They were in trouble. We towed them in and they were very thankful.”
Contreras and Riggs wouldn’t take money the rescued hunters offered.
“We just asked them to come to our Pend Oreille County Ducks Unlimited banquet, and they’ve been there the past two years,” Contreras said. “That’s pretty cool.”
The teamwork was especially evident when they reached their chosen hunting site, a fairly nondescript section of shoreline to the uneducated eye. More than 100 decoys had been meticulously packed and organized in pocketed bags in the bow and stern.
Navigating by headlamp, Riggs used a flat-bottomed layout kayak to haul Canada goose decoys out into the river to begin building the hook pattern for their spread. Contreras – dressed comfortably for the cold in 5-mil thick neoprene waders with Thinsulate-insulated boots – went out on foot to set the mallard decoys along the shore. They worked together to put out widgeons in a group to the left of the blind and the pintail deeks off to the right.
Tank was psyching himself up by busting brush and staking his claim to the shoreline.
A half hour before shooting time, with just a hint of light gathering on the eastern horizon, they were re-evaluating the wind direction, making final adjustments to the spread and pulling up leafy camouflage curtains to convert the boat into a floating blind.
Five-gallon buckets with cushion lids were arranged for seats. Guns were uncased. Shotshell boxes were set within easy reach and the coffee bottles were pulled out of their blind bags.
Each hunter donned a necklace of assorted duck and goose calls. Shells were chambered.
Then they sat, listened and peered out over the decoys silhouetted in the dark against the river mist. A gentle breeze was flowing perfectly from behind them. Ducks were starting to fly. A few geese were talking upriver.
In a personality transformation as shocking as Jekyll and Hyde, Tank walked to his designated nook at the end of the boat and laid down, virtually motionless, wearing his camouflage neoprene vest, only his head moving slowly to survey ducks that were already landing in the decoys.
The Lab’s moment was imminent, and he was all business.
A few minutes before shooting time, the hunters began a duet of duck and goose calls, Contreras playing the high pleading notes while Riggs filled in with a bass line.
It was music to the ears of a waterfowler, and apparently to the waterfowl. The hunters held off on the sitting ducks, but when the first mallard of the officially opened season swooped down and dropped its orange landing gear over the deeks, Riggs opened the season with a bang.
Tank stood but waited for the command from Contreras before launching like a surface-fired torpedo into the frigid water to make the first of 10 retrieves ranging from bite-size teal to lunker geese.
“Nice calling,” Riggs said.
“Nice shot,” Contreras answered.
By the time a late-morning wind change scuttled their setup location, they would have a pile of seven ducks of four species and three Canada geese in the bow of the boat. It was a slow day by their standards.
But as they carefully gathered and repacked their decoys, they were already making their plans for Sunday, the rest of October, November, December and January.
Meantime, Tank was curled up in the stern, saving his energy for the long, luscious season ahead.