[Note: My friend Steve Osborn is a retired FBI Special Agent still working on contract, who also publishes articles in various hunting magazines. Ben Small]
The lake was mostly frozen. It was mid-December, and my long-time hunting partner, Larry, and I were duck and goose hunting at a reclaimed mine area in southwestern Indiana. The temperature hovered below freezing and the wind was whipping around us.
After our arrival, we flushed out about 200 to 300 ducks, mostly Mallards, Ringnecks, plus a few geese, We placed a group of goose decoys in a harvested bean field behind us. We stood in Indian grass in the northeast corner of the field, across from a small island near the south area of the lake where the north, south, and east fingers of the lake meet. There were about two acres of open, shallow water near that small island.
My partner knocked down one goose which fell about twenty-five yards in front of me and about 10 yards east of the island. It landed on ice. I sent my five-year-old, female, 60-pound, Chocolate Lab, Ryder, to retrieve the goose. As she took off running, the goose ran to the island, then onto a mud flat before heading into the water on the west side of the island. Ryder stayed right with her retrieved the bird and brought it to me.
Soon after this, my hunting partner, Larry, shot another goose which fell dead into the bean field. Then, Larry knocked down a Hen Mallard into the field. It got up and flew southeast. Ryder headed back to the field, and I assumed she was going to run down the mallard.
While Ryder was in the field, Larry shot another Mallard, this time a Drake, which looked as if it would fall a few yards off shore, but it actually landed 30-35 yards out on the ice.
Ryder saw it fall, and before I could call her off, she was running full speed ahead, out onto the ice. She retrieved the bird and started back. She had advanced about 10 feet before she fell through the ice.
We immediately began shouting for her to leave the bird and come back, but she stubbornly kept that duck in her mouth and fought to get out of the icy hole. We continued to shout for a few minutes and realized she was in real trouble, but would not give up the bird.
Since we had no poles or flotation devices with us, I decided to return to my truck, which was parked 200 yards to the east. I drove the truck back to a spot closest to the water and removed a canvas bag of decoys for floatation assistance, an extension pole and proceeded to ease my way across the ice.
I made it about 15 to 20 yards and fell through the ice. I was able to keep my upper body well above the water by holding on to the decoy bag. The ice was about one and a half inches thick.
Ryder continued to tread water with her legs. She kept trying to exit the hole, but repeatedly slipped back into the water. All the while, she would not release the bird.
We called a friend who lives within a few minutes of the lake and asked him to bring a small boat and ropes. We continued shouting for Ryder to leave the bird and come, but she would not release it, and she could not make out of the icy waters. This lasted for 15 to 20 minutes. Then, all of a sudden, for whatever reason, divine intervention, luck, and a very strong, determined dog, she finally made it out of that icy hole and began walking very quickly toward me. It was even almost a run. She wasn’t worn out by a long shot.
I was walking toward her. She still had the bird in her mouth. A few steps later Ryder fell in the hole where I had earlier fallen. I was able to reach her with the decoys, remove the bird from her mouth and assist her out of the hole. She immediately picked up the bird and proceeded to the shore, where she appeared to be a little cold, but otherwise seemed fine. After a big shake, getting water everywhere, she went to the truck with me. I removed her Avery Vest and placed her in the warm, waiting truck.
My back was wet. The inside of my waders were wet from when I fell and crawled out of the icy hole I'd fallen into, but otherwise, we were very thankful we had a safe dog. We estimated Ryder had been in frigid water for about twenty minutes. I am not sure, but I feel that might have been my last hunt for a long time if I'd lost her. I am sure I probably could not have gone home, as Ryder is also an important member of the family and my wife’s child since the children are all out on their own.
Needless to say, we have a strict rule now: no birds will be shot unless we are very sure they will fall on land or in open water.
The next afternoon, Ryder was back at work and retrieved two geese that fell in the water. I feel the fact that she was wearing her Avery Vest was very helpful in keeping her afloat and preserving her energy.