When Rob Glassman bought the bouncy Chesapeake Bay Retriever pup five years ago, he did so out of logic.
“I wanted another tool for hunting waterfowl,” Glassman said. And while Murphy has fetched dozens of downed ducks and geese from icy climes and dropped them at his owner’s feet, the sedge-colored dog has done much more. He has captured Glassman’s heart.
“Murphy has turned out to be my best friend,” said Glassman, 43, of Abingdon. “When he brings back a bird from tangled brush or a freezing pond, I’ll say, ‘Good boy,’ and scratch his head. Then he lays down and does a barrel roll into my legs. He enjoys being out there as much as I enjoy him being there. I call him a knucklehead but when this dog goes, a piece of me will go with him.”
These are busy times for waterfowlers in Maryland, where hunting season runs intermittently from October through January. Nowhere does it resonate more than in Harford County, home to some of the state’s best duck-hunting as well as a trove of sportsmen and their dogs.
“If I walk into the shower, he wants to come with me,” Glassman says. Like a proud parent, he boasts of Murphy’s retrieving feats.
“Once, we winged a goose that hit the ground, then tried to fly away. Murphy jumped up and caught him in midair,” he said. Time and again, the dog will plunge into sub-freezing water at his owner’s behest.
“Chessies are very resilient when it comes to weather, but at the same time they wear their hearts on their sleeves,” Glassman said. “One time [during a group hunt] I yelled at Murphy and it must have hurt his feelings because when I shot a goose, he got it but then snubbed me and dropped it at the feet of my friend.”
Sunrise may find Ronnie Adams crouched in a layout boat on the Susquehanna Flats, near Havre de Grace, poised with his shotgun, a Beretta, and Beau, a 13-year-old Chessie whose genes scream for the dog to collect a kill.
“He’s a duck-fetching machine,” said Adams, 54, of Aberdeen. “Beau will go out in 10-degree weather, with the wind howling and ice chunks the size of Volkswagens floating around, and fetch ducks, nonstop. He’ll get into the boat, covered in ice, shake off on me and look up as if to say, where’s the next one?”
Once, while hunting on the Patapsco River, Adams wounded a mallard who splashed down and began swimming away, the 115-pound retriever in hot pursuit.
“He must have chased that duck for 800 yards out into the shipping channel,” Adams said. “All I could see was one tiny dot [the duck] and a bigger dot, Beau’s head. Finally, the two dots converged as one. I blew my whistle and in he came with that damn mallard in his mouth.”
Another time, hunting with a friend in the cattailed marshes of Bear Creek near Dundalk, Adams downed a mallard that fell in the woods, 100 yards away.
“Dead duck, Beau! Hunt 'im up, hunt 'im up!” he commanded. Moments later, Adams heard a cry:
“We ran over and found a homeless guy living in a tent, which Beau had ransacked, looking for the bird," Adams said. "He was a nice guy, with long hair and glasses; he looked like John Lennon. I felt so bad about the mess that we gave him the duck.”
Adams reckoned Beau has ferried 1,000 ducks in his day, from canvasbacks to bluebills.
“Once, he brought me a dead seagull,” said Adams. “He’s a buckethead, but one of the family. Some guys keep their dogs in a kennel and just bring them out [to hunt], like they’re collecting a hammer. At home, Beau stays in the house, just him and me. We have a bond.”
By day, Vince Myers’ dog Maddie is a goose-hunting wonder; by night, she’s a 54-pound foot warmer, curled up at the base of the bed. A 3-year-old apricot-colored Labradoodle, Maddie has fetched more than 40 geese and drawn praise from hunting purists who’d questioned her lack of pedigree.
“When I got her, I shared her background on a waterfowl forum [online]," said Myers, 63, of Fallston. “People said, ‘She’s a designer dog, put her down, she’ll never hunt.' I figured I’d prove them wrong.”
Last year, on a friend’s farm in Chestertown, Maddie bolted 150 yards to retrieve a downed goose.
“She turns heads when I take her hunting,” said Myers. “People say, ‘What breed is that?’ and I tell them and they say, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah.’ Then she starts to work and they say, ‘Hey, that’s a helluva dog.’ I never minded hunting alone but Maddie offers companionship, she listens to me and she doesn’t talk back. She’s all you could ask for in a dog ― and a friend.”
Pam Ford would not hunt without Strider, an 11-year-old Golden Retriever, at her side. Together, they’ve bagged about 80 ducks, doves and geese, from Cecil County to Cambridge, and the Abingdon woman marvels at her dog’s spunk in fetching crippled game.
“He’ll have [the bird’s] body in his mouth while the duck is biting and twisting Strider’s lip, but it doesn’t faze him one bit,” says Ford, 60. “Sometimes a wing will completely cover Strider’s face, blinding him, and he’ll just follow my voice to shore.”
The trust between them is implicit.
“He’s my ‘heart dog,’” says Ford. “We’re attuned, like two people who know each other so well they can finish each other’s sentences. With Strider, there’s no guile, deceit or manipulation.”
A hunter for 20 years, Ford believes that women who go waterfowling do so, in large part, to share the time with a dog.
“For women, the hunt isn’t as much about the conquest,” she said. “I don’t particularly like the kill; every bird I shoot causes me sadness. But at the same time, I respect the sacrifice of that bird for my meal as part of the circle of life.”
Hunting with a dog, Ford said, softens the blow:
“The joy I get from our teamwork gives the hunt an upside, especially since we share the food afterward.”
In April 2018, Strider was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and given six months to live. Immunotherapy treatments have slowed the tumor’s growth. Each month, Ford drives her dog to a New Jersey oncologist for a checkup.