AITKIN, Minn. — The thermometer in the truck read 19 degrees when we pulled on waders and walked down to the water in the dark, but it felt much colder.
Ice already covered the back bays on the river and was encroaching out toward the main channel. A layer of crunchy snow covered the shore. And before dawn on a morning that seemed more like mid-November than mid-October, with a star-filled sky and not a breath of wind, it seemed we had the perfect hunting companions.
It was a Chesapeake Bay retriever kind of day.
Vickie and Chuck Lehman of Jacobson drove over to meet me, joined by Nynette Ochoa, who owns the 40 acres of oak-filled river bottom east of Aitkin, just north of Mille Lacs Lake, where we were hunting.
The Lehmans brought along River, a 9-year-old Chessie with plenty of seasons under her collar. Ochoa brought Kimber, the 18-month-old granddaughter of River who is just learning the waterfowling ropes.
Known for their thick-haired coats and cold-water prowess at retrieving waterfowl, the task of these Chessies breaking ice to fetch any birds that dropped wasn’t an issue here.
“It’s like what they live for,’’ Ochoa noted as she tried to calm an excited Kimber before the hunt.
Last season, and the one before, this spot was a mallard magnet, spurring limits of ducks on many days, Chuck Lehman noted before he and Ochoa broke ice to put out the decoys. But that’s when the river was up over its banks, with flooded lowlands all around, and the ducks were coming for acorns. This summer’s drought left most of the bottomlands high and dry, the river low and narrower, and the ducks haven’t come. At least not in any great numbers. Not yet.
Chessies stole their hearts
Vickie Lehman likes to tell the story of how she first fell in love with Chessies. Chuck’s family had always hunted with Labrador retrievers as he was growing up. But his Lab at the time they met — this was back in the 1980s — died of congestive heart disease. Vickie said she didn’t want another Lab, so Chuck brought home a Chessie.
“I thought it was uglier than the Lab. I told him to bring it back... But he didn’t. And now, it's 37 years later, and my heart belongs to the Chesapeake.”
The Lehmans don’t just breed and train Chessies, they love to hunt over them. The couple has been duck hunting together since they were married. In what is an annual tradition, they will spend the last week of October at their hunting cabin in southern South Dakota chasing migrating waterfowl, with a truckload of Chessies along for the ride.
The Lehmans also breed Weimaraners and German shorthairs at their Ball Bluff Kennels (in Ball Bluff Township). But they have become known across the Northland as premier breeders of hard-hunting Chessies. Ask why these big dogs are her favorites and Vickie has a rapid-fire list of Chessie attributes. Of course, their thick coat is perfect for cold-weather waterfowl hunting. But it’s far more than that. The dogs are intensely loyal to their owners, driven, hard-working and “about the smartest dogs I know of,’’ she said.
“A Chesapeake’s mind is always working, those wheels are always spinning. So if the trainer isn’t one step ahead of the dog, the dog is going to get ahead of the trainer and do it their way, and then it’s over,’’ Vickie said.
Rather than follow the trainer’s handling with whistles and hand signals, for example, a Chessie often would rather trust its own instincts and find the downed bird on its own. It’s that independence and brainpower, not necessarily stubbornness, that have given Chessies a bad rap over the years as being difficult to train.
“They are actually very soft dogs,’’ Vickie noted. “Much softer than a lab. If you come down on them hard, they will quit. You have to have a relationship with them.”
River, for example, has always bonded with Chuck.
“She’s a daddy’s girl for sure,’’ Vickie said. “She lives for that man.”
Mostly, Vickie said she is passionate about Chessies because of the breed’s passion for retrieving, their drive in the field.
The all-American breed was developed to retrieve duck and geese from the Chesapeake Bay all day (and even into the night) back when there were no limits on waterfowl and market hunters killed everything they could to sell. Their sheer size and strength can be intimidating to some prospective dog owners. In the past, male Chessies commonly topped 100, even 130 pounds, with females often in the 80-pound range. Now, many breeders are going for a sleeker, slimmer dog.
“The trend now is for Lab-sized Chessies,’’ smaller, lighter, faster on land and better able to compete with Labs in field trials and hunt test competitions, Vickie noted. “Personally I still like the old-style Chessies. We’ve had males over 130 pounds. I still like that look.”
Chessies can be “standoffish’’ at first to new people they meet, a trait that may date back to the days of market hunters in the 1800s and early 1900s who used the dogs not just to retrieve waterfowl but also to guard their gunny sacks full of ducks on the docks from would-be thieves.
Both River and Kimber will growl at strangers at first, but are soon wagging their tails and cozying up to anyone willing to offer a scratch.
“They sort of have to get to know you for five minutes before they like you,’’ Ochoa said. “But every (Chessie) I’ve met is really a sweetheart underneath.”
The Lehmans stress to all of their puppy buyers that Chessies need constant socialization with not just all members of their new family, but also friends, neighbors and other dogs. Chessies that only hang with a single owner/trainer tend to become intensely protective of that person and suspicious of anyone else who comes around.
"They sort of have to get to know you for five minutes before they like you. But every (Chessie) I’ve met is really a sweetheart underneath."
- Nynette Ochoa
Chessies that spend a lot of time in the water also, well, they smell. The thick, oily, outer coat hides a woolly, water-resistant undercoat. The combination will normally keep the dog dry even after hours of retrieving in cold water. Most retriever breeds have double outer coats, but not like a Chessie´s. The pungent aroma of this outer coat may make them less than welcome in some homes. But to a loyal Chessie owner, it’s like an expensive cologne.
Between the Chessies, German shorthairs and Weimaraners, the Lehmans may oversee seven or eight litters of pups in a single year. Most of the pups are spoken for quickly, many to repeat customers. Right now the Lehmans have 23 dogs in their kennel, a combination of breeding males and females, retired dogs, young dogs and pets.
"She falls in love with all of them,'' Chuck said of his wife, noting Vickie has a hard time letting dogs go. "We have a geriatric ward for old dogs."
A single woodie
Just before legal shooting time we could hear their wings, mallards, heading from east to west, likely going out to some field of picked corn to eat. They may have come from spending the night on the Rice Lake National Wildlife Refuge, a few miles to the east, where more than a quarter-million ducks had gathered as of a week ago.
A few wood ducks called with their high-pitched whistle as they flew over at tree-top altitude, seemingly out of place when it’s this cold. Usually an early migrator, it seemed these woodies were caught off-guard, still up north when the sudden onset of winter-like weather hit.
About 20 minutes into the hunting day, but still before sunrise, a half-dozen woodies appeared below the treetops, set their wings and pitched toward Chuck’s decoy set. But only one of them committed to land, the others shied away and flew on.
That single would be the only duck of the morning hunt for this group — a team effort by Chuck, Vickie and Nanette on the shooting and River on the retrieve.
“That's' why they call it hunting and not killing,’’ Vickie noted as she hauled gear back to the truck.
“This was such a great spot last year. But they aren’t using it this year,’’ Chuck noted. “I keep hoping they will start.”
One look at River, tail wagging and head held high after retrieving the hen woodie — a trip that included alternately breaking ice, wading and swimming — and you could tell the stocky Chessie was hoping the same as Chuck.
More ducks, please.
Ball Bluff Kennels
Chuck and Vickie Lehman
Ballbluff.com, 218-752-6687, firstname.lastname@example.org
How long have you been hunting with his breed? 37 years
How long have you been breeding this breed? 34 years
What type of hunting do you use them for? Waterfowl and upland birds.
What's your favorite thing about this breed? "Their loyalty, the ability to think and reason in the field or in other words. Their natural (hunting) ability and the love they have for children."
What should a prospective puppy buyer look for in this breed? "A well bred dog to start off with. A breeder who is going to give them support for the life of their dog, not just the sale. Give them the pros and cons of the breed, like their coat being a little oily and may have a little smell due to double coat. Their protective instinct to keep their family safe and (so that means) socialization (between the dogs and people) is huge so they don't become over protective."
What advice would you give a new puppy owner specific to your breed? "Socialization. Socialization. Socialization. And lots of exercise."
How much can someone expect to pay for a quality dog of this breed? $850 to $1,200
Chesapeake Bay Retrievers trace their history to two pups who were rescued from a foundering ship in Maryland in 1807. The male "Sailor" and female "Canton" who survived the ordeal were described as Newfoundland dogs, but were more accurately lesser Newfoundland or St. John's water dogs. These two lived in different parts of the bay area and there is no record of a litter being produced together. They were bred with area dogs, with more consideration given to ability than to breed, to create the beginnings of the Chesapeake Bay Retriever breed.
There are few records of the breeds of these early dogs, but spaniels and hounds were included. Dogs from both Chesapeake Bay shores were recognized as one of three types of Chesapeake Bay Ducking Dog in 1877. In 1918 a single type, called the Chesapeake Bay Retriever, was recognized by the American Kennel Club, and there have been few changes to the breed standard since then.
Height: 23-26 inches (male), 21-24 inches (female)
Weight: 55-80 pounds (female), 70 to 120 pounds (male)
Life Expectancy: 10-13 years
The distinctive breed trait is a wavy coat that is oily to the touch. Chessies are solid-colored, either chocolatey brown or deadgrass tan, with yellow-amber eyes. Chessies are more emotionally complex than the usual hunting dog. Chessies take to training, but they have a mind of their own and can tenaciously pursue their own path. They are protective of their humans and polite, but not overtly friendly, to strangers. Chessies make excellent watchdogs and are versatile athletes.
Source: American Kennel Club