The off-season allows plenty of time for reflection. You can smile about your triumphs, loathe your misses and remember hunts shared with friends.
For me, part of that involves looking back at my retriever’s year. In fact, when I get nostalgic, I often dig into the logbook and recall great retrieves my dogs have made throughout their careers. It’s tough to pick the best performance, of course, as any well-marked, straight-lined retrieve or long, drama-filled chase for a cripple is wonderful. Still, a few stand out in my memory.
Belle, my first black Lab, probably made her top retrieve on the South Dakota prairie. We had hunkered down on the shoreline of a large slough, hoping to get a few divers before sundown. A group of redheads zipped overhead early, offering a pretty standard shot and retrieve. But as evening started to fall, a single buzzed in from behind and to my left. I rose and fired twice. The duck locked its wings, sailed across the slough and disappeared from sight.
“It didn’t clear the far bank,” I thought. “I’ll bet it splashed down dead on the shore over there.”
That shoreline was 250 yards away, but I already knew Belle was up for it. In fact, she was staring intently at where the duck probably went down. Still, I lined her up and gave her a mark. She charged into the water and headed directly for the far bank, head forward, legs pumping hell-bent in the water.
It was pretty dark by the time Belle reached the other side of the slough, and she resembled a dark dot amid a sea of brown and gray. But suddenly, the dot began to grow larger, and I realized she was heading back toward me. I immediately started to raise my hand to give her the back command but then thought better of it. Seconds later, I saw the white blob in her mouth — the redhead. She'd seen it the entire time.
Darkness had fallen when Belle stepped onto the sandy shore and sat at heel with the duck. I praised her just as I had with every other retrieve during her life, and we headed for the truck. Only in hindsight did I appreciate what had transpired.
Birdie, my current Lab, is only about halfway through her waterfowl career. She marks better than Belle did, though Belle probably had a little more raw prey drive. Still, Birdie has done some solid work in her first five seasons.
The top moment so far probably occurred this past season in North Dakota, as I hunkered in a cattail slough while Birdie sat atop a muskrat hut. A drake gadwall flew directly overhead in a stiff south wind, and I rose and — so I thought — crumpled it. The bird hit the water 30 yards away with a splash, although it was hidden behind cattails. Birdie had marked it, of course, so I released her for the seemingly easy retrieve. After a few minutes, however, she hadn’t returned.
“Come,” I yelled.
I slogged through the muck to peek around the cattails and saw Birdie swimming in circles. Uh oh. Cripple?
Then, for seemingly no reason, she began swimming rapidly toward the cattails on the opposite side of the pothole, about 100 yards away. She reached the bog and quickly disappeared into the cover.
Confused but desperate to find the duck, I let it play out. Had she seen something? Had she gone nuts?
Minutes later, she broke through the cattails about 30 yards to the right of where she’d entered, gadwall in her maw. I can only guess that the duck dove, and Birdie must have caught a quick glimpse of it as it slipped along the opposite shore. She earned some extra kibbles that night.
I’m hoping Birdie adds to her list of great retrieves this fall. She certainly has the potential, and I’ll give her every opportunity. But I also hope that I realize and appreciate when she hits her magnum opus. I want to savor the event a bit more than I did when Belle had her top moment. Great retrieves only last a brief time, after all — just like great retrievers.
Realtree waterfowl editor Brian Lovett has been an obsessive duck and goose hunter for more than 30 years, chasing his passion on the Dakota prairies and the marshes and open water of his home state of Wisconsin. He's been a writer and editor in the outdoors industry since 1991.