An unforgettable day in a Mississippi River Blind.
Perhaps you're the proud owner, a family member, or know someone who is; whatever the case, I'll bet you have a story about the most popular sporting dog in the world, the Labrador retriever. America's number one canine pet, the king of retrievers, comes in different sizes. The color may be yellow or chocolate but when I picture a Lab, the dog is coal black. Regardless of description, they all seem to have one thing in common; Labs love to work. Whether it's their first love--the retrieving game--or leading the blind, searching for drugs or bodies, their desire is to please their master.
All Labs are special, but the breed is somewhat of a fluke thanks to the British concept of geography that lumped the countries of Newfoundland and Labrador together as the same land mass. The dogs are direct ancestors of the St. John's breed that had its origin in Newfoundland. Originally bred as working dogs, trained by fishermen to retrieve fish nets, fish and swimming lines between boats, Labs were introduced to British aristocracy in the early 1800s as hunting dogs to search for and retrieve upland game.
Labrador fame as waterdogs began in the early 1920s when high profile and wealthy Americans, the likes of Marshall Field and W. Averell Harriman, began raising, breeding, and campaigning the dogs in field trial competition as well as hunting.
Others who could afford the breed bought into the "my dog's better than yours" deal and the popularity explosion began.
In 1950, industrialist, John Olin, chairman of the board of Winchester Ammunition and Olin Industries, started Nilo Kennels (Olin spelled backwards). Soon after, he purchased a young black male Labrador named King Buck, Olin's goal: a national retriever trial champion. Buck not only achieved but also exceeded the mark, becoming the first dog to go back-to-back, winning the coveted crown in 1952 and 1953.
In 1959, award-winning artist, Maynard Reese, not only immortalized King Buck, he made Buck a legend. Reese won the 1959 federal waterfowl stamp competition, his third, picturing King Buck holding a mallard drake with marsh and flying ducks as the background. Buck is one of a handful of canines to ever appear on a U.S. stamp and holds the honor of being the only dog to be featured on a "duck stamp," as competition rules now state, "waterfowl only".
As the popularity of conservation in waterfowl hunting continued to grow, so did owning a retriever, especially a Labrador. My first Lab, a son of King Buck, came from Nilo. Several years later, a stocky female, out of the same lineage became the best dog I ever owned.
The black dog, Bess, is where my story begins. My lifelong waterfowling partner, Art "Lin" Lippoldt, received a degree in veterinarian medicine from the University of Illinois in the '60s. He and I waterfowl hunted together at every opportunity; ducks and geese were our passion.
We both owned Labrador retrievers; his "Windy" dog was the mother of my female. Bess, a gift from Doc Lippoldt, mastered all the skills of a retriever as she matured. Possessing a wonderful nose and a great desire and will to please her master, it was logical for her to propagate the gene pool.
One problem arose; instead of becoming pregnant after breeding, she would have a 'false' pregnancy, all the physical looks of an expectant mother but an empty womb. For two years every effort of motherhood for Bess by vet and breeder resulted in another false alarm. We finally gave up hope.
With a little coaxing from their veterinarian, Doc, the pups get their first look at a drake mallard.
The November duck season was in full swing as Doc arrived at the usual 4:30 a.m. for our trip to the Mississippi River. He gave Bess an injection to ease the discomfort of yet another "false" pregnancy.
"No sense leaving her at home," said my friend as we loaded my gear; "She'd be twice as miserable knowing we were hunting without her."
Our routine for this duck day was the usual; register our Turner Island duck blind at the Batchtown IDNR check station, eat breakfast at Sally's café, drive the short distance to the Cochrell hollow boat harbor, load dogs and gear in the old jon-boat, and finally, take the 15 minute ride in the dark to Turner. With the decoy spread in place for the season, all that remained was to hide the boat and prepare for the day's hunt. Windy and Bess were at their respective master's side, ready for action.
I felt sorry for my Bess; she seemed miserable with the "false" pregnancy, but on the other hand, she was where she loved to be and to have left her in the kennel would result in the entire neighborhood being awakened at 4:30 a.m.
By mid-morning the only action in the huge hunting area was shooting in the main bottoms; we hadn't fired a shot. The decision was made for one of us to go to the check station in anticipation of an early "kill out" and change blinds.
Doc won the flip; I cranked up the outboard and headed for the harbor. Arriving in town, it was obvious my chances of a "hot spot" bordered on the "slim to none," as several groups of new hunters, on the rumor of new birds, had preceded me. Nearly an hour passed at the crowded headquarters before I chose to pass on a new spot. I began the journey back to Turner, my buddy, the dogs, and hope.
Everything looked the same as I waded from the boat hide to our blind. Funny, there was no sign of Doc as I tried the closed door. Maybe he was taking a nap.
"Hey, let me in, partner," I said loudly.
His head appeared over the door, as he exclaimed, "Before I let you in, guess what I've got that we didn't have when you left?"
"Okay," I answered, "How many did you kill?"
"I think you'll be surprised," said Art as he pushed open the door.
There was the doctor, standing tall, big smile, hands outstretched, holding two black balls of squirmy fur. I almost fell backward into the water. My eyes couldn't believe what they saw.
in the world?" I finally said.
"No false pregnancy this time ol' buddy. "This is the real deal," said Doc, grinning from ear to ear.
He gently laid the pups next to Bess and explained that she had gone under the blind bench and birthed the first pup shortly after I left for town. Number two had come within minutes and further examination guaranteed more to come.
Overwhelmed, I was in a state of shock.
"What are we going to do," I asked?
"Let nature take its course, after all her doctor is in the blind," was Lin's comeback.
Minutes later on this clear, warm, autumn afternoon the mallards decided to pay a visit to Turner Island. Mostly as singles and pairs, the ducks came either looking for a safe haven or wanting to be part of the oddity taking place in blind #104.
The author with a brace of Turner Island mallards.
Each time we'd call the approaching ducks, Bess would leave her brood, which had grown to four, in anticipation of a retrieve. Doc and I took turns shooting, the other would play nursemaid and try to control Bess. After a kill, the door to the dog ramp would be opened and grandmother Windy would be allowed to make the retrieve. Upon Windy's return with duck in mouth, Bess would look at me with those big brown eyes as if to say, "Why am I being punished?"
A decoying mallard drake became the fifth duck to our bag and again I opened the dog release door and grabbed for the streaking black neck.
Following the familiar splash, I heard Doc exclaim, "You've got hold of Windy; that's Bess chasing the drake."
Bess caught the thrashing crippled mallard and slowly, proudly returned up the dog ramp. This time her eyes conveyed, "What's the big deal; that was easy."
Her doctor said nothing to Bess but a scolding came my way for restraining the wrong dog.
Pups number five and six came within a half-hour of their mother's retrieve and were added to the "nest" of dead greenheads that Doc had built atop the blind. They seemed to enjoy their feathered surroundings, although cries for mother were constant.
The doctor declared the hunt would end at two o'clock. The squealing, squirming, new born were high and dry atop the blind in their make shift nest and Bess, somewhat confused, showed no sign of pain. On the other hand, her master was a nervous wreck as five mallards circled our spread. Two drakes finally got close enough to complete our bag. To celebrate the day, each dog was allowed to make a retrieve. My assignment was to fetch the boat, load the gear, ducks, and two proud Labradors; the doctor took care of the six black pups, carefully placing them in the game bag of his shooting vest. Both of us had left the harbor that morning with hope and anticipation; returning, we had lived a dream one could not imagine.
The check station was packed with happy hunters as I carried the day's kill to be recorded. Doc followed into the crowded room wearing the puppy-filled shooting vest.
"What's your count, Reid?" asked Dick Longnecker, the officer in charge.
"I've got a limit in mallards," I replied.
Removing his vest and literally dumping the pups onto the large kill table, Doc shouted above the roar, "And I've got six blacks; we may be over the limit!" The room was suddenly quiet as astonished hunters stared in amazement. As we told of the seemingly "false" pregnancy and the day's unbelievable event, one questioning guy asked Doc to take him to the truck to see the wonder dog. Upon their return, the vet was holding number seven, born in the covered truck bed. Doc further explained to the crowd that there would be one more to come. (The litter of eight was completed later that evening in the warm confines of our home.)
Our suspicion concerning the breeding was that it occurred either during a late season teal hunt or blind building campout where the dogs were allowed to roam free. All pups were spoken for and sold within days. No papers, just special black dogs.
Bess (left) and her mother, Windy, wait for the next flock to dive-bomb into Turner Island.
Years have passed since the November day that Bess became legend and to this day Dr. Lippoldt and I are asked to repeat the story. "Hall of Fame" outdoor writer, the late John Madson immortalized my black female in his rendition of the event.
Madson's piece, "Bess' Story: Mallards and Motherhood," first appeared as a feature in Ducks Unlimited Magazine and later in the books, Love of Labs, and One Hundred Years of Hunting.
The Turner Island litter all survived their unique entry into the world and without exception developed into "good" hunting dogs. (I would have expected as much.) Each was jet black in color with other features such as long legs and somewhat sickle tails indicating part Lab, part black phantom. Their owners all decreed, "My dog was born in a duck blind." No one could dispute the statement, even though one had arrived in the back of a duck truck, another in the home of a duck hunter.
The record for hunting ducks with eight Labradors in one blind on the Mississippi still belongs to yours truly and veterinarian Art Lippoldt.
Grandpa was correct when he said, "A man can say he had a good life if he had one good woman and one good dog."
I've had both; I've had a good life!
Larry Reid is host of "Outdoors with Larry Reid" which airs Sundays at noon on WBGZ Radio, 1570 AM.