They say you only get one good dog in a lifetime...but I pray that isn't the case.
Ten years ago, I picked up a strapping 11-month-old named Ruff from a breeder in Wisconsin. He became the finest hunting dog I've seen and redefined my life afield.
In the blind, he shook with desire, waiting on the birds. He hit the water like a freight train. When he was 2, we walked into a little timber hole. The first duck of the morning splashed and when I sent Ruff, he launched into the black waters. I heard a "yip," but he kept going so I didn't think much of it.
When he came back with the greenhead, I looked him over and there was a two-inch hole right between the shoulder blade and ribs. He had hit a beaver snag; I thought it was all over, carrying him to the truck against his will.
Half way back he jumped from my arms and ran the rest of the way to the truck. Finding a vet at 6:30 a.m. on Sunday in the middle of nowhere is not an easy task. I finally got ahold of one who was going to meet me.
While waiting with Ruff's head in my lap, pressing a rag over the wound, time stood still. It was only 15 minutes, but felt like an eternity and I remember praying he wouldn't take his last breath before the vet arrived. The doc stitched him up, explaining the snag deflected off the shoulder blade and opened an eight-inch pocket between the ribs and skin. A half-inch further back and he wouldn't have made it 100 yards.
As a longtime hunter and co-owner of Habitat Flats, the demanding pace of our season is strenuous. From September to March, I am in the field, watching as each season revolves and replaces the previous. And Ruff, without missing a step, has been at my side for over 25,000 retrieves. He has yet to fail me as the sharpest retriever, loyal companion and determined motivator.
He is the perfect mix of warrior and quiet friend at home. Countless guests have watched him and remarked he is one of the best, marveling at how calm he is when not hunting. Ruff knows no strangers. He has won the hearts of most folks who have hunted over him.
After loading my gear, I'll walk into the lodge and see him sitting at the head of the breakfast table, mooching off guests willing to give up a few morsels. He strolls in like he owns the place. I should probably correct him, but he has earned his share.
Countless times, Ruff picked up over 200 birds during snow goose hunts across muddy fields. He's a well-oiled machine, 60 chiseled pounds of desire, his muscles rippling as he tears ground. Ruff always goes after the sailed birds first, much to the awe and excitement of our guests. He races out of sight and over hills.
It used to worry me, but is now old hat. Many times, hunters ask "should we go look for him?" "No worries," I say, "Old Ruff wrote the book on this game." Invariably, he returns with a goose, mission accomplished.
On one occasion, he came back from a long retrieve, his head sliced open to the bone. The cut from a barbed-wire fence didn't deter him from getting the rest of the snows in that flock.
As the sun sets, he collapses next to me with a long sigh, completely exhausted, but wanting more. After getting back to camp and some food in him, Ruff trails off into a deep sleep.
He whimpers and his legs twitch. I know he is still on the hunt. No matter how tired he is, or what time we make it to bed after setting decoys, I can always count on his tongue licking my face minutes before the alarm goes off. He has a fire that will never go out.
During duck season, double-digit greenhead limits in icy waters are just another day at the office. He is the kind of athlete I wish we saw more of today. He can't get out to the blind fast enough, churning up water like an outboard motor and rushing back with the same vigor. When he returns, there isn't a big celebratory dance.
He's been there before, and acts like it. Ruff is a pro in every sense. His hearing is completely gone, but his instinct is innate; he needs no whistles or direction. It is all about him now, and I trust he knows exactly what he is doing. After a volley, I usually have to get out of the blind and pat him on the butt so he knows to start retrieving.
Clients chuckle at this display of discipline working against his failing hearing when I release him. He goes his own way now, most of the time swimming across the little timber holes, just so he can find dry ground with the duck in his mouth, perhaps raise his leg, smell the roses and take the easy way back.
Earn Your Keep
Everyone who comes to Habitat Flats asks if they'll have the honor of hunting over Ruff. It's no secret he always creates memories for the guys in the blind. Last season, I watched him pick up over 30 mallards in ice and freezing water, and found myself tearing up as I had to help him break ice on his last long retrieve.
He was within 15 feet of the bird and just like that, ran out of gas. Had I not waded out, he would still be there fighting to reach that last greenhead. That's Ruff.
Incredible in his prime, Ruff has sired over 10 litters of strong Labs, including many that contribute to our robust team. As a meat dog who built a reputation on passion and stamina, his simple focus and pure devotion is an example to not only me, but all who have the pleasure of hunting over him.
He's never won a ribbon, never run a hunt test. Ruff's keep was earned in the field — plain and simple.
Nearly 12, Ruff's drive is strong as ever. When I walk to the kennels in the early darkness, his hopeful expression and wagging tail don't betray his innate longing to accompany me. Letting him out of the cage with his hunting vest in hand, his body erupts into excited shaking as he jumps around me like he's a pup again. I get a kick out of the Old Man. He knows it all by heart.
Last year on opening day, I took him 400 yards down a levee, then about 70 yards out to a blind that sits in the flooded trees. Even though he hadn't been there in over a year, he ran into the darkness shortly after leaving the truck. Wading the slough, my headlamp flashed towards the blind. Sure enough, Ruff's eyes lit up from his perch.
Today, I have two of Ruff's sons: a 3-year-old named Junior and 11-month-old, Ki. They have big paws to fill, and Ki in particular has the same looks and spirited drive as his dad. But there will only be one Ruff. One of the hardest moments each day is choosing one of his sons instead of him.
His body can't handle the daily rigors anymore, but I promise you it kills me to leave Ruff behind. As his glory days come to a quiet close, mirroring his soft and humble demeanor, I can only hope for one thing: that I was able to give him even half of the irreplaceable memories he has given me.
I guess, at the end of the day, I don't believe you only get one good dog. But the good ones...the good ones will leave a lasting impression with you forever. And our job? Simple. Treasure every minute with them.
I am a full time duck dog trainer located in Winnie, TX. My buddy came out and took a picture of me during a training session.
— Brian Johnson
My dog Hook. Sunrise, opening day of teal season at Santee on the Missouri River system, northern Nebraska. Beautiful!
— Chad Walvoord
Dragged my buddy in his wheelchair through the mud and muck we got set up eight mallards came in I shot this pair both had bands and consecutive numbers. Early western zone in NY. I use GHG decoys , cheap $20 calls , weatherby SA08 with a Carlson's mid range blindside choke and blindside 3in #2's.
— Nathan Damanski
One of the bands I've got in NY.
— Nathan Damanski
My pitbull retriever he was a great early season goose dog. He just passed away a couple weeks ago.
— Nathan Damanski
Early season Canada goose hunt in northern Minnesota. Decoys used were GHG, avian X, higdon, and Bigfoot. Cabelas and Avery layout blinds. Benelli, Remington, and stoeger shotguns loaded with federal premium steel shot.
— Jesse Peterson
Scouting in the fog on the shoreline, CT.
— Dave Parish
My dog Larry at our Quack House along Saginaw Bay near Fish Point Wildlife Area, sitting with the three redheads my son and I got that morning. I also am a self taught that loves doing paintings of the things I have seen while waterfowl hunting the Saginaw Bay.
— Jim Wardynski
Here's Duke helping with a Sebring Florida (central Florida) duck hunt. He just retrieved the woodie moments prior. He doesn't need a vest, because we can still hunt in a long sleeved T-shirt.
— Bret Hinkle
Goose hunting photos where from a hunt 2 weeks ago on my family's farm we hunt in Pa. We limited out by 830 am.
The photos of my dog Gunner where from The Dewey Beach area while on a scouting / hunting trip with a good friend of mine Brad.
North Platte River in Nebraska, using my Winchester SX3 and trusty retriever Bolo.
— Rick Walleen
I'm a leg man for sure!
Berreta A400, banded gear, OLT Cut Down.
— Justin Jones
— Justin Jones
My dog, Larry, and the three redheads my son and I got while hunting on Saginaw Bay from our hunting cabin that we call the Quack House. We did miss a few other ducks but we had a great time, and so did Larry.
— Jim Wardynski
End of vacation hunt at a small beaver pond near a drainage pond. Wood ducks flew all morning and we waited until almost 8 am to shoot. Pete retrieved all, with three being blinds.
— Matt Layell
While wearing Ducks Unlimited, we limited out around 9:30 that morning! Great day.
— Bill Nielsen
She came in low over the water all alone. At first glance I thought it was just a shore bird. Missed on the first attempt but connected on the second. Bird of a lifetime.
— Daneil McDonald
I filed for a Provisional Patent for a newly designed Short Reed Style Goose and an Arkansas Style Duck Call last week.
The internal air flow has been redesigned and the typical barrel/insert has been replaced.
If you interested in hearing more my email address is firstname.lastname@example.org
— Jeffrey Moore
Hunting the 5.8 acre lake on the FARM today 1/31/2015.
Using a newly designed patent pending air flow with tone chamber from Extreme Calls.
— Jeffrey Moore
A successful opening day with my 2 year old Hank.
— Jason Hoffman
Chocolate Lab, "Rocket" watching circling mallards overhead in Arkansas refuge pond.
— Dr. Steven Zegar
Here I am wearing my DU waders and championing my Primos Phat Lady call, as well as a few others on my lanyard. My co-guide (I waterfowl guide at a lodge in North Dakota) took this picture while I posed. Later I realized it is very much like a picture of Captain Ahab from "Moby Dick"!
— Nate Heegaard
A friend (right), myself (left) and my black Lab, Jake (very left in cattails), on an early October duck hunt. We took my buddy's girlfriend for her very first duck hunt and this is one of the photos she snapped when we were waiting for the birds to start flying.
— Dane Richardson
Late season Nebraska duck hunt, Nelli and a nice goldeneye drake.
— Scott Propes
Lilly was adopted from the Humane Society and is a 2-year-old Lab and Australian shepherd mix.
This pic is from the 2012-13 season, taken on Lake Toho, Fla., by my son, Patrick Banner.
— Eric Banner
Here is my son training his puppies just like I train our yellow Lab. He loves his puppies!
— Colt Wells
First light on Maryland's eastern shore on my first ever duck hunt. Perfect.
— Tom V.
Chesapeake Bay sea duck hunt January 2013.
— Dave Parrish
Hunting the Colorado River in Texas just south of Interstate 10. My dog, Slider, is without a doubt one of the most fun dogs to watch hunt. He remains vigilant the entire hunt, never looking away from the sky and can identify ducks over other birds, dismissing the latter very quickly.
— Dustin Andreas
Dominique Martin Jr. sent in this photo of this duck dog, Gauge, on retrieve in early January at Fingers Lakes, N.Y.
English setter out duck hunting on an Excel F4 with a mud buddy. He is standing on the back pod.
— Jared Hiniker
Tom Van Dam sent in this photo of his 10-month-old Lab, Dixie, on one of her first hunts. Van Dam wrote, "She is my first Lab, I have worked with her everyday since January, and it is the greatest feeling in the world to see all of her hard work come to fruition and see her have so much fun chasing waterfowl. So rewarding for me too. Anyone who has ever hunted over a dog they have trained and grown attached to knows the feeling of the first hunt and the first bird."
This photograph was taken at Lewis and Clark Fairgrounds in Helena, Mon. This pond is full of different breeds, sexes and many other birds that come through.
— Wendy Grove
This photograph was taken at Lewis and Clark Fairgrounds in Helena, Mon. Many breeds and different species come through all year.
— Wendy Grove
Was invited last year to participate with biologist to banded Canada geese. That day more than 600 birds were banded. That was on the St. Lawrence river near Montreal.
— Dominique Martin Jr.
This is my husband, Randy, and our Lab, Sadie. They are both looking over the blind or geese. We have a Beavertail boat blind. Our shotguns are a Benelli Super Vinci and a Beretta Xtrema 2. We were using Kent steel shot.
— Heather Mullins
Opening day in Colorado 2008. New Benelli Nova, two gads, two mallards, a redhead and a pintail — all before 9 a.m. Had hundreds coming in; it was easy to pick only drakes. What a day!
— Troy Herde
First year duck hunting and finally, on my third time out, I got my first duck! Nice wood duck out of Browns Mills, N.J.
— Tracey Harvey
My buddy, Austin, and his 7-month-old old pup, Bailey, waiting for some birds during early season in Iowa.
— Dan Brinkheide
My 8-year-old son, Zane, took this widgeon, his first of the season. He was using a Rossi .410 and wearing a Drake Waterfowl Young Guns coat with Cabela's waders.
— Clayton Stewart
Limited out first day at our impoundment at Creekfield located at Belvidere, N.C., all wood ducks.
— Troy Berry
January hunt in Oklahoma with Voodoo Outfitters. 13 man limit by 930AM. Video of the hunt is located here
— Patrick Perkins
My gear was only a camera and I was at the Fox River in Oswego, Ill.
— Byron Owen
Took this photo post-hunting season scouting a new spot for next year.
— Justin Skrzynski
Cathoula Lake, Opening Day, 2013.
— Kenneth Vaughn
Fly-over on approach, in the soup! In the fog at Shelby Farms Park, Memphis, TN.
— Dan Wireman
Taking to flight!
— Dan Wireman
While I was out hunting snows this spring with Ricky Hart i took this picture of his dog. We were using a rigem right blind and dakota decoys.
— Aron Boyce
This was the very first time my wife had went to Harsens Island with me. I was so proud of her she was on time, didn't fuss and had a ball. We got just a few mallards over some GHG decoys, but I'll always remember the first time.
— Gilly Gilhouse
Shiloh was just a year old the first time we took him to North Dakota for the opener of duck season. He made 142 retrieves that week and has been a seasoned waterfowler ever since.
— Gilly Gilhouse