Ruffing it Up: A Bird Dog's Legacy

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.

Chiseled Desire

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.

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