The sign read simply - PUPS. Hand written on an old scrap of press board, it wouldn't have stopped me, but it caught the eye of the woman sitting next to me, who would later become my wife. She had just lost her German shepherd.
I didn't want a dog, but it was already too late. By the time I got out, Julie had the little ball of black fur in her arms. My trump card was money, knowing that even $20 would squelch the deal. "Oh, no," she said with a smile. "You kids take that pup. I don't want nothing."
The pup's mother, a little black dog of indeterminate lineage with a white blaze on her chest, wiggled around my feet. "Yep," the old woman finished. "The neighbor dog "he's a black Lab” came a'visitin. And you know how that happens."
Later that day, we took 'Maggie' and I'm not sure how we got the name, but it fit to the Lewis River off the Columbia, where she refused to go in.
Great. My new duck dog is the only Lab on the planet who's afraid of water.
November in western Washington, 11 months later, and we are slipping through the Scotch broom lining, an old quarry. Ahead of us, a flock of wigeon loafed. Cresting the rise, I stood, Maggie at heel.
The birds now knew bad things were about to happen, flushed; and I dropped two drakes. Beside me, I heard a splash. Maggie, now an expert swimmer and accomplished retriever of balls, hit the cold, dark water and started.
She grabbed the first drake and dropped it at my boots before drenching me with 40-degree spray.
"What about the other one, Maggie?" I asked her softly, not expecting anything. No shouted command. Without hesitating, she turned, swam out, got the second, and delivered it to my feet.
There comes a time a place, a moment, the blink of an eye in a man's life when his dog, his first, makes that turn, the transformation from mere canine to artist. When the waterfowler's world stops, changes, and is never the same again. That morning was mine.
Maggie would live to see 12 seasons, our friendship spanning five states and hundreds of ducks, geese, roosters, rails, snipe, doves, pigeons, sharptails, prairie chickens, ruffed grouse, and blues; even a gobbler that a friend had arrowed and had given up for lost. If Julia Carol and I hunted it, Maggie did too, and all in her unrefined yet perfect way.
When that dreaded day came in 2008, Brian Darrow, our friend and long-time veterinarian, came to the house, knelt with us on the living room floor on the blanket Maggie shared with our second black Lab, Jet, and did what he had to.
At that instant, I felt physically felt my heart shatter; a sadness the likes of which only a true dog man would know. Oh, there would be others Jet, her son, Deacon, and Abbie. But there could be only one Maggie, one turning point, one once-in-a-lifetime. One exquisite joy. One infinite pain.
Maybe Garth Brooks said it best: "Our lives are better left to chance. I could have missed the pain, but I would have missed the dance." And oh, could my Maggie dance.
Water men and their dogs it's not really a duck hunt until there's a retriever in the mix. It is possible to hunt without a good pup. I love to pass shoot, and I can pick up my birds; but as I slide down the backside of 50, the thought of chasing a wing-tipped Canada through 640 acres of chiseled ground isn't all that appealing anymore. Better a two-year-old black dog do the chasing than Mr. Half Century.
Dogs and waterfowl just go together. Men and their canine comrades have gone afield for decades, forming bonds the likes of which those who don't hunt, those who haven't spent the morning anticipating the fall flights, will never know.
These are the stories of six of those friendships:
Breed: Black Labrador
Age at passing: 17
Owner: Matthew Cagle Rig 'Em Right
"I started working for a very accomplished dog trainer around the age of 12 or 13," Cagle began. "He always said: 'If it's not black, it's not a retriever.' He was biased that way, and I bought in.
We bred two amazing dogs at the kennel and sold all but one pup that the boss intended to keep, train, compete, and sell for big bucks. Bandit's father sold for crazy money, like $30,000, and was a prolific field-trial dog back in the 1990s.
The boss asked me to take the pup home to 'people-ize' him for a few weeks. Obviously, a 17-year-old duck hunter is going to get attached to a black Lab puppy, so he ended up giving him to me."
Bandit, it seems, had the best of both worlds when it came to training. "I trained him myself," Cagle wrote, "but I knew what I was doing from working under a professional for years. Bandit really 'got it' early. He was the most mature dog I've ever seen, and practically skipped the high-strung troublemaker 1- to 3-year-old phase that most Labs go through."
Cagle attributes much of Bandit's ability to their tight relationship. "Trust and friendship," he said. "That, and him sleeping in bed with me. Bandit trusted me and my commands. He didn't doubt me. He did what I said, went where I told him, and knew I loved him and had his back and he had mine, too.
"We made an amazing team. He was at my wedding," Cagle said. "Sat in the yard after the reception for about an hour looking down the road after me and my wife rode off on the Harley. I still can't watch the video without crying. True story. He was special, and I can't take credit for that. God did that part."
Breed: Chocolate Labrador
Age at passing: 15
Owner: Rod Haydel Haydel's Game Calls
"I received Lady," Haydel wrote, "from a very good veterinarian friend of mine, John Tinsley. John had been running field trials, and he and I got together and trained Lady. After a while, we would both run into issues, so we'd trade off (on the training) for a few weeks. She was everything I wanted in a dog — obedient, calm to the shot, and highly motivated to please."
Interestingly, Haydel speaks of his Lady not merely as a retriever, but as a marsh dog. "A good marsh dog," he said, "has to have different qualities to make it. I started her as a pup making retrieves in 3- to 4-foot Johnson grass. She developed on her own a tendency to 'zig-zag' over an area. This worked wonderfully her first season when, at 9 months, she picked up over 400 birds during early teal season. It was then she made the transition into a marsh dog."
Haydel shows a preference for the girl dogs in the field. "I like a smaller to medium-size female for the marsh," the callmaker said. "I've seen too many big males stand too high over the grass, and then have a problem over-running birds, especially in blind-retrieve situations. But sometimes, you just have to let the dog hunt and not try to handle her."
The Cajun finished with a funny aside, and sent the photographs as proof positive (see above). "Having a dog that learns to pick up multiple birds is something amazing. Lady would do that on occasion. One morning, I shot a couple gadwall that landed right next to each other. I barely got the camera out in time. Talk about a smile on our face," he said, the pride obvious. "I even gave her a piece of boudin (cajun French sausage) as a reward for that one."
Breed: Chocolate Labrador
Owner: Paul Sullivan AeroOutdoors
Home for Paul Sullivan is eastern Washington State, where, when he's not farming, he builds decoys, portable blinds, and guides waterfowlers through the whole of The Evergreen State's 107-day duck season at Burbank Guide Service.
For years partial to Chesapeakes, Sullivan's Chalko was a brown Lab. "Chalko is the fourth Lab I've owned after three Chessies. I got him from a kennel in Oregon, with the assurance he'd be a smaller dog. That, and he had a pedigree as long as your arm."
But family matters, too. "I have nine granddaughters," he said, "and chose to go with a Lab due to their disposition around the kids." Chalko honed his skills without the benefit of formal training.
"Due to the fact I could hunt him almost every day for a 107-day season," said Sullivan, "it was really on-the-job training for him. I didn't have to do much. His ability to mark a duck is quite remarkable, and his nose is the best I've seen since my first Chessie.
"He's all business in the blind; good in the goose pits, too. He can jump out of a four-foot pit without any help, and a big honker doesn't intimidate him at all."
Breed: Black Labrador
Owner: Mike Galloway — Hard Core Brands
Galloway prefers black dogs due to the Lab's temperament and desire to please. "Every time I went to visit the pups, (Decoy) was the one who escaped the pen. This showed initiative."
He trained the dog with the help of a book "Water Dog," using praise, not treats. "Would I have done anything differently? I would have worked on longer retrieves.
"I used a baseball field to work on blinds and hand signals. Unfortunately, deep center was only 320 (feet) before the fence. So now when he gets to 320 feet, he pulls up short. I never thought I would need a longer blind than that. Then I started traveling to Canada. The fields up there are a lot larger than they are here in Ohio."
Most memorable retrieve? Five years ago, Hard Core donated a hunt to Delta. The man who won, Matt Wilkens, was hit by a car in college and now gets around in a wheelchair.
"At 6'4, 240, it was tough to hide Matt and still get birds to work. We set up on a sod farm under some mature pines so Matt could park his four-wheeler under a tree.
"The first group worked in and Matt clipped the rear bird, but it sailed over a pond behind us and into another section of the farm, and hit the ground running. As I am about to send Decoy, Matt says "'that is the first Canada goose I've ever shot. I hope he can find it.'"
"Decoy swims across the pond and is taking a direct line to the goose. The goose starts heading for the exit and Decoy tackles him like Clay Mathews on a blitz. They both roll and up comes Decoy with the bird. A blue-ribbon retrieve! He swims all the way across the pond and delivers to hand. I really don't know who was more excited Matt or myself."
Breed: Yellow Labrador
Age at passing: 11
Owner: Travis Mueller — Avery Outdoors
Mueller happened to answer his phone when I called just moments after Sky passed away due to an unexpected seizure. Having been through it twice myself and this, the young man's first experience with the loss the moment was traumatic for both of us.
Today, Mueller has another field companion (Buoy) who, like Sky, is a yellow male, and a brother to my current go-to work Lab, Sadie Mae. "Labs," Mueller said, "are loyal, smart, and just amazing with kids. Sky was my first dog, and my first true hunting dog. It was just the right time for us."
Mueller is both candid and humble when it comes to discussing Sky's training. "He was self-trained," he said. "I started him very young, and didn't train him like I should have. Still, he had natural ability. Was he the best? Not even close, but he was a hunter.
He knew the game, and by the time he was three, he was a machine. I worked hard at all the aspects of training, but not hard enough. Experience taught him way more than I did. I learned a lot with Sky, and it's helped me immensely with Buoy."
And then there's The Retrieve, the one Mueller talks about with pride. The one we all talk about with pride. "We sailed a greenhead," he wrote.
"Hit, but all engines firing. Probably went 1,000 yards. We were in cattails with a deep channel between us and the shore. I sent Sky thinking he'd look for a bit and come back; he didn't. He must have been gone 20 minutes when I got nervous and went to look for him. I found him so far into the woods I couldn't see the water.
"He wouldn't come no matter how much I whistled or yelled. I didn't think he was anywhere near that duck. Lo and behold, here comes that stubborn dog almost an hour later with that mallard. I've never forgotten that," he said, "and it taught me to always trust the dog's nose over a whistle."
Breed: Black Labrador
Age at passing: 10
Owner: Jim Ronquest — RNT
Tank or Tankers or, simply, 'T' was owned by Jim Ronquest of Rich 'n Tone fame; or more precisely, 'Ole Jimbo was owned by Tank. A male black Lab, Tank passed at the age of 10, but not before leaving an indelible mark on Jimbo's life and the lives of many others. "I didn't really pick him," Ronquest said. "I just got lucky."
Trained by professional trainer Mark Wardlaw, Tank had all the elements natural, and assisted a good dog needs to become a great dog. "Super solid basics," said Ronquest. "Sit means sit. Here means here. Go means go. That, coupled with thousands of birds shot over him.
"I'm a firm believer in good training. It's a must-have, but to truly make a dog, you have to kill birds over them. And spend time together. Tank could read me as well as I could read him. I could talk to him, and he seemed to understand. He was my right-hand man."