- Lynn Burkhead
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During most Januaries, I'm hurriedly cramming in those final few duck and goose hunts of the season in an effort to tide me over until next autumn.
But that wasn't the case this year. You see, I lost my duck-hunting partner this winter, and to be honest, I had little heart for the waning days of this year's waterfowl seasons.
The numbers in this case, Feb. 27, 1989 - Jan. 12, 2002 indicate that Brazos Red River Molly lived nearly 13 years before her death the second Saturday of the New Year. But it isn't the date that my yellow Labrador retriever was born, nor the day that she died in my arms that I'll remember the most. It's the little dash between those two dates that represents more than a decade of a very special relationship: the bond of a hunter and his dog.
An overwhelming introduction
That bond began the early spring afternoon in 1989 when I sat down in the middle of a pile of Labrador retriever puppies with a golf ball and a sock tied up as a retrieving dummy. The little bundles of black and yellow Labrador pups energy personified swarmed all over me. All of them seemed to feel obligated to see how I tasted with their warm and moist little pink tongues.
Despite the fact that I was sitting in the middle of total puppy chaos, it was a perky little yellow female lab that garnered my attention again and again. Every time I played my retrieving game by playfully bouncing the golf ball away or tossing my improvised retrieving dummy away from the swirling litter, Molly bounded away for the retrieve every time.
While that might not be the most scientific method for choosing a retriever, it was good enough for me. I picked up the chubby little pup and wrote my check. And with that, I put the quivering little ball of yellow fur in the seat of the pick-up truck next to me and drove on down the road into 12 1/2 of the best years of my life.
I must admit that I know little about training retrievers properly. And I knew even less a dozen years ago. But Molly's natural retrieving instincts and overflowing enthusiasm for the task overcame most of my training inability as the two of us launched ourselves into the world of ducks, dogs and the hunters who love them both.
As I write this, memories of our years together mingle with the tears flowing down my cheeks, much like the spent autumn leaves blowing on the fresh north wind outside. Those memories include the first few weeks when Molly and I bonded together through sleepless nights, chewed furniture, Puppy Chow, puddles in the floor and more than a few snoozing sessions on my lap. Being a puppy and raising a puppy takes a lot of energy, I found out.
The first hunt
In the fall of her first year, September 1st rolled around and Molly and I embarked afield to test out our summer of training, if you can call it that. Her first hunt took place in the sultry heat of a Fannin County milo field. Even as a pup, Molly didn't care much for the mouthful of feathers that came with the fetch of a downed mourning dove. But when my shot column collided with a rocketing September gray ghost, a partnership was born as the light bulb clicked on in Molly's head Boss, you shoot 'em, I'll fetch 'em, feathers and all.
For the next 12 seasons, that's pretty much how it all worked, except I didn't always do such a great job of shooting the doves, ducks, and geese that Molly eagerly awaited to retrieve. But I connected enough to avoid that hard stare that gingerly asked the question that no shotgunner wants to hear, let alone see in the face of his or her retrieving companion: "Missed again?"
Fortunately, there were plenty of times when I didn't miss. Those successful shots produced a lifetime of memories in only a few short years.
Memories like: Molly's first duck, a shoveler that was retrieved during the 1989-90 duck season while I was hunting with my longtime waterfowling buddies Mike Bardwell and Jeff Camp. When my wet yellow lab waded ashore with that bird... and showered the innocent bystanders with cold, muddy water, I was as proud as a newborn's papa.
Over the years, the memories have been plentiful. A special photo with Molly holding a pintail drake reminds me of an outstanding hunt on the day after Christmas several years ago with Sherman duck hunter Craig Watson and former AC football coach Vance Morris. There were also a few "tough guy, tough dog" hunts along the way in extreme cold weather, including one on Lake Texoma several years back with Cory Sartor. The frigid weather meant that we had to bust plenty of ice that cold, gray morning, but Molly never complained, despite a steady drill of fetching mallards, teal, gadwalls and a widgeon or two with temperatures hovering around 20 degrees. Still another photo reminds of another special hunt the day after Christmas as a light snowfall dusted the landscape and the two greenheads that Molly had brought to hand.
Twice I thought I might lose Molly on Lake Texoma. Once she had marked a downed bird, calling her off was not an easy task as she toed the line of disobedience and successfully carrying out the genetic code that has sent her canine relatives plunging into frigid waters and howling gales for generations. On one of those occasions, I can't be completely sure if Molly could actually hear the whistle over the heavy wind. All I know is that the fright that I felt that chilly day at the sight of my lab bobbing between whitecaps a couple of hundred yards into the expansive waters of Lake Texoma was both real and intense.
When my exhausted Labrador retriever finally tracked down the crippled bird and made her way back to safety, I waded out waist deep to greet her and help her ashore. I don't remember much of a shower of water, a sure sign of a retriever that was spent. Molly had given her all to retrieve that bird and we were quickly heading home in the truck with a wet lab resting her head on my lap and the heater blowing for all that it was worth.
Another bitter winter morning found Molly and me breaking ice on Lake Texoma as a north wind roared and sent wind chills diving along with the 14-degree temperature. One of my favorite photos of my retriever shows her standing in the ice-choked waters holding a mallard drake that realized his mistake of cruising into our decoy spread a second too late. If Molly ever minded the ice that formed on her coat after each retrieve that morning, she never complained. It was Molly, her boss, the ducks and the elements. In other words, it was waterfowling at its best, and we both knew it.
Other memories beg for attention, including the wood duck drake that Molly retrieved in 1991. With my future bride in tow on that afternoon jump-shooting expedition, the winged woodie had sailed deep into the forest. I had all but given up on Molly finding the duck and began to whistle her in after a lengthy search. She didn't come. Whistle again. Again, there was no yellow lab. As my blood pressure began to rise, Molly burst from the timber with you guessed it the wood duck drake. To make the moment even more special, the colorful drake wore a silver band.
That memory reminds me of the great nose that my retriever had and the seemingly magical ability that she possessed to chase down birds in the brush, weeds and cut-banks of our duck hunting haunts. Literally dozens of times that I was privileged to hunt with this canine, Molly's nose came through as she made blind retrieves that legends are made of. Polished? No she would never win a field trial because of my training ineptitude. But in the field, I can't imagine a better retriever, blind mate or friend, for that matter.
Another endearing trait of my late, great lab is that I never had to look for ducks in the blind. Molly took care of that job too. Many times as I sat there fighting the urge to nap, I suddenly saw Molly's muscular frame tense and look skyward. When I saw that, I knew that game was in the air and began hailing the incoming ducks. As I called, all I had to do was watch those deep brown eyes as they traced the circling patterns of waterfowl taking a closer look at our decoy spread.
Not without her faults
Please realize that I'm not trying to paint a picture of retrieving perfection here. My lab had her faults, like breaking on the shot as the mayhem of landing ducks and booming shotguns began. And Molly had a peculiar habit of barking at crippled birds steaming for the next county as she swam and closed the gap to complete the retrieve. Somehow, she thought they ought to wait on her. And did I mention the shower of cold water that ensued once her task was completed and her four muddy paws were back on terra firma?
But nearly all of the memories I have of Molly's presence in my life are pleasant ones that usually involve her swimming or running back with a mouthful of waterfowl.
During her career she made countless retrieves of mallards, pintails, gadwalls, teal, widgeons, wood ducks, scaup, ringnecks, redheads, shovelers and a single canvasback. A few photos show my yellow Labrador waterfowling partner bringing back a mouthful of Canada geese, snow geese and even a specklebelly goose. A trip to West Texas produced a one-and-only kind of retrieve, as a hunting friend with the appropriate permit dropped a sandhill crane in a Panhandle wheatfield. My dog didn't quite know what to do with the gigantic load, but she somehow got it back to the blind. It's a sight that I'll never forget.
I loved that dog as dearly as I have ever loved anyone or anything in my life. And I know that she loved me too. Which is why it was so incredibly painful this winter to see a waterfowling partnership of a dozen years come to a close. To be truthful, I had retired Molly at the end of last duck season as the demands of jumping into icy water became too much for my aging friend to bear. Sure, she would still do it. But it was hard on her and I knew that the winds of time were beginning to whisper that the time had come to give the new pup the job of fetching ducks.
Molly tolerated her retirement reasonably well this year. While I could tell she wanted to go this season, it also seemed as if she somehow understood the sad reality that eventually faces all hunting dogs and people too: The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.
But while both of us begrudgingly accepted the passing of the torch, I was still unprepared for the sudden downward spiral in Molly's health at the end of December. She began to lose weight and had greater difficulty in getting up and moving around. And in the first two weeks of the New Year, that downward spiral accelerated and led to the day that my beautiful lab's yellow tail no longer wagged. At all.
When my retriever's longtime vet, Dr. Dale Butler, examined Molly that last weekend, we all knew that the end had come. A failing liver, spent hips and considerable discomfort had led me and my family to the tearful realization that it was time to say goodbye to one of our best friends and family members. And so, on a sunny January Saturday morning, I gave my yellow Labrador retriever the cruelest kindness I could and said goodbye as she went to sleep in my arms.
Later that day, myself, my wife and my kids all gathered on the family farm to lay Molly to rest, once and for all, a few weeks shy of her thirteenth birthday. A Rubbermaid container for a casket, a familiar blanket, two duck decoys, two photos of myself and Molly in the field chasing ducks and a few tearful letters from my children completed the sad rite that comes with every hunting dog-and-hunter relationship. For every beginning, there is unfortunately a painful end.
It was a tough and tearful few days around our house. A familiar face isn't there anymore. I've lost my duck hunting partner and marsh soulmate of the past dozen years. As I've thought about my retriever, it strikes me that she lived her life much as I hope to live mine with passion, energy, dignity and a singular focus for what mattered most in her life. She lived well and left behind a tremendous legacy for another young pup to follow.
Goodbye Molly. Thanks for a life well lived. I'll miss you old girl.