Missing: retriever

It took only the second leg of the Duck Trek to realize something is missing from the journey that celebrates duck hunting and the band of brothers who chase them.

Missing in all the words and most of the photos is a part of duck season that has become such a critical part of duck hunting that it's almost a crime it's taken this long to give it due credit.

That missing part is the retriever.

James Overstreet and I both own one. He has a black Labrador named Abner, and I have a yellow Labrador named Buddy. During our season, neither Abner or Buddy misses many days in the blind.

Traveling with a dog, though, is difficult.

Some of the travel has to be done on an airplane: Fly in, shoot 'em up and fly out. That's not easy on a retriever.

Then there are the unspoken rules of duck hunting. We've been invited on most of our hunts, and as the old-timers used to say, "Just because you are invited doesn't mean your dog is."

It's made it tough for a retriever owner. At least once in Michigan, having a retriever on hand would have added a duck to the bag limit. I can't speak for Overstreet, though I just know he's missed Abner.

The dogs of the Trek team, however, will soon get their opportunity.

The Trek is getting into a leg where both can be a part of everything. Meanwhile, we're passing along some retriever photos to illustrate how retrievers have a way of fulfilling a duck hunter's life in ways that are hard to describe.

To explain more fully, I wrote these words a few years ago.

With apologies to author Gene Hill, whose prose could describe man's best friend like no other, these words are paraphrased by a fickle memory, and certainly edited to fit the needs of a hunter in love with his retriever.

    Every retriever owner feels the same way. It only takes a few days in the field to realize that a retriever is the best set of eyes on the hunt, with a gaze that can see through clouds and ears that can hear despite a strong north wind. He has senses I can't fathom, and he's only too willing to share them whenever needed.

    He is an extra set of legs that work for me in the flooded bottom or eight levees away in a rice field, with haunches that never tire and beg for more. I know that he would not stop until I needed or wanted him to. But when I want him to, it's because I'm tired, not him.

    He reminds me that everything I do is the most important thing in the world to him — especially if it means he can just be close to me, or better yet, go and pick something up and bring it back for me.

    His love for me is undying and constant, regardless if I have a half-eaten sausage and biscuit in my hand or an empty palm ready to scratch behind an ear.

    He's never complained that I've showed up too early or too late, but when I do, the shaking of his tail starts at the tip and permeates through his body, just because I am there.

    And when he sees me leave at an all too early time, dressed in camo without him, the pleading in his eyes is so deep you would swear he'd never get over it. Yet the second you return, covered with the scent of another, he's all too willing to forgive. He's just happy to know you survived, even without him.

    There are no days too distasteful, too cold, or too hot when his time isn't best spent at heel, watching the clouds or listening to the wind.

    He never chastises when I miss a shot, embellish a tale or hit the wrong note on a duck call. He lives for the moment when everything lines up perfectly and I bring those feathery retrieves from the sky to the water.

    I am just a simple man to the rest of the world, but I am Superman in his eyes. He doesn't know that with him, I have confidence and pride, or that his loyalty and heart has taught me how completely flawed men really can be.

    He's my partner, regardless of anything. That is a policy that he sets and one I live by.

    He's my retriever.