It was the long-awaited opening of the Texas South Zone Dove Season. Janie, my four-year-old black lab, and I were hunting with my longtime friend and outfitter Rene’ in Duval County. Always the pessimist, he had warned us not to expect the wave upon wave of eight to ten bird flights we sometimes see. Sure enough, the first hunt of the morning was not spectacular. Most of us downed three to four birds, while a few lucky guys in “the sweet spot” had close to ten.
Janie had performed well for her first hunt of the year. She retrieved the birds and brought them back to me with ease, her enjoyment obvious to any bystander. Well-trained retrievers are a priceless tool in any hunter’s arsenal, and Janie is no exception.
However, this furry companion of ours – whose drive to retrieve and desire to please her owner is rivaled by few other four-legged creatures – can have a tendency to overdo it in the warm heat of Texas dove season. While our dogs may be willing to give us 150 percent at all times, it’s our responsibility to protect them and keep them from overdoing it.
Back at the camp, around mid-day, Rene’ suggested we try another field that could yield a better chance for us to finish our limits on the afternoon hunt. When 3:00 finally rolled around, we gathered for the short drive to the new field, the advantage being the groups of hay bales scattered across the hundred-plus acres of freshly mown grass.
After a bit of scouting, Janie and I picked a promising spot well away from the other hunters. In a hay bale group, there’s a cave-like space between two bales, which gave the two of us a good place to hunker down. We were almost completely concealed, with nothing showing but the top of my head as I scanned the skies above in all directions. With a place like this, our expectations of a high-volume hunt seemed to be well founded.
Soon, the birds began to arrive. Thanks to our hiding spot, I was able to drop them on a regular basis. However, with the birds winging in from all directions, Janie was only able to mark the fall of a few. More often than not, most of our birds tumbled out of her sight. To her credit, she performed exceptionally, heeling out of the blind, lining in the direction of the fall, and then taking off upon my “back” command.
Early on in the hunt, she streaked in the general direction, then, when my whistle chirped softly to let her know she was in the area of the bird, she executed a short hunt. After nosing out the bird, my “huntin buddy” would proudly hustle back to deliver our prize.
However, the 100-degree heat began taking its toll on her. While Janie would never quit, her enthusiasm and pace slowed considerably with every retrieve. I continuously gave her a drink and a splash of water on her face, head and ears each time she returned. Having started her first retrieves at a dead run, she was now barely trotting after a downed bird, and only walking back for the delivery.
The hefty weight in my bird bag suggested I’d better take a break to count our prizes. After the tally, we realized we only needed one to finish our limit. Judging by the tired dog at my side, I realized we needed to get the last bird in a hurry and head back sooner than later.
Janie was to my left at the edge of the haybales when a threesome appeared to my right, heading straight at us. I picked one, took aim, and dropped the little gray rocket just out of Janie’s sight, maybe thirty yards away.
One more time, she dutifully followed me out from behind the bales. Upon my release, she took off, but only in a fast walk. Once she reached the area of the fall, she let her nose do the work.
She winded it quickly, but suddenly the wounded bird flushed in her face and flew away, just above the Johnson grass. With no regard for her heated and nearly exhausted state, this retriever of mine fired up and took off on an adrenalin-driven dash, her muzzle within inches of the struggling bird.
This was not the hot, dead-tired dog that I’d seen in the last half hour. This was one with the drive and excitement of a two-year-old hunting dog on its first retrieve. This was the Janie I remembered as a spry, energetic puppy. This was a retriever.
After sixty yards, the bird faltered and Janie nabbed it in mid-air. She rewarded herself with a slow return, about which I did not complain. I watched her poke along back to me in awe and wonder. It is still hard for me to understand how she could have summoned the energy and speed to catch that wounded bird, tired as she was. Then and there, I reflected on what a devine blessing it is to hunt with this amazing creature.
Janie is a good example of how a hunting dog will push its limits for the sake of the hunt. She’s strong, she’s driven, and she doesn’t give up easily. As owners, we have to keep an eye on these dogs of ours so they can keep retrieving for many years to come. There’s something special about a creature that gives us 150 percent all the time, every time. It’s our job to match that and give them 150 percent right back.
By Steve Sheaffer