Willie, now 11-months old, retrieved four ducks on his first hunt, while wearing Junior’s vest.
Losing Junior tore a hole in my heart. He was a four-year old black lab in the prime of his life, and he was a duck hunting machine. We were ready for the epic waterfowl flight of 2014, but that dream died with him back in September.
Life must go on, and duck hunting is part of my life, so I needed another dog. There wasn’t a second thought of what the next dog would be. It would be a black lab male. Yet, I knew no matter how hard I tried to value this next dog on his own merit, he’d suffer the fate of following in the footsteps of a giant.
With teal season already open, I started my search for a dog ready to hunt right away. I came across a few opportunities, but nothing was exactly right. Then a friend turned me on to a started pup named Willie.
Willie belonged to Clint Mann, a professional dog trainer and owner of Cold Tree Kennels near Philadelphia, Missouri. He was eight-months old and was showing a lot of promise as a retriever. Clint had Willie force fetching, heeling on both sides, marking well and completing water retrieves. But could he hunt this year?
“Oh, he’ll hunt,” Clint said. “If he sees a duck go down, he’ll fetch it and put it right in your hand.”
That was enough to convince me to go take a look. But honestly, I knew it was more than just taking a look. Who goes to take a look at a puppy and doesn’t come home with him? Certainly not me.
The moment I laid my eyes on Willie, I knew I’d found my new partner. And what a blessing he’s been. He has the heart of a champion. I just can’t run the energy out of him. His drive to retrieve is amazing. And he’s adapted so well to being part of the family. My young daughters, whose pain I had to bear as they suffered the loss of Junior, once again have dog to make them smile. They giggle as Willie romps and wrestles with them on the living room floor.
Like all puppies, though, Willie comes with expected mischief. After 10 years of constant accompaniment, my briefcase met its demise in his unruly jaws. I take him to work with me on most days, and keep him tethered to the floor in my office on a short lead. Willie is kept at bay from the clean slacks of visitors and a full-body, strutting turkey mount. Yet, a lab pup is not to be kept from destruction.
Willie chewed through the bag’s leather handle strap that I spent a decade molding. This bag has been with me through multiple job changes, in countless board meetings, on fishing and hunting trips from coast-to-coast and even into two Canadian provinces to chase bears. It’s carried an evolution of laptops, tablets and phones. I was carrying this bag to work everyday before my children were born. It was in the both hospital rooms when they each entered the world.
When I discovered what he’d done, even though I cherished that bag, I couldn’t be angry with him. He just sat there staring at me through soft eyes with a big goofy grin on his face. I knew it was my fault for setting the bag within reach, so I showed him what he did and scolded him. Then I hugged his neck and laughed. I couldn’t help it.
Willie made it up to me when retrieved four ducks on his first hunt, which will hopefully be the first of many for us over the next decade or so.