The following story, titled, “The Longest Retrieve,” appeared in the Wilmington Star-News, Tabor-Loris Tribune and was published again in my North Carolina Game and Fish, In-the-Field section of that magazine. I had sent the story to Dave Johnson, while still grieving for the loss of my hunting buddy. He wrote these kind words and inserted into my column. Until that point, I hadn’t considered what the old water warrior had meant to so many others who had seen all those photos of waterfowl he had retrieved.
The story received the Third Place award in the Best Magazine Short Story Category of the Excellence In Craft competition at the 2009 conference of SEOPA (Southeastern Outdoor Press Association). The SEOPA EIC awards are among the most highly treasured in the outdoor communication world. But I’d trade every EIC award I’ve ever received for one more hunt with Santana.Editor’s note by Dave Johnson, Editor, North Carolina Game and Fish Magazine:For about the last decade, half or more of the ducks that have been pictured in North Carolina Game and Fish stories have been retrieved by one dog – a black Lab named Santana, who was the hunting partner of outdoor writer Mike Marsh. Santana passed away near the end of the last bird season, and Marsh told us about it in the following letter, which we thought we’d share with our readers.
The Longest Retrieve
North Carolina Game and Fish
By Mike Marsh
At age 12 Santana was still a hard hunter. Every time he astounded, his legacy grew. But this retrieve was something else entirely because it had taken an hour.
He retrieved a pair of wood ducks shot rising from a swamp. Then we jump shot another from a shallow pool. Thinking the duck stone dead, I sent Santana into the heavy briar tangle. Instead of fetching a dead duck, he chased a live one into view.
For an instant, the duck appeared, the dog’s jaws snapping shut at its tail feathers. Then the duck vanished. Thirty minutes of brush crushing and power panting came up empty. While a few crippled ducks had escaped him in water, the old Lab had a reputation for never losing a crippled duck that fell on the bank.
Some folks believe ducks are waddling and slow. But a woodie isn’t a barnyard duck. A cock pheasant can’t outrun a wood duck or find better places to hide. Eventually, the dog returned to within 10 feet of me and started digging into the roots of a hurricane-battered oak. Hunters less trusting might not have believed a dog was telling me that woodie had ducked underground. But as I watched him bite and rip through 2-inch roots, I thought of other long retrieves.
His first long retrieve was with Ocracoke guide Ken Dempsey. After learning to climb a ladder moments before, the two-year-old pup leaped 8 feet down from a stake blind to chase down a crippled brant. Two-foot waves crashed over him, until he chased the bird out of hearing range. He couldn’t see the bird over the waves and the wind nullified whistle commands. But an electronic collar worked as well as a whistle. He turned and watched intently as I gave him electric stops and hand signals. Returning with the bird he climbed the ladder and shook himself dry, dropping the bird as if it was all a normal day’s work.
Basil Watts and I shot seven waterfowl from a single flock at Sutton Lake. Sea gulls ate two while Santana fetched the rest, with the last three windblown across to the opposite bank. I used my binocular to spot them and tucked a paper towel inside my cap to give hand signals the dog could see from that distance. It was his longest multiple retrieve and Basil’s first impression of Santana. Ask and he will tell you he’s never seen anything like it before or since.
Now, the Lab’s body was half buried like a rooting boar, until just black hips and wagging tail were showing. I trusted my dog as he trusted me.
I stood guard with a shotgun in case the woodie squeezed free out a different hole, until I could stand the suspense no longer. I cut my way through the briers, took off my coat, shouldered the soaking Lab away and shoved my hand deeply into the root cavity.
Through icy water up to my armpit, I felt something not mud, not root. Pinching my thumb and forefinger around a duck’s foot, I snatched the bird into the open where the dog’s mouth closed around it. The duck had drowned itself rather than be caught by the never-give-up Lab. It was Santana’s longest single retrieve, in terms of time.
Two days later, Santana busted woodcock cover, breaking ice and slipping through greenbrier tangles. I remarked to my hunting partner David Franklin that Santana worked more like a young dog than a 12-year-old. That fact was confirmed by blood work the next day at the Animal Emergency and Trauma Hospital of Wilmington.
“His blood work is that of a two-year-old,” said Dr. Moore. “But we need to conduct some x-rays, fast.”
When he wouldn’t come in the house the next morning following the woodcock hunt, I figured he was just overly stressed or had an infection. But after the x-rays, surgery followed much too swiftly. The tumor the vet found in his abdomen was the size of a teal, yet Santana hadn’t let on anything was wrong.
Dr. Moore said old hunting dogs like Santana were tough, too good at hiding their pain. Cancer can stalk such a dog silently, patiently, for a long time with no symptoms. Then suddenly, that’s that.
He had hunted hard to the very last and had just completed his longest retrieve. Our longest retrieve was yet to come.
Carol and I took the old water warrior for one last long ride from the clinic to our farm. We buried Santana within sight of the place where he rooted out his last wood duck. Into his grave went chewed bumpers and the wood duck, which I had frozen for photography use. A three-shot salute with the old Remington sent a pair of woodies squealing from the swamp, circling overhead as the spent hulls smoked hunting aroma beside Santana’s nose.
Santana’s predecessor, Smitty, is buried a few yards away, where that old Lab made his last retrieve. Perhaps they will find one another in the Great Duck Swamp where retriever’s souls spend Eternity and share fond stories about me. In the center of my soul are two dark furry holes, blacker than foredawn clouds reflected by a blackwater mirror. Filling the void are two Labs whining in the darkness, waiting for legal shooting time as waves of ducks take flight.