11/27/09 — OUTDOORS -- Beauty is more than just a drake wood duck

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OUTDOORS -- Beauty is more than just a drake wood duck

By Rudy Coggins
Published in Sports on November 27, 2009 9:12 AM

We stood there as we had done so many times before, waiting for dawn to launch flocks of wood ducks from the Roost Pond -- an old farm pond, long overgrown with cypress and blackgum trees.

It was built by its former owner in 1950 and has filled in over time. Thick with duckweed and other aquatics on which ducks feast, some would say it needed cleaning. But, we think it's been upgraded from a too-shallow farm pond to the perfect wood duck roost.

This morning, though, something was different.

The ducks were still there, the hens squealing to gather their offspring for the coming breakfast flight, the drakes with their buzzing calls aggravating the hens for an early breeding.

Behind an ancient pine with its single wooden board 20 feet up, showing where a tree stand had once been nailed above railroad spikes steps long overgrown with scaly bark, was a pile of empty shotgun shells atop a small earthen mound. Bricks corralled the shells and mound creating headstones and footstones.

We find dozens of empty hulls around our property -- alongside the greentree impoundments, Roost Pond, oxbows and the banks of the creek. Each time we find the telltale sign of a Santana retrieve, we place the empty hull on the grave of the old water warrior. He had no regard for flowers. But the green, black, and red hulls, now with heads in various states of corrosion, were quite festive for the Lab when he was alive.

Since we had been away during the October season, this was our first hunt for us this fall. It would also be the first hunt for Santana's understudy, Tinker.

"Tink" is not as big as her male predecessor, but she possesses the same grit and drive. Jerry Simmons of Castle Hayne has trained 2,000 hunting dogs, mostly Labs, plus dozens of other trainers and hundreds of handlers.

"I only had one handler who could control a dog like Santana," said Simmons. "I also have one handler who can control Tink."

Jerry had sold Tink to another trainer who was channeling her energy along the field trial path about the time Santana left for the Great Duck Pond. But I knew the dog and tracked her down, then took Carol to pay a visit. As soon as Tink wrapped Carol's leg with a body hug, she was hooked on the idea of a new Lab in the house -- and in the field. In essence, Tink had her at "hello."

I've never really owned any of my Labs. Oh, I've certainly trained them for incessant hours and spent thousands of days hunting with them. But Carol owned them or, rather, they have owned her.

I take them hunting, so they treat me differently, becoming animated every time I step into the house or come down the stairs. But Carol feeds them and lavishes them with attention. They push up her hand to be petted on the head and sleep with their heads resting on her feet. Tink fit right in, doing those same things in the exactly same way as Santana had done and Smitty before him.

While deer hunting nearby, I had watched ducks leave the roost for weeks. I placed Carol at the sweet spot where they usually flew. Tink sat beside Santana's grave, where all I ever had to do was say the command, "Place!" and he would run there to sit, watch ducks fall, retrieve, then return to the same place to do it all over again.

I couldn't see very well through the big pine. But I wanted to be near Tink in the event the excitement overcame her training and she broke to make a retrieve before hearing the "Back!" command.

Ducks began flying early. Then, at one-half-hour before dawn, 6:13 precisely, four wood ducks passed over Carol. She downed one and Tink broke. But I stopped her and sat her back in Santana's place.

A few ducks flew past me, obscured by the big pine. Three more flew past Carol. She missed and I had to sit Tink again.

Another flock flew by and one fell in the pond, making a big splash that sent breast-feather ripples that looked like ice curls across the black water in the dark pre-dawn.

Tink held. I sent her. She made the first, then the second retrieve, returning both times to Santana's old place.

It's now Tink's "place." Carol came over to take her wood duck from Tink and asked me why I didn't kill any wood ducks.

I didn't need to. There were dozens swooshing overhead or squealing in the surrounding swamps. Two ducks for the morning were quite enough for me - and for Tink.

As I watched Carol smoothing the duck's feathers, I thought there is nothing is more beautiful than a drake wood duck, except for the beautiful girl holding it and the small-but-dynamic black silhouette panting in the dark that had retrieved the wood duck for her.