The Last Hunt

Time waits for no dog.

As I think back to hunting seasons gone by, of favorite dogs and skies black with birds, I can’t help but wonder what it is that drives us and our dogs to do things that seem both crazy and funny at the same time. What makes the bond between us deeper than that of owner and “just a dog?” For me, the answer came on a fall hunt years ago with Coffee, my chocolate lab.

Coffee had made it to the wise old age of 12, and still had tons of spring in his step with the smarts to back it up. We were with two friends doing some waterfowl and pheasant hunting, and after a few easy pheasant pushes in the morning, we all headed out on a dike between two large ponds to try for some teal and possibly a canvasback or two.

One of my friends finally got an opportunity at one of those cans and knocked a big drake down into the water behind us. Coffee, who was no rookie to retrieving ducks, roared out to make the collar. Unfortunately, that can wasn’t dead and before I could react, it dove under the surface of the pond. Ten seconds later he came up 80 yards away with Coffee in tow. Further and further they went. I tried to call him off, yelling and whistling with increasing urgency, but Coffee was having none of it. Five, ten, 20 minutes; the chase passed almost out of sight.

I was beside myself, and helpless to do anything to help. Hunting was over; I just wanted to get my dog back to the dike. Just when I thought it was hopeless, and started to panic a little bit, Coffee disappeared. I couldn’t see him. Long minutes passed and I was sure that he was gone, or at least in serious trouble. Then my friend spotted a tiny dot coming toward us.

Sure enough, there was Coffee, and as he slowly came toward us, all I could think about was that he was okay—and it was time to call it a day. I could tell he was laboring as he got closer to us, defiantly struggling against the cold water. At about 100 yards, my friend noticed that he was holding—you guessed it—that damn canvasback. A loud cheer went up among us, and Coffee appeared to speed up a bit. He finally reached the dike, but had some trouble as he tried to get out. I ran down and helped him up the bank, where he let me take that bird and shook off, drenching me. I didn’t care one bit.

We stayed there on the bank together while he rested, and after about ten minutes, he seemed ready to go. My friends kept heaping praise on Coffee and saying that was one of the longest retrieves they had ever seen. As we walked out along the dike, Coffee made it about a hundred yards and sat down.

I didn’t realize it at first, and walked another ten or 15 yards before I stopped to make sure he was still with me. He sat there and when I called to him he got up and started to come, but made it only a few steps. He sat down, and stared at me. I turned and walked back to sit next to him.

After enough years of hunting, there comes a time in every dog’s life when its body just can’t take the punishment. This was Coffee’s. His mind was willing, but he just couldn’t take the pain anymore. Coffee put his head on my shoulder. Guilty tears started flowing, and we sat there on that dike, watching a flight of mallards pass overhead. He and I were a team—he was a friend—but time doesn’t stop for any of us, good dogs least of all.