By Peter Spear
The beloved black Lab was showing her age, but I knew that if I could get her through the heat and humidity of our New England summer, I had a chance to see her hunt waterfowl and grouse one last season. Tess had slowed and grayed after her twelfth year and I felt lucky to have her, along with her daughter and a plucky-but-inexperienced granddaughter to rotate into the lineup, as needed. As Tess aged, I became choosey on which days and covers to deploy her.
She was born in my kitchen in a litter of two in December of 2005, the fifth generation of Labradors I’d bred. I was raised with Labradors and always appreciated their versatility. When, as a young man, I was stable enough to have a dog, there was no doubt what breed I’d select. But the reason that I elected to breed my own dogs was personal. I wanted to make my own traditions. I wanted the continuity of knowing the history and personalities of those preceding.
The history of some dogs, however, is especially memorable.
The First Retrieve
Ten-month-old Tess’ first-ever retrieve was short, but eventful. I’m fortunate to own a camp in northern New Hampshire on the floodplain of a 40-foot-wide stream, and it was there that my great friends Mike Evans and Loucas Tserkezis joined me for the fateful hunt.
I killed a juvenile woodie on the opposite side of the stream. The bird hung up in the branches of a water-logged alder and presented a blind retrieve for Tess. I lined her up perpendicular to the high, brown-water torrent, about 10 feet up-gradient of the dead bird. I knew the fast water was going to push her quickly downstream, but I also knew that once she got to the other side, she’d have a quiet eddy to swim back upstream. And, I was counting on there being scent carried downstream. Understand that both banks are high and essentially insurmountable in the immediate vicinity of the retrieve. So, once committed, Tess was in it, and on her own. Don’t get me wrong, she could get out downstream, but daddy wasn’t going to be able to assist in any way (short of hand signals) until she swam back across this small, but raging stream.
I lined her up and sent her having every confidence that she could handle it. She executed a spectacular standing broad-jump entry and was immediately swept away. She swam for the opposite bank, found the slack-water eddy, caught the scent and proceeded to pull herself through the alders until finding the bird. The return was anticlimactic but really no less spectacular because of the speed of the stream. I fought my way through an alder thicket to reach her, tears in my eyes.
Yes, she delivered to hand.
A Legend is Made
Tess had two triple-duck retrieves in deep water under her belt before her second birthday. She did things in the process that I didn’t even know how to teach. She swam past the nearer birds to find the far bird. She also swam past dead birds for the wounded one. And, on the colder of the two triple-retrieve events, she swam through drifting river ice to solid shelf-ice on the far bank and taught herself how to ascend such an obstacle. If you have ever ascended a swimming platform without a ladder, you know the drill.
Later, Tess turned back, looking for direction while treading moving, frigid water. I cast her back, and a fortuitous movement by the black duck stuck in deep snow within the cattails sealed the duck’s fate and Tess’ reputation as a remarkable retriever.
All of those retrieves were well over 100 yards long, and each took the tired dog downstream from the point of entry. To reach my side of the river, she had to enter a cove covered in skim ice. Picture a 22-month old dog with head high, flailing at the half-inch thick ice with her front legs, breaking her way in. Then picture it three times in succession.
At the end of the day I bagged her up in an old sleeping bag and hugged the dickens out of her to warm her up. It isn’t every day that a waterfowler takes an honest triple on late-season ducks, let alone having the dog get all of them without incident. I wish I had the whole event on video, but in a way I do — my mind’s-eye can replay that shoot anytime I want. I’ve wondered if that cold-water work wore on Tess later in life, but she never balked at the water’s edge like I’ve seen others do.
Another of her fortes was hunting close. The stream at camp can normally be forded in calf-high boots at select riffles, but not everywhere and never hurriedly. The ample ox-bows and alders assure excellent upland and waterfowl habitat. But, cross-river flushes, shots and retrieves are common. A dog that cannot negotiate water or be handled guarantees failure where I hunt. Pointers are classy and all that, but they are less than optimal in my home covers. I taught the youthful Tess to hunt close by hiding from her in summer training sessions. She soon learned to stay close.
Tessie lived to hunt; the species hardly mattered to her. Divers, dabblers, geese, pheasants, ruffed grouse, woodcock — Tess hunted and retrieved them all with gusto.
And so last fall, which I presumed to be her final season, I cherry-picked warm afternoons for Tess to hunt whatever game was available. We were fortunate to have great autumn weather.
One day I was hunting from camp with my friend, Kurt Olson. We’d hunt Jenny or Kate (Tess’ daughter and grand-daughter, respectively) in the morning, loop back and have a bite to eat. Then I’d air all of the dogs and retire the younger two.
From the very start, Tess was pretty sure that she was “on deck”. Now remember, she was old, arthritic, and bent with age. Yet when she heard the tinkle of the bell as I carried it to her, she couldn’t wait for her turn. You do not get dogs like Tess every year, and when you do, you sure as heck don’t trifle with their last season — their last chance at immortality.
We dog owners have all witnessed heart-warming performances bordering, now and then, on miracles. Tess had 13 hard years and was lame from a lifetime of busting brush, not circumnavigating it. I had kept her away from cold water for a couple of years. She was slower, but what happened when that bell slid onto her neck simply flummoxed me.
Five years washed off her face and pranced with anticipation to the “Honey Hole”: the overgrown apple orchard behind the barn. Invitations to the honey hole for humans and dogs alike are closely guarded and coveted. If there’s nothing to be found in the alder runs along the south side or the pocket covers along the north pastures or even the small island thickets sandwiched between the big field and the stream — there’s always a bird or two behind the barn.
Tess paused and turned her head back. She didn’t turn to face me, just partly, so as to maintain her focus forward. I could see her cocked eye, with plenty of white showing. The unspoken message was, “Keep up fat-boy because the party is about to start.”
With that, she plunged down the trail leaving me to keep the pace or be lost to my own devices.
What followed was … magic. Tess kept up a smart pace, but she was hardly running. She waltzed right past plenty of top-shelf cover, ignoring my initial suggestions to check it. She had, it seemed, preconceptions or real-time actionable intelligence on just where these pesky grouse and timberdoodles were. First, a woodcock buzzed into my opening presenting me with an easy left-to-right. I take no great pleasure in killing undue numbers of woodcock, as they are declining. But, when I’m breaking in a new pup, or in this instance, hunting with a favorite dog, in a perfect and well-known cover, on what surely was one of the last hunts of her life, I will happily sacrifice a plump woodcock. Tess easily found the bird in the grass. Then, I lay down with her in the mid-day sun and posed with her and the bird for photos. God help me, I loved it so much.
It was one of those moments that you don’t get every year or even every decade, but if you are self-aware enough to realize just how wonderful those rare events are, you are a lucky fellow. Tess wanted no sniveling melodrama, she simply wanted to be off to the next hot spot. You could never trust her to sit still whilst you were smelling the roses, resting or even reloading. Tess was always a hunter, and while I could and did control her, she did have her foibles, and sitting on her 13-year old butt with birds in the offing was not one of them.
We reset the chess pieces, with me on the river side, Kurt on the apple tree side and Tess in the middle. We had not gone another thirty yards when a grouse thundered out low, left-to-right. “Thundered” is a relative term to me these days. My hearing is shot and I wear ear protection on all hunts. However, the bird was close and I heard it, so in my mind, it thundered. This too was an open shot, but there was a far narrower window to swing on the bird. I missed with the first barrel and accelerated my swing with the second barrel, connecting (but not knowing it immediately) just as the bird disappeared behind a spruce thicket. It proved to be a mature cock bird.
Tess was on her game that afternoon, and we were two for two. A better man would have collected his chips and retired to the veranda. I didn’t want to quit; indeed, I didn’t want the day to end. We hadn’t yet covered a hundred yards, Tess still had a little in the tank, and everyone except the birds was having fun. We went another hundred yards or so and doubled back at the “Cherry Tree Pool”. There was no further bloodshed, but the old girl made three more flushes.
Give Thanks for Great Dogs
We got out several other days last fall and Tess accounted for more than her share of the wild bounty, but none compared to that momentous hunt during her final season. Tess died at home a couple of months later, about a week after her 14th birthday.
I count my blessings every day. To have a dog like Tess, fine backwaters and coverts to fawn over, old friends to share the moment and the legs to power through a full day …. well, if you are not thankful for such things, then you should get your head examined. We all have a “Tess” in our past or future, to sustain us. May you be blessed with such a day.
By the way, the “Honey Hole” is now named “Tessie’s Cover”.