By Kurt Krueger
Katie, age 14, holds big rooster that had been winged and gave her quite workout, but she was no worse for the wear. -Photo By The Author
A SPECIAL event occurred just after Thanksgiving that can only be recorded here, for there is no other venue with which to document the joyous moment when an aging retriever showed she’s still got what it takes.
It was just three days before Katie turned 14 that we were back in Laona chasing pheasants, the scribbler and son Steve partaking in what has become our traditional black Friday hunt.
Katie hasn’t hunted much since the end of her 12th season, when issues with heart disease and lung capacity made the exertion of grouse and pheasant hunting too much to bear.
It’s been a tough two years because the dog that gave me so much still has the drive to hunt, almost knocking me off my chair every time I lace up a pair of hunting boots. Tail wagging, she watches me open the basement door to the garage and leave without her, gun in hand and a puppy named Gracie in tow.
But Steve and I were not going to disappoint her on our annual trek to Heritage Hunt Club, not when we could give her a somewhat controlled chance to flush a rooster pheasant and lock her jaws around a big bird once again.
We knew there was some risk of injury or even death for a dog of that age, depending on how that first walk developed, but the decision seemed so easy when I thought about all the times she had to watch me put Gracie in the truck and drive away without her.
We loaded both dogs into the truck. When we arrived in Laona, it was Katie’s turn to shine. I lifted her off the tailgate and Gracie was whining in protest, stuck in her kennel for a few minutes. I believe I saw Katie smile over the turn of events, but it could be just my imagination.
So there was our 14-year-old retriever, in her glory, hitting the cover of a golden sorghum field with her nose to the wind. Her hearing is poor and her eyesight not much better, but the nose for bird scent has never showed signs of aging.
Halfway down the 300-yard field, Katie hit hot scent. She took the track like a minesweeper, tail wagging in excitement, doing what she has always done so well. And she was not disappointed.
A monster of a rooster exploded just out of her reach, cackling for all it was worth. One shot from the 20-gauge sent the bird toward the ground, but it wasn’t much of a hit.
And the chase was on.
If we hadn’t seen it with our own eyes, I never would have believed what transpired. Katie was running down a winged rooster, and it took her 30 yards in the short grass just to get close. The bird ducked, and she rolled right over the top of it, missing.
The chase turned 180 degrees, the rooster gaining ground at first, but the old dog was determined. She caught up again, about 40 yards later, and the rooster ducked. She rolled over it again.
The third time is a charm, they say, and it worked here. Though breathing hard and doing what looked more like a fast trot than a run, Katie caught up to the bird again. There was no fooling her this time. She made the grab.
I’m not sure which was more powerful for Katie at the moment, exhaustion or excitement, but she strutted around with that bird in her mouth for a couple of minutes. She was in no hurry to deliver it to me, and we just headed back toward the truck.
She brought it to me, eventually, and won the praise of her master. Her breathing was coarse as she took a drink of water before being loaded back into the kennel. It was Gracie’s turn.
When we returned later to the truck, Katie was sleeping so soundly that she barely opened her eyes when I opened the back window to store away some more pheasants. There was no whining to return to the field. She had had enough.
The bittersweet emotions of the moment are only too obvious for dog owners who’ve experienced the loss of man’s best friend. There’s a good chance that it was her last hunt — her last retrieve. And though expected at 14, that still hurts in a deep way.
What can I say. We really get attached to these dogs, hunters and nonhunters alike. They are loyal and trustworthy and are always there to greet us when we arrive back home — tail wagging vigorously. Unlike a lot of things in this world, their devotion is constant.
As a hunter, I’ve spent thousands of hours in the woods with Katie. It was usually just the two of us for 12 years of romping in the grouse woods and through the pheasant fields. And even now, she’s a household companion to all of us, including the puppy.
We just thought that despite her age, Katie deserved that short hunt — that chance to do what her whines and nudges tell me she loves more than anything else.
It was the best birthday gift we could give.