I approached this season knowing in my heart that this might be my old labs last duck season. She had passed the torch to my younger lab a couple of years ago and was just happy to be along. Unfortunately, she passed suddenly in May just shy of 12 years old. It was a tearful, painful goodbye as we all remeberbered what a huge part of our family she had been and all of the adventures she had accompanied us on. We had her cremated and made plans to take her along for her last duck hunt September 1.
I loaded some of Sage's ash in four 12ga shells this week. I was excited for the opener....looking forward to the dark marsh coming alive, the smells, the changing light, the anticipation of the first birds...but this year all of that was secondary to saying goodbye to Sage. My wife took off from work, my boys skipped school, and we all hiked back to the blind we had shared so many mornings with her. Everyone loaded an ash shell in the chamber and live rounds behind. We agreed that if a single came in we'd send it on its way with an ash cloud and Sage's spirit chasing it. If it was multiple birds one would escape and the rest were fair game.
Everyone that was out this morning shared a beautiful, calm morning watching the distant sunrise light the clouds from below. LST came and went without anyone in the area shooting early. Eventually the surrounding marsh came alive with occasional shots. Three mallards dropped out of the cool morning air near our set up and I called the shot. The four of us sent ash flying and my boys continued with live rounds dropping a fat mallard in the pond. I looked around taking in the moment.....an amazing sky, ripples on the pond from the mallard hitting hard, my boys turning to men, tears streaming down my wife's face, and knowing I had made my old dog smile and wag her tail.
The morning continued with a couple of more ups and a couple of more birds in the bag. As the flight slowed I called all of us to the edge of the pond. Our young dog held back knowing something wasn't quite right, or maybe saying goodbye in her own way. We thanked Sage for her time with us, reminded ourselves and her that she'd always be with us in spirit and memory, and asked her to steer a few birds our way or to whisper in the ear of our younger lab if she struggles to find a downed bird. We each took a turn spreading the remaining ash and each tossed a Milkbone into the water as we said goodbye to an incredible bird dog.
If waterfowlers had the ability to invent anything I'm sure great bird dogs that could live forever would be high on the list. Unfortunately, we all grow older and our dogs lead the way down that path. I feel fortunate to have hunted in many places with Sage and thankful she could accompany us on one last hunt this morning.