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OUTDOORS COLUMN: Mourning an ‘outlaw’

Herald Outdoors Columnist

Herald Outdoors Columnist

She was as pretty a Labrador retriever puppy as I’d ever gazed upon. When I brought her home I looked at her and dreamed of faultless retrieves, obeisance to my every command, and enough field trial ribbons to paper a wall. Ah, such misguided optimism.

My adorable little otter-tailed black beauty sported a few long, unique strands of “whisker” around her muzzle. I named her Catfish. Not a really feminine name, but it stuck. It turned out to be an apt title. I would later refer to her often in terms befitting nothing higher than a slimy mud-sucking scavenger.

This lovely (and expensive) dog aged me before my time. Catfish proved virtually non-trainable and uncontrollable. Still, I kept her 12 years. Had I not, my wife and young son would have left me. They both loved Catfish with blind, uncritical passion.

In her early years, Catfish ate tennis shoes, footballs, and doghouses. She broke three teeth before giving up on her galvanized steel water bucket. She retained this depraved appetite until she discovered that my freshly killed mallards were palatable. She found these much more to her liking.

In the blind she never marked birds, instead sleeping until she heard my gun go off. Then she went off like a cannonball, often taking half the blind with her in the process. Following her launch, she swam in circles until I threw enough pebbles to direct her to the fallen bird. If she eventually reached the duck I was happy. If she didn’t devour it on the way back, I rejoiced.

To Catfish, a blast on my whistle did not mean stop, look back, and await further commands. It meant swim to the nearest beaver lodge, climb up, and go to sleep. On some occasions, it meant grab the nearest decoy and swim happily and playfully into the next county.

At home, she chased chickens, songbirds, and cats. She once caught a neighbor’s rooster, getting herself seriously spurred and almost shot in the process. I still bear scars from wounds sustained while removing a stray tomcat from her nose.

After every single foul-up, Catfish would meekly and innocently lick my hand, nuzzle my cheek, and look at me with those liquid brown eyes. Her expression said, “I know I’m crazy, Boss, but am I not the most lovable thing you ever saw?”

It was hard to disagree when she curled up on the truck seat beside me and slept with her head in my lap. This despite the fact she was riding up front only because she had earlier demolished her dog crate and had nowhere else to safely ride.

When she was seven years old, Catfish had puppies, the result of an accidental mating with a friend’s big Chesapeake. Of course, we had to keep one (God grant me the serenity.....!). The rest I bestowed as gifts to people I didn’t like.

At age nine, she at last settled down. For nearly two whole seasons afterward she was an adequate, if not completely admirable duck dog. She stopped chewing on birds and at least had the courtesy to wait until her leash was unsnapped before bolting headlong from the blind. To other family members, this meant her slate was clean, all sins washed away. For me, it was scant solace for nearly a decade of retriever hell.

Catfish has been dead nearly 20 years now. Her frenetic life ended with a peaceful, painless death. My boy, then eight, carved her a grave marker from an old cypress board. He cried unashamedly and seemed angry and upset when I didn’t.

Strange, had he seen me last evening, as I stood alone by the now-unmarked grave in the deepening twilight, he wouldn’t be mad at me anymore.

Go figure. I reckon it’s just a funny old world.