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A Hunter’s Better Half

The incredible bond between a duck hunter and his dog.

By David Sikes

Discuss fine retrievers long enough with veteran Rockport dog trainer and bird hunter Jim Remley and he’ll return often to the phrase “deep understanding.”

Remley struggles when he tries to explain it but insists it’s an almost spiritual (and definitely reciprocal) connection he’s shared with certain dogs during a passion spanning 50 years. Remley’s ardor flies in the face of an oft-held notion that hunters consider their four-legged field companions merely employees or work dogs. Over the years, Remley says, he’s witnessed very few examples of such “all-business” relationships. Perhaps they can be observed in a field trial setting, but only rarely in a hunting blind or bird pasture.

In the Coastal Bend, arguably the center of coastal waterfowl hunting in Texas, the dense per capita Labrador retriever population may not be record-setting, but it is undeniably impressive. Many of those yellow, black and chocolate companions belong to hunters who can recall roughly (many times precisely) how many birds their Labs retrieved the previous season. They can tell you the pup’s total tally to date; it’s written in their journals.

Remley has never placed much importance on such records, which he doesn’t track. After training and owning countless hunting dogs during his 72 years, he prefers to recall the ones he’s allowed fully into his heart. When pressed, Remley counts only four in this elite class. A fifth candidate now begs for a spot on the list. Remley got a puppy in June.

Rob Sawyer, author of A Hundred Years of Texas Waterfowl Hunting, has an explanation for why old men keep getting new puppies.

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“I interviewed dozens of men, and it was common for many to tear up when they spoke of two things — their fathers and their hunting dogs,” he says. “I thought about this bond and thought about my own bond and finally figured it out. Old men have buried their parents and raised their children. But there’s still some love in their hearts. It’s this love they bestow on their hunting dogs. And their dogs give it back.”

Remley can talk about this give-and-take arrangement for hours with a smile, a twinkle in his eye and occasionally a tear about those special four, all Labradors. The first was Kareem, a black male that Remley paid $500 for in 1990, a time when Labs were going for $50. At 9 months old, the stubborn pup refused to retrieve or return with a training dummy or bumper. Remley’s disappointment led him to a trainer who introduced him to a technique called voice training for retrievers. It worked so well that Kareem and Remley remained inseparable for the next 12 years.

In Remley’s eyes, Kareem’s apex achievement came early in their relationship during a Port Bay duck hunt. Remley and a hunting partner faced 25 mph winds punctuated by sharp gusts that churned the bay and created whitecaps cresting at three feet. A few ducks were flying that morning; several came within shotgun range. One of the men downed a bird, but it wasn’t a solid hit, and the crippled duck coasted for 300 to 400 yards.

Kareem would not be denied. The young Lab was in pursuit before the duck hit the water. Nobody even saw the bird splash into the bay; it simply disappeared in the distance. Remley didn’t have a good feeling about his dog going after a bird like this.

The minutes ticked slowly as his stomach muscles tightened. A half-hour passed, but there was little anyone could do but wait in such harsh conditions. A full 45 minutes went by, and there was no sign of Kareem. Suddenly, a wet black head with a mouth full of duck appeared on the crest of a wave outside the blind. It was a 48-minute retrieve of a pintail drake. Kareem dropped the bird at Remley’s feet and collapsed exhausted on the floor of the blind.

“I figured he was done for the day,” Remley says. Not Kareem.

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Rockport dog trainer and bird hunter Jim Remley has trained and owned many dogs over the years. His new puppy, Lilly, is the latest.

Two minutes later another flock of ducks flew over the decoys, and birds fell. Kareem awoke and bounded from the blind. This time it took 35 minutes before the remarkable retriever returned with a duck. A longer nap was in store this time for Kareem, his hunting duties done for the day.

Remley refuses to accept full credit for reaching that most elusive level of understanding with his canine teammates. He believes Kareem’s intelligence, in large part, helped forge their connection.

Training can be simply described as an effective way of showing a dog what is expected, Remley says. Learning and even anticipating the expectations of the hunter is the dog’s ultimate achievement. Most dogs grasp quickly what it takes to please their human to receive the affection and praise they crave. The training has to be mutual, of course, for successful teamwork. Hunter and dog must learn to work in seamless harmony.

Remley says that certainly “good breeding makes good retrievers,” but he also believes that certain dogs possess uncanny insight that allows them to connect with a kind and nurturing owner.

Of course, there’s one more thing that completes the package of a great retriever … heart.

When Kareem was 6 years old, he slipped while leaping into Remley’s airboat at the end of a hunt. The propeller nearly severed his snout. The blow could have killed him, but a skilled veterinarian sewed him up. Kareem’s recovery was expected to take at least two to three weeks. Sometimes a man’s got to hunt, with or without his best dog. Not long after the accident, Remley was up early one morning, wearing camouflage and preparing for a duck hunt, a familiar routine. While Remley wasn’t looking, Kareem unlatched the backyard gate and jumped into his trailered airboat. When Remley walked to the driveway, his prized Lab with a swollen snout was standing on the deck of his boat, facing away. Remley called out. But Kareem didn’t respond.

“He would not face me,” Remley says. “He just stared in the opposite direction and ignored me. I had to climb into the boat and physically carry him down.”

According to Remley’s wife, Kareem stood in the backyard and cried for hours that day. Remley is convinced the dog’s whining was a lament over a lost opportunity to please him.

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The highest level of understanding between man and beast is rooted in the kind of mutual respect enjoyed by teammates and comrades in arms, Remley believes. To those who say hunters sacrifice a good retriever when they blur the line between working dog and pet, Remley replies with a resounding pshaw.

The perfect dog, he insists, fits well in both worlds. It can sit quietly beside your favorite chair or in front of the fireplace while you read or watch TV. But the sight of camouflage or the scent of gun oil flips a switch in an instant. Eyes brighten, the tail becomes a blur, and every eager canine muscle tightens with anticipation. That loveable loafer at your feet becomes a focused athlete with a single purpose, the better half of your hunting team.

Sawyer, a Houston geologist by profession and serious waterfowl hunter, savored such a relationship with Nellie, his Chesapeake Bay retriever. Nellie never missed a hunt and traveled for five years with Sawyer while he crisscrossed Texas researching waterfowl history, a trek that resulted in his second book, Texas Market Hunting: Stories of Waterfowl, Game Laws and Outlaws.

Nellie was a rescue dog with relentless drive. Sawyer enjoys retelling a story of their first hunt together. Like so many retriever brags begin, this one involved a wounded duck that sailed far across a pond. Sawyer’s eager pup followed the flight to the far bank. Sawyer and his hunting companions watched Nellie in the distance leaping alongside the trunk of a tree. Sawyer was the only one who did not laugh at Nellie’s unorthodox antics — which appeared akin to those of a squirrel dog — but he sported a wide grin when Nellie’s nose knocked that duck from the limbs of the tree and she returned to the blind victorious.

Nellie took her job seriously and was true to Sawyer and her breed, which is known for singular loyalty and an indomitable will to retrieve. But Nellie had quirks. She was not averse to stealing another hunter’s bird if she couldn’t find the original. And it wasn’t necessary that it be the same duck species. “A bird in the mouth is worthy of praise” is how Sawyer imagined Nellie’s logic.

Nellie also had a penchant for sparing energy during retrieves. She would race toward a downed duck and quickly capture it in her soft maw. The return trip, however, was not nearly as spectacular, swift or splashy. Sawyer refers to this as an undesirable — but tolerable — trait. He recalls one hunt where Nellie’s style was contrasted against the more typical alternative.

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“Three pintails fell, and almost as if it was choreographed three retrievers hit the water at the same moment and reached their respective birds simultaneously,” Sawyer says, laughing. “Two of them returned in a rush of water, while Nellie took in the scenery on a slow walk to the blind.”

On the road, the strong-willed and loveable Chesapeake was an asset to Sawyer’s research. Several sources who contributed stories and information for his duck books invited the author back for a second interview, but only if he brought Nellie along. On the other hand, the morning bell ringer at the Port Bay Hunting Club was not a fan. Apparently Nellie was offended by the club’s 100-year tradition of waking hunters with the incessant shaking of a hand-held bell in the hallway. She was not invited back.

“Nellie and I shared a decade together, hunting ducks and geese from Louisiana to Port Isabel,” Sawyer says. “She approached every new adventure, from hunts in heat to ice, from airboats to pirogues and ATVs, with trust and calmness. During her last hunts she went afield completely deaf, or mostly deaf, and her legs were plagued by arthritis. But she would never consider leaving my side. Our hours in the field are memories now, but fond ones.”

By now you’re probably convinced that some hunting dogs are more than just employees, but sometimes they work well as employees, too. Longtime Portland bird hunter Harvey Evans recalls his first Chesapeake Bay retriever, Taffy, who was a star as a hunting dog, but was almost as good at selling crackers. During the early 1950s, Evans traveled the South, convincing grocery store managers and shoppers that the competition’s cracker was not fit for a dog.

Evans and Taffy were a hit on the road. He’d set up his cracker-selling booth in grocery aisles with a box of Sunshine crackers on one side and a box of Nabisco Premium Saltines on the other. (Evans worked for Nabisco.) With Taffy by his side, he would open the Sunshine package and offer his sidekick a cracker. Taffy would turn away. Evans would insist the dog take the cracker, but Taffy was not interested. Then Evans would offer the dog a Nabisco saltine and Taffy would voraciously wolf down the cracker and eagerly await another. Evans would repeat his act for the entertainment-starved shoppers, who were then obliged to buy Nabisco.

Of course, Evans was an accomplished dog trainer who had conditioned his pup to never accept any food from his right hand, which always held the competition’s cracker.

“I could have put a sirloin steak in my right hand, and that dog would not so much as sniff it,” Evans says with a laugh. “But when a duck fell, they were all Nabisco.”


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