This is the story of a young Labrador retriever named Ben. It is also, and more importantly to me, about his trainer John Caldwell.
John makes no bones about the fact that even though Ben lives in his house, he is not his dog. According to John, Ben belongs to his wife, Sue. John told me one day in the duck blind, "If it weren't for Sue, we wouldn't have this dog." For the 22 years I have known the Caldwells, owning and training the finest hunting Labs in the land has been a major part of their lives.
Early on I made one of those shots that defy explanation. I killed two Teal with one shot. Both birds fell behind the blind in dense cover. Ben could not see the birds fold, much less see where they fell. The master dog trainer took his pup out to see how well he would hunt for dead birds.
"This is a first," John said. "We have not yet had real ducks to work with." In the past John would always keep a few ducks in the freezer to train his pups to retrieve and hunt dead. He was not prepared to have this pup. He was a gift from someone who had purchased one of Mud's puppies. "I hope he can find at least one of them," John said to me.
"Dead. Dead in here. Hunt dead," were John's encouraging instruction to Ben. I listened to how gentle John's voice was and saw how eager Ben was to follow the commands and to please his best friend. The pup worked like this was his 10th season instead of his first. It took about 10 minutes, but Ben and John returned to the blind with my two ducks.
John was quiet but I could tell he was very proud of his dog. John Caldwell is one of those rare individuals who make being around them a true pleasure. This is a man who is dedicated to family and as honest and forthright as one can be. He is the kind of man that I point to and say to my boys, "Grow up and be like John Caldwell. You can't do much better."
I had been deer hunting for two straight weekends. I knew John had been in the duck blind many of those days. On the day after Thanksgiving I called John to check on his success. His voice was solemn as he told me he did not fire a shot on Thanksgiving Day or that morning, either.
I said, "We should go tomorrow anyway." He warned me about our slim chances of success, but agreed that we should give it a try.
A very few minutes later two Mallard drakes gave us a look and we hit them with our best calls. John and I have shared many, many days together in duck blinds in the past decade and a half. We have a two-man calling cadence that is modestly the best I have ever heard. Two shots ... two splashes. Ben worked quickly and flawlessly.
We worked a couple of more small bunches of Mallards and doubled again on one bunch. Then, far to the north, I heard a goose honk. I grabbed my goose call and responded. When I saw the goose it already had its wings set and had filed its landing plan. The goose was not honking, but instead talking to us with short, high-pitched barks.
Every time the Canada goose would bark I would respond with a like bark. As the huge bird glided over our decoys, no more than two feet off the water's surface, I slashed it. I was on the north end of the blind and the goose had come from the north. I do not want anyone to think I am a game hog.
As John released Ben he said, "This could be interesting. He has never seen a goose." "Back!" the Master commanded his dog. Ben spotted the big bird immediately and went right to it. He handled his first goose retrieve as cleanly as he had done the four ducks earlier that morning. I could almost see my friend's chest swell.
John is not the kind to brag, even when it is deserved. So I did it for him. "That pup has done an outstanding job today," I said.
"Thanks," John replied. "I'm pretty tickled," he added. "I just can't wait to tell Sue all about it."
"I can't wait to tell everyone who reads my articles," I said. "I am excited that I was here to see it all. Thank you."
We ended a day that we almost talked ourselves out of with five Mallards, a Shoveler and a goose.
"You and Sue will have lots of waterfowl for your Christmas dinner now," I told John.
"I just can't believe it," he added.