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Ringside Seat for September’s Big Early Bird Show

I must admit, my early morning seat felt a little bit out of place.

After all, a heavily camouflaged waterfowl layout blind – something I’m entirely familiar with in December and January – is a bit of an unusual hide for a September wingshooter in North Texas.

Especially when that blind is surrounded by a sea of Canada goose decoys, in this case several dozen Real Geese and Jenny Vane silhouettes poked into the hard, dusty layer of Texas topsoil.

North Texas waterfowl outfitter J.J. Kent shows a September honker taken during the early Canada season goose season. Before the day was done, Kent's Labrador retriever Bo had fetched a three-man limit to hand.

North Texas waterfowl outfitter J.J. Kent shows a September honker taken during the early Canada season goose season. Before the day was done, Kent’s Labrador retriever Bo had fetched a three-man limit to hand.

But out of place or not, there I was a few mornings ago, wiping sweat from my brow, anticipating the aerial show to come.

A show that I hoped would materialize after the pre-dawn ritual of setting out a big goose spread, positioning blinds for close quarters shooting, and camouflaging those dirt-encased hides with layers of stubble designed to keep prying eyes of overhead geese from getting too wise on final approach.

Unlike the usual September fare of mourning doves and early teal, on this particular morning, the hopes of Pottsboro waterfowl guide J.J. Kent ( , 903-271-5524), his guiding sidekick Kelly O’Neill and yours truly were to dupe a three-man limit of early season Canada geese that had made a recent habit of feeding in an old, dry stubble field.

That we were hunting such geese in a field wasn’t surprising since the Lone Star State annually winters literally hundreds of thousands of the gray birds with the familiar black heads and gaudy white cheek patches.

From the small lesser Canada’s that flock into the Rolling Plains near Knox City, Haskell, and Benjamin to the flocks of even more lessers – and a fair smattering of the larger greater Canada’s – that wing their way over the playa lake studded Texas Panhandle, there is no shortage of Canada geese in the state each fall.

That’s true even here in North Central Texas where tens of thousands of Canada’s once wintered around Lake Texoma back in the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s before local peanut farming disappeared.

While the Canada goose flocks in the Texoma region are much smaller now, the birds are still a somewhat familiar sight in the fall and winter months.

Familiar, that is, unless you’re talking about seeing them fly over a September decoy spread.

That’s what we were hoping for this week, hunting these birds (which are legal game in the state’s eastern goose zone this year from Sept. 14-29) thanks to the recent increase in numbers of Texas born and bred Canada geese.

Some of those building numbers are due to migratory birds deciding to stick around all year while other flocks are building after introductions of Canada geese to golf courses, small rural lakes, and urban city park waters.

In most cases, those introductions have gone well and in a number of cases, they have gone too well.

Here in Grayson County there are at least a few hundred Canada geese – perhaps even many more than that – that live year round on Lake Texoma, other small area lakes and on some local farm ponds.

In a number of other North Texas counties, sizable groups of Canada birds continue to build there on various water bodies with flock numbers expanding every year.

“Resident Canada geese are found along the Red River as far up as Wichita Falls, with concentrations on Lake Texoma,” said Kevin Kraai, the waterfowl program leader for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, in a Houston Chronicle interview a couple of years ago.

“They also are in almost every park pond, golf course and lake in and around Dallas-Fort Worth.”

How many resident Canada’s live in Texas? According to at least one written report I have seen, TPWD estimated two years ago that there were approximately 15,000 to 20,000 resident birds.

There are more now – perhaps a good number more – since the resident populations in Texas continue to grow.

Thanks to this increasing supply of resident birds, TPWD – with federal approval – opened a special two-week long early Canada goose season in September 2011 in an effort to try and keep the population in check.

Until the other day, I had never participated in such a September early Canada goose hunt, which features a daily bag limit of three.

But that all changed when Kent called the other evening and said that he and O’Neill – who have enjoyed several limit shoots over the last couple of seasons – had found yet another opportunity to call in some flocks of the big early birds.

After setting out our spread the following morning, the three of us sat back in the blinds and waited to see if the various flocks of Canada birds roosting on a nearby sizable lake would fly out and feed in our vicinity once again.

Less than a half-hour after shooting time, O’Neill heard goose music on the wind and hissed for us to get down.

We closed the lids on our blinds, grabbed our shotguns loaded with heavy loads of non-toxic shot, and begin making a cacophony of goose noise with the Zink goose calls dangling from the lanyards draped around our necks.

As several flocks approached – and the noise built to a loud crescendo overhead – the first wave of geese passed by low, circled out wide, and then committed to the spread as they began backpedaling into the landing zone that we had created in front of our blinds.

Despite the chaos and confusion that came as the scatterguns barked and the big birds realized that they had been duped, we still managed to knock down a few birds from the first flock.

But not the limits that we were hoping for.

Especially since such early season Canada goose hunting can be a one-and-done type of deal.

Moments later, however, we were offered yet another chance as a new but smaller flock appeared on the horizon, circled low, responded to our calling, and dropped feet first into the landing zone.

This time, more of the big geese in the seven to twelve-pound range stayed behind and we moved even closer to our early season limits.

After that, there was a short lull in the action, something that wasn’t surprising since we were hunting September’s resident birds, not migrating flocks riding a north wind later in the fall.

But just as we opined that perhaps we were done for the day, O’Neill hissed again and we dove back under the cover of our layout blind lids.

Just in time, it turned out, as a flock of three Canada geese approached from high overhead; responded to our pleading hail calls, moans, and clucks; and dropped like rocks straight down out of the sky into the center of the spread.

When the call came to “Get ’em!,” O’Neill anchored a bird on the left, Kent centered the middle bird, and I upended the bird on the right.

And just like that, we were done with a limit of early season Canada geese in Texas.

As Kent’s retriever Bo raced out to try and bring the hefty geese to hand, we all looked at each other and smiled with grins as big as the Lone Star State is wide.

Because in a September that has been anything but filled with bird hunting success, we had ventured forth and found a ringside seat to enjoy one of the state’s newest – and most enjoyable – early autumn wingshooting shows.

A show that is tailor made for the big early birds that fill Texas skies each fall with their wild and haunting melodies.


On The Wings of a Greenheaded Prayer

If you regularly read the drivel that I put into this space, then you’ll perhaps recall the tale I reported a while ago of oldest son Zach bagging his first ever mallard drake during the most recent duck season.

And the super-sized smile that accompanied his first ever greenhead harvest.

What I didn’t tell you about is the disappointment that younger brother Will tried bravely to hide, a discouragement that his eyes betrayed because he was still on the outside looking in at least when it came to the mallard hunting fraternity. 

Welcome to the fraternity Will. We're all green with envy!

Like his older brother on previous hunts, it wasn’t a lack of effort that had kept young Wilbur from bagging green.

He had dutifully trudged afield carrying his 20-gauge shotgun, hoping that the duck hunting stars would align for him to finally bag a mallard drake.

Problem is, as I labored to point out in a previous tale, there aren’t nearly as many mallards in Grayson County as there were 20 years ago.

Or for that matter, even 10 years ago.

So while young Will had bagged his share of the gadwalls, widgeon, teal, and the occasional diving ducks that had hovered over our decoy spread, his brief waterfowl hunting career still held forth a greenheaded dream yet to be realized.

As anyone with siblings knows – especially when you are the youngest of those siblings – it doesn’t help when someone else in the family clan accomplishes something of note before you have your own chance to shine.

Especially when that first accomplishment seems to unlock the door for additional accomplishments.

As in Zach’s first greenhead harvest this season was not his last greenhead harvest this season.

All the while as younger brother Will patiently waited his turn, doing his best to hide the disappointment that duck seasons past and present were bringing, at least in the mallard hunting department.

So on the last morning of the 2010-11 season, I arose early and headed downstairs to awaken the boys from their pre-dawn slumber.

Come on guys I said. One more time afield before we call it good.

One more time for our routine of a quick Sunday a.m. hunt before heading back to town to meet mom and big sis in time for church services.

And with this final chance, I hoped, would come an opportunity for Will to punch his greenhead fraternity card once and for all.

After driving to our spot, shouldering the decoys, and hiking to the blind, there was nothing to do in the chilly early morning breeze but to wait.

And pray.

Which we did, something that we always do before the start of a hunt.

What we didn’t know is that on this morning, my wife Charissa, normally a sound sleeper on any and all duck hunting mornings, was already awake doing the same thing.

Beseeching the Creator for early morning success for the four boys that live in our home – me, son Zach, son Will, and the chocolate Lab Buddy.

Call us the Duck Commanders, Burkhead Boys style.

With all of that in mind, an appropriate question here is this: does prayer work, even when it comes to duck hunting?

I think so.

Minutes after legal shooting time arrived, hunting partner Scott Rozell looked up and whispered “A pair of ducks have set their wings and are coming in.”

A few feeding chuckles and a soft quack or two was all that it took to keep the pair locked up and gliding in to what would be the season’s last spread of decoys.

Gadwalls, I presumed.

Suddenly it was time and I voiced the duck blind pit boss’ command to “Take ‘em!”

When I did, a volley of shots came from the direction of my two sons. One bird fell, the other faltered. Then a shot from Rozell ended the winged drama and ensured that the faltering bird became a part of the bag limit.

Upon retrieval and closer inspection, my duck identification skills were suddenly brought into question.

Because laying there before us was not one, but two…mallard drakes.

Including the one upended by my youngest son Will.

Whose smile the size of Texas indicated that once and for all, he was finally a card carrying member of the mallard hunting fraternity.

Welcome to the club Will.

We’re all green with envy.

Goodnight ESPN Outdoors

DEC. 31, 2010 — They say that all good things must come to an end. 

Whether that is true or not, I don’t know.

But I do know that one of the best things to happen in the last 30 years to the world of fishing and hunting communication is coming to an end.

Tonight, on Dec. 31, 2010, as the big ball drops in Times Square and the official clock switches over from 11:59:59 to the stroke of midnight.

Ringing in a New Year…and turning out the lights for good on ESPN Outdoors. 

After nearly 30 years of outdoors television, radio, and Internet excellence, ESPN Outdoors went the way of the dinosaurs at the stroke of midnight on Jan. 1, 2011.

With that subtle move of the minute hand, a golden era of outdoors communication will end.

That era has included award winning television programming; radio coverage; Sports Center highlights; and some of the best hunting and fishing coverage that outdoors enthusiasts have ever seen.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I must admit that I am more than a bit biased.

From the spring of 2001 until the end of 2006, I served as a lead writer and an associate editor for

Then again from the beginning of 2008 until early 2009, my byline – and my paycheck – once again came from, this time as a hunting writer, BASS tournament writer, and a blog columnist.

All of which enabled me to have a ringside seat.

A seat for the final decade of ESPN Outdoors, an entity that sprang to life shortly after the 1979 birth of ESPN in Bristol, Conn. where the cable network began its meteoric rise to the forefront of modern sports consciousness.

After debuting in 1981, host Jerry McKinnis and his hour-long “The Fishin’ Hole” program would become synonymous with the rise of ESPN Outdoors. In fact, by the time McKinnis retired from hosting the show in 2007, only the nightly Sports Center  newscast would have a longer tenure on the network.

Over time, ESPN would continue to expand its outdoors television line-up, eventually filling up programming for several hours on Saturday and Sunday mornings with fishing, hunting, timber sports, and even Iditarod sled dog racing from Alaska.

By 2001, outdoors television had been recast on ESPN from an often localized mom-and-pop affair to a high-tech national industry that brought the best equipment; the best on-air personalities like Tommy Sanders; and the highest standards ever applied to outdoors programming.

So much so that earlier this decade, the ESPN powers that be decided to purchase the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society from founder Ray Scott.

That move would soon bring big time sponsors and propel tournament bass fishing into the national spotlight with a weekly Bassmaster Tournament Trail television program on ESPN2 to full-fledged wire-to-wire ESPN television and Internet coverage of the world’s top fishing tournament, the Bassmasters Classic.

The powers in Bristol also decided at some point to re-launch the small outdoors section on, turning it into a full-fledged Web site.

That’s where I entered the scene, being blessed to be able to seize upon a God-orchestrated moment of  being in the right place at the right time.

In a matter of weeks, I went from delivering local radio newscasts and writing local outdoors copy to helping men like Ed Scheff, Brett Pauly, Brian Lynn, Jeff Phillips, Jeff Rhoton and others launch

When the new site went live in 2001, it was something I’ve never been more proud to be a part of.

Why? Because it was a constantly updated product that I’ve often described as a cross between a real-time outdoors oriented USA Today newspaper and an Internet version of a full-fledged, feature based outdoors magazine.

While bass fishing was always been a huge part of ESPN Outdoors, deer hunting and duck hunting would also come to occupy prime territory in the ESPN Outdoors world.

That would occur thanks to television programming featuring Tom Miranda, Bert Jones, and Larry Csonka among others; to breaking news stories on the site about huge bucks and bulls; and the eventual arrival of Bill Jordan, David Blanton and the Realtree Outdoors gang.

In recent years, Steve Bowman, Steve Wright, Kyle Carter, James Overstreet, and Larry Towell would bring duck hunting to the forefront of ESPN Outdoors with live streaming of the World Duck Calling Championships in Stuttgart, Ark. and the annual continent-crossing “Duck Trek” adventure featuring good writing, epic photography, and breath-taking video clips.

But all of that is coming to an end tonight as the clock strikes midnight.

Earlier this year, ESPN decided to sell BASS to McKinnis and a group of investors and to pull the plug on all outdoors television programming except for a smattering of BASS shows.

And more recently, the Bristol giant decided to retire effective Jan. 1, 2011.

Bringing down the curtain on arguably the most influential – and in my humble opinion, the best – outdoors news and programming source of all time.

Again, I’m biased.

But then again, how could I not be biased about a job – and a passion – that allowed me to communicate the outdoors world by the written word, by photography, and by radio?

And a job that blessed me with the opportunity to travel, to hunt, to fish, and to meet some of the outdoor world’s most interesting people all the way from Alaska to Mexico, from New York to California, and from Texas to North Dakota?

And to work with some of the very best people that the outdoors industry has to offer?

So, with my bias duly noted, let me say that it’s been fun and it’s been real.

And now it is all over.

So long ESPN Outdoors – it’s been nice knowing you.

A Christmas Wing and an Answered Prayer

As he pitched the last block onto the tossing water, Jake Thomas heard a soft whine behind him in the wind-tossed darkness
“It’s alright, old girl. I’ll be right there” he called out to his ancient Lab of 13 years, a canine companion waiting impatiently on sore hips in the makeshift duck blind.
When he got to the blind, Jake – a retired veterinarian – had to admit that Susie’s hips weren’t the only old bones creaking on this Christmas Eve morning.
Sitting down on his hunting stool, Jake quickly unscrewed the lid from his battered thermos bottle, pouring out a stream of hot coffee bearing a stout taste that no “foo-foo coffee house” java could ever hope to duplicate.  
As he sipped the homemade brew – strong with just a touch of milk – the pungent aroma was quickly torn away on the building gale.
“Probably won’t be much flying this morning Susie-Q,” Jake mumbled. “Darned warm weather has shut the migration down. And the birds that are here, well, they’re probably heading for that young feller that beat us to the ‘Bulls-Eye Blind.'”
As Orion the Hunter faded overhead with the reluctant approach of daylight, a quiet buzz rattle through Jake’s blind bag.
“Who on earth would be calling me this early in the morning?” he wondered aloud.
He knew his wife Kathleen was still asleep, so it couldn’t be her.
For starters, she wasn’t much of an early riser.
And with their meager Christmas buying complete – a bad economy and a retirement plan sunk by the crash of Wall Street had seen to that – there was little doubt that she was not the one behind the electronic intrusion into Jake’s annual Dec. 24th duck hunt.
When Jake wrestled the phone from his blind bag, he saw that he had a text message waiting.
After fumbling at the buttons, he finally saw the message glowing in the predawn darkness.
“Dad, we’re stuck at the airport. The snow is getting worse and they say that blizzard warnings are going up. I don’t know when…or if… we’ll make it today. I’ll let you know. Love, Sam.”
For a few moments, Jake fought back tears.
“Lord, this is just too much,” he quietly prayed as he wiped the mist from his eyes. I want to trust. But I just don’t understand. This year has been so very hard. What are you trying to teach me?”
From the financial woes of a retirement plan gone south to Kathleen’s building health problems to the loss of a couple of very good friends to cancer, the current year had left Jake weary at best and numb at worst.
For the last month, however, Jake had comforted himself with the thought that come Christmas Eve, it would all be better.
By mid-afternoon on the 24th, his son Sam, his daughter-in-law Sandy, and his six-month old granddaughter Annie would have made the flight from Denver and would be in the family’s North Texas homestead celebrating Christmas.
But now, a snowstorm, a text message…and a world suddenly gone sour.
“Why?” Jack queried softly, his voice breaking. “You know, sometimes, I just can’t make sense of it all. This year has been difficult and now…now…well now, Christmas may be ruined.”
As he finished off the last of the coffee, Jake glanced at his watch and saw that shooting time had arrived unnoticed a couple of minutes earlier.
As he sat his cup down, he reached into his worn duck parka and pulled out three loads of No. 2 steel and loaded them into his battered shotgun as they snapped home with an oily metallic clang.
For a while, there was only the sound of the building wind, a southeastern blow that promised rain by evening.
Finally, a half-hour into the day, Jake heard the familiar whistle of wings overhead.
As he looked up under the brim of his hat, the aging hunter saw a mallard drake and a hen winging by 50 yards downwind of his decoy spread.
A quick highball from the cocobolo wood Rich-n-Tone duck call – old Butch Richenbach had built it himself – turned the pair of ducks as if on a string.
Soft feed chuckles brought them overhead for a closer look.
And a timely contented quack caused the pair to set their wings.
When the greenhead lowered his landing gear and slid into range, Jake mounted his 870 pump-gun and touched off the shot.
At the report, the greenheaded drake crumpled and fell into the middle of the spread, an easy retrieve for Susie.
As the dog waded back in with the mallard clutched firmly in her mouth, Jake was startled to see a piece of silver wrapped around the drake’s bright orange leg.
“A band? Well I’ll be, it’s been several years since I’ve gotten a banded bird,” he thought.
But upon taking the bird from Susie, Jake realized that this band wasn’t like any other he had ever seen.
“What’s this?” he wondered.
And then he read something that sent a shiver down his spine: “Jack Miner Foundation. Kingsville, On., Canada.”
Jake could scarcely believe his eyes – a Miner band!
As he twirled the band in his fingers, Jake saw an inscription on the band that caused him to stop and catch his breath.
That’s because he suddenly saw the Scripture verse that Miner bands are famous for bearing.
This one read: “I walk among you” Lev. 26-12. Year 2007.”
For a long moment, Jake sat there and reflected on the events of the past few months.
On his own wearied faith and his prayers looking for answers that seemed slow in coming.
And now, on a promise born from the wind-tossed skies above by the whistle of greenhead wings on Christmas Eve morning.
I walk among you” the band declared, just in time for Christmas.
“Indeed,” Jake mused. “Even in a difficult year.”

A Little Faith, a Big Blind, and a Bigger Buck

One of the ways that I earn Christmas money for the Burkhead household is by serving as the play-by-play voice of the local high school football team, the Yellow Jackets.

Friday Night Lights, North Texas style.

Recently, literal moments before beginning the radio broadcast of the Jackets’ 112th encounter against their arch rivals the Bearcats, my Blackberry buzzed.

In late October, that could only mean a couple of things. 

Casey Ingold may have initially wondered about the wisdom of hunting from one of the world's largest ground blinds - a barn - but he was no doubting Thomas after arrowing this Kansas big boy.

Either our broadcast feed had been suddenly cut off.

Or someone had knocked over a pile of big buck head-bones.

One glance at the “Caller ID” confirmed the latter as I received a text from my bowhunting brother Casey Ingold, an arrow slinging pastor from Topeka, Kansas.

The message: “I just shot a MONSTER!!!!!” 

By halftime on a storm-filled autumn evening, Ingold had sent the visual proof showing a big Kansas bruiser in more ways than one.

Along with the details of one of the more unusual hunting stories that I’ve every heard.

It seems that after a hectic week of tending his family and his flock, this pulpit version of Team Realtree’s David Blanton had decided to make a late afternoon visit to a nearby farm where he had a couple of stands hanging.

But a chance encounter with the land-owning farmer – and the empty yawn of the Ingold family freezer – changed any plans that the “Sermonator” might have had for the evening.

“Any luck Casey?” queried the farmer.

“Nope, not yet,” replied the right reverend. “Been real busy this week. You know, I’d be satisfied with just a doe this evening.”

Upon hearing that, the farmer informed Casey that he had seen a few does easing past his barn a couple of times over the past several evenings.

“You might sit down there at the barn and see if they happen to come by again.”

After all, as the New Testament tells us, with faith in Christ the size of a mustard seed we can move mountains.

Or maybe even fill a freezer with succulent venison steaks and backstrap.

So Ingold quickly exchanged his previous plans for a sit in a high hanging treestand for a now lengthy wait upon a lowly hunting stool.

A while later, Ingold was questioning his decision and growing a bit restless after no does had appeared.

But that suddenly didn’t matter anymore as my pal spied a terrific buck on the horizon.

Slowly, surely, the hefty buck sauntered his way a couple of hundred yards in the direction of the still disbelieving preacher.

Oh yee of little faith Brother Ingold.

But when the huge buck finally eased into bow range, my doubting Thomas preacher friend drew his bow in the shadowy recesses of the biggest box blind this side of Canada.

And when the buck paused within shooting range, Ingold sent the broadhead tipped meat missile crashing home.

An hour later, the Kansas man of the cloth stood excitedly beside the final resting place of a 150-class Pope & Young buck, his second in as many years.

A basic 10-point with a split brow tine, Ingold’s buck was big in the antlers and huge on the scales.

Ingold – who is a big fella in his own right – estimated the buck’s live weight somewhere between 275 and 300 pounds.

More like a side of beef than a couple of sides of venison.

But what else do you expect from a story about a bowhunting preacher hunting out of a big red ground blind…err, a barn?

And that’s no Double Bull either.

So what’s the tagged out preacher going to do now?

Watch the “Outdoor Channel” it sounds like.

“I hunted a total of one hour this year and I’m done,” Ingold said. “But I’m not complaining…for now.”

After two Pope&Young entries in as many October’s in the land of Oz and big whitetails, I would certainly hope not.

By the way bro, save me a spot in that barn for next season. 

After the home team took a shellacking in the Battle of the Axe, all I’ve got to say is that I like your version of Friday Night Lights a little bit better than mine.

Because the Kansas version of FNL is a bright flashlight beam casting its LED glow on the gleaming antlers of a really big buck with a 150-inches plus of headbone.

Put that up on the scoreboard.

Boomer Sooner Bow Buck!

A number of huge bucks have fallen across the nation so far this month as archers take to the field for the opening salvo of whitetail hunting in the autumn of 2010.

One such buck is a bruiser from the sleeper big buck state of Oklahoma.

Here’s what came attached with the e-mail that I received:

Not much is known about this big archery buck except that it came from Oklahoma this month and is reported to score "195 and change."

Oklahoma low fence with 52 inches of mass.  The story I got is this guy missed this deer opening weekend of bow season (nobody would have believed me).  He ended up getting another shot at him this last weekend at last light.  It scores 195 and some change.

An impressive deer, no doubt.

And not surprising in the least.

Thanks to the increasing high quality of bucks that Oklahoma has produced in recent years.

Something due in part to the state’s quality habitat, its good genetics, a lengthy archery season, a short modern firearm season, and a relatively mild climate.

And because of all of that, don’t be surprised to see a 200-inch typical come from Oklahoma over the next several years.

A typical that could possibly threaten to knock over the long-standing 204 4/8 inch Pope & Young Club world record typical taken by Mel Johnson in Peoria County, Illinois in November 1965.

And a buck that could cause the state’s battle cry to turn from the gridiron’s “Boomer!” to the whitetail hunting world’s “Booner!”

Maggie: I Keep on Loving You

The 2010 early teal season opened a couple of weekends ago. 

For the first time in 14 years, Maggie is missing from the author's duck blind.

And when it did, there was a hole in my duck blind the size of Texas.

Not to mention a gaping hole left in the recesses of my heart.

Red River Magdalena Sue — my black Labrador retriever for the better part of 14 years — was not in that early season teal blind.

At least in bodily form, that is.

But her incredible retriever’s heart, soul, and spirit lived on as wings whispered overhead borne by an early autumn breeze.

Blessed with an indomitable will to hunt, Maggie defied the odds for years. Every time I thought of retiring her because her hips were giving out, her eyes were going bad, or her hearing was shot, she refused to go quietly into the night.

Literally, I might add.

For at least four autumn waterfowl seasons beyond what I thought she was capable of giving, my Lab – the most beautiful girl dog in the world as I often called her – would raise her head and look up from her “canine den” beneath our coffee table.

No matter how quietly I tried to traipse down the stairs.

Once she was up at o’dark thirty, there was no stopping Maggie when she saw camouflage, cased shotguns, and a bag of decoys.

I tried reasoning with her, telling her to leave the retrieving chores to other younger dogs.

But if I dared to leave her behind, this quirky Lab – who had a thing for sleeping on the couch even when she wasn’t supposed to – would ensure that my better half didn’t rest peacefully after the front door was quietly closed.

And since it is totally true that if momma ain’t happy…well, let’s just say that Maggie understood how to keep herself in a duck blind, aging body or not.

Even if I had to lift her gingerly into my truck over the last few years.

Unlike my previous late hunting dog Molly, a yellow Lab who made some spectacular if not outright dangerous retrieves during her 13-year long career, Maggie wasn’t the flashiest duck dog in the world.

But she was perhaps the most eager retriever I’ve ever seen.

Almost from the moment she came home — purchased from a litter of pups that belonged to my good high school bud Jeff Camp — it seemed evident that Maggie’s spirit would not be stopped.

Let alone slowed down.

Early on in her tenure in my backyard, she discovered that she was a canine track star who could leap our fence in one single bound.

Over and over again I fought the good fight to keep her in the backyard.

And over and over again Maggie won that fight, cruising the neighborhood, winding up in the local school yard, venturing off to swim in a nearby creek, or saying a friendly “Hello” to every barking dog on the block.

Many was the night that I went looking for her wandering form, only to hear the click of her toe-nails on the pavement, the familiar jingle of her collar, and the sudden appearance of a black Lab emerging ghostlike from the darkness of the night.

And when she would show up in a streetlight or underneath my front porch light, her tail would be wagging and her canine smile would be a thousand watts or more.

Until I started scolding her, at which time her smile would turn into an “Oh crud! I’ve done it again!” embarrassed snarl.

Hence one of her nicknames: “Snarly Dog.”

One night, the vagabond Maggie was hit by a car on one of her neighborhood jaunts. Or more appropriately, she hit the car by running into its side as it motored by.

No worse for wear, Maggie’s wanderlust kept her on occasional adventures. Those trips were only curtailed down through the years by her aging body and her growing inability to leap the fence in a single bound.

No problem…she turned to climbing up and over the fence. And wandering the neighborhood some more. Before lying down on the front porch waiting to be let in.

Put Maggie in a duck blind however and there was no wandering soul.

There she was all business, the retrieving DNA coursing through her veins finally taking full control of Miss Mags.

So intent was Maggie at fulfilling the Creator’s genetic code birthed within her that she would creep forward to the edge of the frigid water — sometimes actually sitting in the H2O — to better mark incoming ducks.

Once a duck hit the water, Maggie was going to get it.

She might not do so in the most flashy manner. Or in the fastest period of time. Or with the best nose on the block. But nothing…nothing…would stop her determination to fetch ducks for the boss.

Take this last duck season on a chilly, blustery morning. With ducks flying fairly well, yours truly, my two sons, and Denison football assistant coach Scott Rozell shot just well enough to keep Mags busy on the final morning of the season.

And on what proved to be the final morning of Maggie’s duck fetching career.

As it came time to pick up the spread, to head for the truck, and to get to church on time, a wigeon found its way into the airways above our spread. And into our shot columns. And onto the water below.

But a clean kill it was not, which meant a difficult and lengthy retrieve for the gray-bearded Maggie.

It took her a while on a duck that kept repeatedly diving and finding its way into thick cover.

But slowly, dutifully, and thoroughly Maggie fought on.

Finally emerging back into the frigid water, her aging body willing her way back to our blind…with the duck firmly in tow.

It is quite simply a retrieve that I will never forget.

Especially this fall when the first waterfowling season I’ve spent without Maggie painfully unfolds.

Her body is gone. But her spirit lives on.

And as it does I’ll be remembering a tearful country tune.

The one that Reba McEntire crooned on the radio during Maggie’s final day on this Earth this past July.

“I keep on lovin’ you.”

Maggie, yes indeed girl, I certainly will.