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Even without the Wonder Dog, tradition must continue

Because his uncle's dog passed away this summer, the author had to work hard to retrieve these ducks, harvested during North Dakota's resident waterfowl opener, which began Saturday, Sept. 26. Tyler Shoberg/West Fargo Pioneer

The beauty of a tradition is in its consistency, but even in the most deep-rooted custom you are bound to find discrepancies.

For example, take the yearly outing with my relatives for North Dakota's resident waterfowl opener. My uncles, Paul and Jay Drechsel, are staples, as is my great uncle, David. Jay's teenage son, William, tags along from time to time (except he skipped out this year for some confounded UND fraternity initiation hoopla) and even Paul's son-in-law, John Sherlock, made it last year for his duck camp initiation.

Just as the people tend to stay the same, so does the location. Every year we drive our over-loaded trucks west to New Rockford, N.D., where we stay at the Bison Lodge. A smallish motel with modest facilities, it possesses many hunter-friendly features: gallons of hot, black coffee every morning, fresh loaves of bread available for toasting and a shack out back to clean the day's harvest of game.

Then, there are the dogs: the true workhorses of the group. In the past, Jay brought Duchess, an energetic, 12-year-old Springer spaniel with a tendency to freeze up in cold weather, and Paul brought Kodiak (a.k.a. Cody - a.k.a. the Wonder Dog).

This summer, while fishing for Devils Lake walleyes on a windswept shoreline, I received a phone call I hadn't expected for quite some time.

"Tyler," Paul said, his voice cracking, "Cody is gone. I had to put him down today. Just thought I'd call and tell you."

Cody, being the same age as Duchess, was an old dog, no doubt about it. For the past two years or so, as his legs stiffened and his sight and hearing began to fail, we wondered if it would be his last hunting season. But Cody was a resilient yellow Labrador retriever. With a body like an NFL linebacker, and a reconstructed ACL to boot, he continually surprised everyone in the hunting party by his long retrieves and keen nose.

This year, Jay left Paul, David and I to fend for ourselves as he took Duchess to hunt a dry section of land between our slough and the neighboring body of water.

Cocking an eyebrow, I glanced at my companions. "We better shoot the ducks close," I said.

There was an obvious emptiness this opener. In the motel room, it was one less dog to stumble over in the middle of the night. Standing in the cattails, watching the flocks of puddle ducks circle our decoy spread, it was the absence of the incessant whine from an old, excited retriever breaking the eerie calm of an early autumn morning.

The sky slowly melted from deep purple, to amber, to fiery orange. The first golden rays of early morn finally leapt over the horizon and ducks nervously flitted from pond to pond.

A hen mallard cupped into the decoys, only settling on the water long enough to realize something wasn't right with her motionless, plastic cousins. She flushed, quacking loudly to warn her brethren of the impending danger...

But too late.

Birds poured in, so close their zipping wings deafened like a battalion of windbreaker-clad mall walkers. Our shots blared and ducks rained down, plopping within 20 yards of the weed edge.

After a short pause, Paul spoke: "Well, I guess we better go get 'em before they float away."

The adage that you never really appreciate something until it's gone rang true.

The tradition of waterfowl opener now has forever been changed for my family.

Oh sure, we still will have the Bison Lodge with its coffee and toast.

We still will feast heartily on my Aunt Carol's chili and my wife Erin's famous wild rice soup.

And we still will set decoys and wait intently for the season's first flock of mallards to swing within gun range.

Except from now on, as we trudge through the knee-high muck and slop of some stagnant slough to recover our downed birds, a tail-wagging Wonder Dog will be looking down from on high, panting happily as he watches us make the retrieves - for once.