Years ago, soon after my preschool-aged sons wrestled her from a litter of squirming black pups, I'd told myself she was just a retriever.  But a very good one she turned out to be.  At 9 years old, and with 7-and-a-half seasons under her belt, she delivered to hand many thousands of documented birds to hand.  I can remember Delta Retrieves Number 5,000 like it was yesterday. Ducks and geese from across North America mostly, but also a fair share of doves, snipes, pheasants.  One summer we'd pulled down the water in a slough to broadcast jap millet in knee-deep mud.  That was the day she proudly brought to hand a large, frog-green bowfin she'd found in the murkey tailwater.  Among the lifetime tally were countless firsts: ducks, limits, species and leg bands for my children who have hunted their entire lifetimes with a black dog named Delta.

Second only to the report of a shotgun, she loved the sound of aluminum bats hitting baseballs.  She was tireless in her job to retrieve baseballs during backyard batting practices.  She subsequently developed a penchant for round objects, and the back yard remains littered with dozens of round balls every size and color imaginable.  I'm sure we'll find them while working in the gardens for many years to come.

I learned over the years to let her out to do her business well in advance of cranking the 4 wheeler.  As soon as the 4 wheeler was cranked, she loaded up, ready for the day's adventure.  More than once she finished her business during our drive to the blind.  It became especially problemmatic as the boys grew old enough to share that space with her!

She lost her hearing about 2 seasons ago, rendering a whistle moot.  We worked it out, like the team we were, and it was actually alot more relaxing without having to blow a whistle.  She'd take a line and hunt the spot, looking to me for a hand signal only if she lost confidence in the area.  She rarely came back without the retrieve, proving time and again that her nose and hunting ability were far superior to my marking skills.

She seldom came inside until we were traveling.  If we stayed in a hotel while hunting somewhere, she'd find a sofa or bed on which to stretch out.  She'd usually earned it.  I woke up more than once being pushed off the bed as she made herself more comfortable.  Left unattended, she'd sometimes sneak onto a couch at home even though she knew better.

A week ago she climbed onto my bed at camp.  It was a first.  Walked in and caught her red-handed, sound asleep and softly snoring.  Lacking her hearing, she was oblivious until I reached down and stroked her soft, gray-muzzled head.   I couldn't help but grin and she couldn't help but slowly wag her guilty tail.  I had no idea at the time that cancer had completely eaten her insides.

I buried her with a greenhead this Saturday, precisely 2 weeks preceding the Mississippi Duck Season Opener.  Her final resting place is a lake site that sits in the shadow of a tall cypress where eagles nest.  The spot is framed perfectly in the pane of my camphouse window. It was under that same cypress that  an epiphinal light clicked on when she suddenly realized what her role in this duck hunting thing was all about.  Whether she's the best dog I may ever own remains to be seen; that she defines the very best decade of hunting in my life is doubtless.

Whoever said grown men don't cry has never had their life blessed with a retriever like Delta. That's the greater of two tragedies.

Ramsey Russell, GetDucks.com



Best Eating Waterfowl - Pacific Black Brant

Somewhere between second and third helpings of dinner last week, the Swamp Warlock, aka Jim Crews, and I intently deliberated whether Pacific Black Brant is possibly superior to South America's rosy-billed pochard as tablefare, which we'd long-since agreed was the best we'd ever had.  It was hard to take each other too seriously as we talked with our mouths full.

I've previously hunted Atlantic Brant in Rhode Island.  And because they seem to be widely regarded by many northastern seaboard waterfowlers as very poorly tasting (though formerly prized by market gunners), I've had no serious inclinations to shoot them at all after adding a beautiful pair to the game room.  I have no aversion to eating ducks and geese; we eat lots of them at camp and home.  Pot-roasted green-wings, smoked white-fronts, grilled poppers, blue-wing chicken fried tenders, and orange-maple mallards are favorites.  But when I learned that we'd be eating plenty while Hunting Pacific Brant in Cold Bay Alaska, I chalked it up to the roughing it part of the Alaskan bush experience.  I could not possibly have been more pleasantly surprised; Pacific Brant are absolutely delicious.  Likely the best-eating waterfowl in the world.

Pacific Brant feed almost exclusively on marine eelgrass, a perennial seagrass with long, beautiful, bright green, ribbon-like leaves, that flourishes in shallow estuaries.  Izembek Lagoon, which is part of Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, has one of the largest remaining eelgrass beds in the world.  Many square miles of eelgrass lay bare at low tide, and it's relished by voracious flocks of migrating Pacific Black Brant, as well as the Eurasian and American Wigeons that are proliferate to the area.  Once abundant in Barnegat Bay, New Jersey, and other northeastern US estuaries, an estimated 90% of the Atlantic coastline's eelgrass beds are gone, and this surely correlates to the poor palatability of Atlantic Brant.

Grilled Pacific Black Brant
Our Cold Bay, Alaska Pacific Brant hunting guides demonstrate that simple is surely best.  Allowing two brant's worth per hungry adult hunter, place in ziplock bag and marinade Pacific Brant breasts overnight in a solution of olive oil (or vegetable oil), garlic powder, and your favorite seasoning (we used cajun seasoning, but anything agreeable to your palate will work perfectly).  Place the breasts on the grill over high heat, cooking for a couple of minutes each side.  The meat is best cooked rare, no more than medium rare.  Remove from heat and serve immediately.