Marley and Me - A True Tale
Marley and Me.
It’s mid-August. Yesterday I saw the first set of limbs on a maple behind the house with a bunch of color on them and realized that, while we are still due for a long line of tropical storms, and sure as the tide, some will become hurricanes, fall is heading in. And with that, I am entering my 50th year as a duck hunter. The jolt of those letters just tapped out on this screen and strung together to make that statement…is disorientating. How is that possible, me…50yrs. a duck hunter? Looking up from my desk I can see the very first decoy I ever bought, a Gene Henderson Black Duck, for $7.50, at a one-room knick-knack shack at the end of a sandy single-track on the edge of the Pine Barrens in New Gretna, New Jersey. Not far from the Viking Yacht factory.
Some say Spring is a time of renewal, but for me it’s Fall. It’s when I start pulling books off the shelf, like the Outlaw Gunner and Prairie Wings, and I begin reconstructing all of those days in the saltmarsh into a kaleidoscope of memories that push me forward with anticipation and increasingly so, the realization that you just never know how many seasons you get.
This season I have a new gunnin’ partner, Jack. He’s coming up on his first birthday and I tell my wife that if he keeps chewing things up, he’s not going to see his second. She gives me “the hairy eyeball”, gets him a new chew toy and all is forgiven as in his next training session he makes me proud and my wife confident that I won’t go out one day and come home without him.
I sometimes look in his eyes and wonder if he has any idea of the burden he bares to be next in line of a long string of remarkable retrievers that have earned their place in our duck hunting logbooks. Rudder is the one that is most written about, his antics and photos all over the original Atlantic Rancher catalogs. That boy was one of a kind, hard-headed as they come, yet fearless in his pursuit of downed black ducks as he was wharf rats at low tide at our Atlantic Rancher office on Front Street in Marblehead. He lived out his retirement years on a nice little spread in New Hampshire until one day his love for the neighborhood garbage cans got the best of him.
After Rudder passed, I was without a true gunnin’ companion for many years. Then along came Marley. Yes, Marley. And before anyone gets started with the “oh, Marley, the cute one in the book”, I will admit that he had his challenges early on. The greatest of which was not of his own making. Marley. How could anyone name their dog Marley and expect the dog to be taken seriously out in bay? Hell, I know very personally what a curse a birthname can become…but that’s a tale for another time. For now, my wife has always named her dogs after singer-songwriters. We awarded our son Tyler the naming rights and his two choices where Jerry (Garcia) or Marley (Bob). And he picked Marley. Seemed like a good choice at the moment. Little did we know that Bob Marley was becoming his alter ego…and that’s also a story for another time.
The truth is that Marley had established himself as a champion welterweight long before “that book” was published. I never read that book but spent hours thinking about all of the possible ways to make it disappear. Anything to spare my Marley from all that would come from an unplanned and unwanted association with a fairytale.
All of the fuss over that book soon faded. But Marley it seemed was somehow aware of the predisposition his name held over his reputation as a waterdog. In the company of newcomers or not, it was as though he sensed a need to prove himself, to outdo himself every time he was out gunning. Many guys won’t get this…but I would rather hunt alone than with most of my options. The one exception is my wife, Victoria. I realized early on, watching her back up a boat trailer or thatching duck blinds, she was more useful and definitely more interesting than most others. And for me, the one thing I absolutely cannot stand is someone who sits in a blind and blabs on and on, mostly about nothing, just to fill in the spaces in between the natural music of the saltmarsh. They are like a north wind…just won’t stop. As Victoria likes to say…you should only speak if your words will improve the silence. And right she is about that. Hunting, fishing or long road trips…just cuz you think it doesn’t mean you have to say it!
Back to the duck blind, Marley was always looking up in the sky, seeing ducks way before any of us ever did. Shaking ‘n shiverin’ and glancing at us as ducks got closer, to get our attention and expressing a deep concern that we might miss our chance. And whenever we’d miss, the look of disappointment on his face was hard to ignore.
Retrieving doubles and triples down in standing corn or in a hayfield were fun, but just warmups for him. This dog found his passion and showed his mettle in the long, blind retrieve.
Once, we were gunnin’ a flooded hayfield on our place, a 148-acre peninsula surrounded by Samish Bay and an 8’ dyke that rims the property on three sides, keeping out the saltwater and making the land suitable for farming. It wasn’t much of a day, no weather but ample wind out of the north and a rising tide, which made ducks move off the water to feed in, around mid-day. A single drake mallard circled twice, we put some steel in the air as he was wings set / flaps down. An easy shot. So easy we missed completely with the first volley and only tickled him a bit with the second as he headed back out to the bay. Well, nothing lit Marley up more than a pissed-off mallard, wings cupped stiff and sailing over the dyke, into a north wind, out of sight and a hundred yards or more out into an ice-cold bay. Instead of running off wildly after the thunder of shots, he stood outside the blind, frozen like a statue and watched that bird with intensity until it sailed out of sight. Then, when the hard-drive in his head was done with its calculations, off like a rocket he went, straight as an arrow, across the field and jumping the 8’ wide ditch just on this side of the dyke. The last we saw of him was his tail as he disappeared down the rocky face of the dyke and out into the bay. I said to Victoria sitting in our “Condo” blind: “There’s no way that dog is coming back with that mallard.” Ten minutes passed in what seemed like an hour and I couldn’t sit any longer. As I started out of the blind, I looked towards the north and a hundred yards away, over the dyke like the Cavalry comes Marley, jumping ditches at full stride with ears-a-flappin’ and the fattest drake I’d ever seen, so deep in his jowls it nearly obscured his entire head! And the mallard...very much still alive which makes this retrieve all the more remarkable. Marley earned some very high praise that day and I am sure glad there was a qualified witness on hand to back up this story.
My Uncle Jack Scheimreif once told me a dog with a good nose can smell a duck on the water. For years I thought it was another one of his tall tales. Not until I first saw Marley out in the bay in 2-3ft seas, nosing his way to a floater so dead in the water I could barely see it standing on the dyke, which gave me an 8-foot height advantage, did I realize how true this all was.
As he grew older and his eyes weren’t as sharp, that nose of his sure came in handy. He knew it was a gunnin’ day by smelling the pants I put on in the morning. And if gunnin’ it was, he was all business: he’d head to his bowl and down a gallon of water then sit at the door to the garage as I brought out the gear. On the hour-drive up to the farm, he’d sleep in the way back of my old Range Rover…we wouldn’t hear a peep until we slowed and turned off the highway, and that’s when he’d pop up his head and start whining up a storm.
On one particularly good day, we were gunnin’ the bay from our dyke blind, which at the time, was a sorry excuse for a hide…a tangled bunch of conduit pipe framing covered with camo burlap and a few rusted-to-hell folding chairs with busted out seats. We’ve all been there. However, the lack of comfort and a good hide made no difference that day. As all duck hunters will experience at some point in their hunting careers, when the ducks decide they want in, nothing is going to keep ‘em out of your stools. This was one of those days. It just could not have been any nastier: 30-knot wind straight out of the north and in our faces on a flood tide. Waves were 3-4ft and breaking on the dyke with that wind made it very sporty. We had two strings of a dozen decoys each stretched out into a V, permanently anchored for season. Now I’ve seen broadbills come into the stools in big rafts on Barnegat Bay, N.J., but never seen mallards fly in such big bunches with so much commitment. They were easy pickin’s but the tide was dropping hard now and retrieving in these conditions was becoming a challenge. And did I mention it was cold? The bay was 45 degrees max. and the air temp. that was maybe 38 tops. Layer the 30-knot wind on top of that and yes, it was mighty nasty out there.
Marley was on about his 11th or 12th bird when he got his hind legs tangled up on one of the anchor lines about ten feet from the dyke. I knew he was in trouble when he let go of the bird in his mouth and he was no longer surfing in with the waves. He was hung up and the waves were coming over the top of his head. I stripped off my gear and was making my way down the rocks when the backwash from a wave created just enough slack for him to get loose. We should have quit then, but we kept going. We were now just shy of a three-man limit with two down out in the bay. After his 18th retrieve Marley was signaling that he was done. He ran back and forth on the dyke, sometimes sitting and barking, but he just wouldn’t go after ‘em. I learned a huge lesson that day and it was a turning point in how I pay attention to what my dog is telling me. That epic, and somewhat frightful day, stayed just between Marley and me for a long time. I’d often remind him that happens in the duck blind, stays in the duck blind. And that it did until one day, several years later, I mustered up enough courage to mumble something about it to my wife. Of course, not the whole story at first…just the bits about how proud I was of Marley that day and how many retrieves he made and such. And with every retelling more of the truth came out, kind of like pulling a bandage off a little bit at a time. It took a while and I think I got most of it out.
I wish I could say that Marley’s superior skills were all due to my training. And no, I can’t. After he learned the basics for staying out of trouble: the sit, come, stay commands, it was all his genetic framework and an unfathomable desire to please that made him a remarkable gunnin’ companion. What I can say is that, in the end, I learned a lot more from Marley than he learned from me. And now I am doing my best to transfer those learnings onto my training with Jack. Jack’s one year old this month and his training on bumpers is just about thru. Soon he’ll enter a new stage where he’ll begin applying those teaching out in the saltmarsh and out in the bay on ducks and geese. No different than rearing children…you do best you can while they’re young and hope that as they grow up, they do as you’ve taught them, not as you do.
Marley had a real good run. Even as he grew slow and had a hard time getting in and out of the truck, he still had passion and always wanted to go…I never went gunning without him. He gunned hard every day until it was his time, about two months after duck season closed. I don’t know where all the good dogs go. But I hope there is indeed a “happy hunting ground” where we all meet up again and relive these unforgettable moments.