In Poinsett County, west of Harrisburg, lay the headwaters of the L’Anguille River.
Near there is the clubhouse of the L’Anguille Lounge Duck Club, founded in 1992 by Pat Pitt and his sons Patrick and Stephen. This area of northeast Arkansas is home to thousands of ducks and geese every winter, so choosing the location as a base for hunting operations was easy for a dedicated waterfowl hunter like Pitt.
Pitt, a waterfowl taxidermist and retired chemist, hunts there every day of the 60-day season with his sons and other members joining him when they can. He has also hunted around the world, in the pampas of Argentina and the frozen tundra of the Arctic.
During his travels, Pitt has owned many retrievers over the years, as he believes nothing adds more enjoyment to waterfowl hunting than a good dog. Of all his canine partners over the decades one stands above the rest, a black male Labrador named Ace.
Chris Akin of Webb Footed Kennels in Bono had two outstanding Labradors in training in the summer of 2002. Akin had been on the lookout to find his good friend Pitt a new dog and he thought either of the two would fit Pitt’s needs so he called him to come and take a look.
“Chris knew I needed a dog with extreme desire, a dog that could hunt every day and pick up birds for several hunters without tiring,” Pitt says. “He had these two that he thought I would like, one named Boomer and the other Ace. They both looked like what I wanted; I chose Ace simply because he was a year younger than Boomer.”
Akin went on to make Boomer famous, his list of accomplishments among the most distinguished of any retriever.
“I know he could have done the same thing with Ace,” Pitt says.
Pitt left Ace with Akin over the rest of that summer so he could complete the dog’s training. Once that was done, Pitt took Ace home to get to know his new dog better before the fall.
Pitt and Ace soon became close.
“Ace had been a kennel dog his whole life until that point, he never had a friend before,” Pitt says. “All he wanted to do was retrieve. Every time I let him out he would grab a bumper and worry me until I threw it for him. He really was a machine.”
The 2002-2003 Arkansas duck season opened with Ace by Pitt’s side in the pit and ducks were plentiful. Ace made several routine retrieves that morning and then something strange happened.
A gadwall was crippled and Ace was sent to pick it up. He went straight to the spot where the duck fell and just stared at it while the crippled bird headed for cover.
Pat smiled as he told the story, “I couldn’t understand why he wasn’t going after the duck so I got out of the pit and walked over to where Ace was hunting. I caught the duck myself and dispatched it quickly and tossed it out in front of Ace. He immediately picked up the duck and we walked back to the blind together.”
When the hunt was over, Pitt immediately called Akin.
“I told him my dog was broken,” Pitt says. “He asked me what was wrong and he figured it out immediately. In those days Chris kept around 50 tame mallards on one of his training ponds. He would run dogs in that pond through the live ducks. Ace had been conditioned to ignore the live birds and retrieve the marks that had been thrown.
“Chris asked me if I thought I could fix him myself and I said yes,” Pitt says. “It only took me about 20 minutes working with Ace the next day and he never failed to bring back every bird downed from that day forward.”
Pitt and Ace continued to hunt together every season and their bond became special. Many Labradors have no problem being handled by people other than their owners, they are just eager to be out and hunting.
Ace is different, Pitt said.
“I never had another dog that focused on me the way Ace does,” he says. “He never leaves my side; if I stop while we are walking he will bump into me. His desire to please me makes him work even harder on every retrieve.
“I have had better marking dogs and better handling dogs but none of them had his heart. Even now at the age of 13 he wants to be out there with me on every hunt but his body can’t take that anymore.”
Pitt plans to continue to hunt Ace but not as much as in the past.
“He will probably hunt every fourth or fifth day this upcoming season,” Pitt says. “I have a new dog that Chris also trained that will handle to bulk of the work.”
Nothing illustrates the bond between Pitt and Ace more than the morning of Jan. 16, 2011.
The day began like any other, with Pitt and several other members arising early at the Lounge and heading out to their assigned spots in the pre-dawn darkness.
They arrived at their location, and found the water frozen in the field. The sun rose and a few ducks flew, but the conditions kept most of them searching for open water.
The action was slow and plans were made to hunt after lunch once the temperatures rose and the ice melted. During that afternoon hunt, around 2 p.m., Pitt began to feel odd, a feeling that quickly escalated into pain in his left arm and chest.
He called his oldest son Patrick who was sitting nearby in his truck watching the pit to see if ducks would fly before he joined his dad. Patrick hurried to a nearby ATV and used it to take Pitt to his truck.
At this point things were becoming worse as the heart attack Pitt was experiencing intensified. They rushed to the NEA Baptist Hospital in Jonesboro, where doctors and nurses had to use a defibrillator six times to shock Pitt back to life.
Luckily, the cardiac catheterization team, normally not present on weekends, was already at the hospital conducting a procedure on another patient. Pitt was stabilized, the team found the source of the blockage and a surgeon was able to open the artery with a stent which restored his heart function.
Meanwhile, Ace had been left with the other members, who decided to continue hunting once they had helped to get Pitt on his way to the hospital. Since Ace was there they naturally wanted to use him to bring back the downed game.
Ace sat in his box at the end of the pit, nervously looking around for his owner but still scanning the sky. The action finally picked up and soon a group of ducks wheeled into the decoys, shots were fired, and ducks fell.
“Ace!” was the dog’s command, but when the call sounded in the blind he would not move.
The guys tried again and again but Ace still wouldn’t move, though every instinct told him to. He continued to look for Pitt and became confused as to where his owner had gone.
The hunters finally gave up and started sending the other dog that was present. They reached their bag limits and called for Ace to come with them. He refused to move, certain Pitt would soon appear to take him home.
Of course Pitt never returned that day and Ace had to be dragged from the blind on a leash, fighting every step of the way.
Pitt recovered in time to hunt the final weekend of the season; true to form for a man that never misses a day. Ace was by his side and they had an enjoyable hunt. Pitt wanted to be there to see Ace retrieve his 7,000th wild waterfowl, which he did.
Pitt keeps meticulous records of every hunt, a habit he started in the late 1970s, so he has always known how many ducks or geese one of his dogs has picked up. The number 7,000 is huge for any dog; most never see a fraction of that in their lifetime but Ace wasn’t done yet.
Last season Ace was creeping closer to his 8,000th retrieve, 98 percent of which have occurred in Arkansas, and Pitt’s excitement grew on every hunt. Finally the day came in which the mark was in reach, but temperatures were well below freezing so the hunt was put off until afternoon.
Akin called while the hunters were in the Pitt and said photographer Mark Atwater wanted to come out and photograph the action.
“Mark is a great photographer so I was glad to have him there to capture the moment,” Pitt says. “Lounge member Rodney Talley was there that afternoon with me and he had brought his dog as well. Bless him; he knew how close Ace was and insisted that he make all the retrieves even though it is standard practice for us to take turns when two dogs are in a pit together.
“The excitement grew with every bird until we were there with one more to go. I was going to harvest the duck, which turned out to be a drake mallard that banked hard, making it a tough shot. Mark got out of the blind with camera in hand to make sure he had the best photos possible.”
It takes Pitt a moment to pick out Ace’s greatest retrieve.
“There have been so many but if I had to pick one it was the day he and I were hunting in some CRP grass,” Pitt says. “That grass was as tall as a ceiling and very thick. A drake mallard came flying overhead and I shot him as he passed and momentum carried the duck behind us. I thought he was dead in the air but that was not the case.
“I sent Ace into that jungle fully expecting him to be back shortly. When he didn’t return I followed his trail into the grass and I could see where he had crossed a ditch in search of the duck. I blew the whistle with no results; I couldn’t see him and he couldn’t see me. Finally I looked down the ditch and there he was swimming back with the duck in his mouth about 100 yards away. When he was about 20 yards from me I could see the band on that drake’s leg.”
Anyone who has ever owned a dog knows their love is unconditional, but owned may not be the right choice of words. It is more truthful to say dogs choose to be with us, to hear our laughter, to feel our sadness, to devote themselves in full to us for the duration of their lives.
A milestone is defined as an important event, a turning point in a life or career. Pitt and Ace passed a milestone during their journey together, a journey that hopefully is far from over.
They will watch the sun rise over the Arkansas Delta side by side until the end.