Two anterior cruciate ligament surgeries may have slowed him down briefly, but they never sidelined him for good.
Right now, age hasn’t done that either, but we know it’s a matter of time. It’s that way for any athlete past his prime.
Consider Woodrow one of those: a great athlete.
In full seasons of hunting, when the knee surgeries didn’t have him hobbling, Woodrow retrieved at least 400 ducks, 462 in his last full season. It’s estimated he’s brought back 3,000 ducks, hundreds of geese and even a beaver to the feet of his master throughout his career.
Those are Stan Musial-like numbers, if Woodrow were a baseball player, I suppose.
He’s just “Woodrow,” though officially it’s Woodrow On Mill Bayou. He is a wondrous black Labrador retriever that my brother stumbled upon nearly 12 years ago in Hot Springs. I proudly consider myself Woodrow’s “uncle.”
Frankly, for as much as my brother has hunted, I’m still amazed we went year after year and lost cripple after cripple (thanks to my winging shots) without a dependable dog at the ready. I can’t tell you how many times, when a duck escaped us in the thicket, that we both said, “If only we had a Lab.”
That day to have a dog finally came in 2001.
There was nothing about bloodlines that foretold just how great this dog, this athlete would perform on Mill Bayou and elsewhere, and my brother self-trained him, believing a bond is lost when the dog is sent off for schooling.
Woodrow turned out to be as docile as a bloodhound away from the ducks. When the ducks are circling, he’s a lesson to the excitable hunters (re: me) in the duck blind who gaze up at them or can’t keep still or quiet.
Then, the shotguns go off, and off Woodrow goes to bring them all in.
My brother, Stephen Harris, is maybe the most committed duck hunter I know. For at least 10 years, his urge to hunt the Arkansas timber at his private club on Mill Bayou meant he’d drive 15 hours nonstop from the northern portion of West Virginia to make opening day (we’re talking “opening day” of each and every split season, too).
Woodrow was always in tow.
The drive to hunt is much shorter now — my brother lives near Benton. But Woodrow’s time in the woods — and sadly, his time, period — has grown shorter.
Labs are lucky to live more than 8-10 years. A gray-around-the-mouth Woodrow turns 12 this December.
But I’d put Woodrow’s hunting career up against any dog’s. He’s quietly been king at the duck camp all these years, where such beloved black Labs as Dodger and Elvis and chocolate Chessie served their masters well before going on to their reward.
It was difficult for our friends to part with their Labs when that time eventually came, and even harder to bring on a replacement. Tuco, a 2-year-old, waits in the wings when for when Woodrow’s time is up, but he may wear out his welcome in the Harris hunting household before then. He’s as rambunctious as Woodrow is calm.
Last year, Woodrow went out to the blind mostly as a companion, and you could almost sense the disappointment in his eyes that he wasn’t frolicking in the water chasing ducks. At other times, though, his eyes said, “Man, this life of leisure at the duck camp is not bad at all. Bug off, Tuco.”
Like most great athletes, it’s not the number of retrieves Woodrow has amassed but the way he’s done it that amazes.
“The one retrieve that stands out, we call it the ‘flying goose retrieve.’ ” Stephen said. “We were on a goose hunt. We were on a levee and some guys from Illinois were out in the field among some decoys. A crippled goose went down about 300 yards from the decoy spread. We sent Woodrow out for him. When Woodrow finally winded him, he took off and the goose started flying, getting up about 20 yards away from him, clearing the ground. Woodrow took one big leap and grabbed him in midair.
“Those guys from Illinois, they all stood up and gave him a standing ovation.”
Another friend who was on that trip, Charlie Handy, said, “Stephen was prouder than a game rooster that day.”
Those ACL surgeries, one at Ohio State University’s vet hospital and another in Russellville, totaled about $8,000. Some dog owners would have put down their animal before spending that kind of cash.
The No. 1 reason Woodrow was worth it is obvious — a reason to which many other hunters can relate.
“He’s more than a worker for me. He’s a friend,” my brother said.
And he’s one heck of an athlete.