For the past 30 something years I’ve been busy building two businesses and a career in the sport fishing industry. What a lot of our social media and television fans don’t know about me is besides my lovely wife Mari and two awesome sons Zackery and Jacob, the love of my life are the family dogs and hunting companions we have owned, trained and cherished over the years.
Those of you who are dog owners will immediately understand when I say that the love of a good dog is a precious virtue and unfortunately also a fleeting gift. Perhaps the reason dogs love us so passionately and unselfishly is because God only allows them to grace us for a few short years.
I’ve been blessed to own a lot of very special hunting dogs in my life. Dakota, a male Golden Retriever was my first attempt at training a hunting dog. Thankfully Dakota was tolerant of my lack of patience, short tempered nature and naivety of how dogs think and behave. Dakota turned out great despite the fact I did just about everything wrong during the training and development process!
Montana, Tana for short, was also a golden retriever but a female. I had learned a lot about dogs and dog training before I purchased Tana and felt confident I could turn her into the dog of my dreams. Tana had other ideas. One of the sweetest dogs I’ve ever known, Tana would hunt, but not with the enthusiasm I was looking for. One of the biggest hurdles was hunting on cold and wet days. Tana would get cold and miserable and that was the end of the hunting fun as far as she was concerned!
On a long drive home from North Dakota after hunting hard with Tana for a full week, I made the decision to try another dog and this time I was going to invest in a labrador.
A few weeks later I purchased Raven, a black lab male who was owned by a gentleman who competed in national field trials. Known as a field trial wash out, I prefer to describe Raven as a year old “started” dog.
Compared to either Dakota or Tana, Raven was a super hero and immediately became our primary hunting dog, constant companion and standard as to what a waterfowl hunting dog should be. Raven made long retrieves, blind retrieves, double and triple marks look easy!
One retrieve in particular I remember vividly. We were snow goose hunting in Saskatchewan and someone wing-tipped a bird that sailed completely across a section sized wheat field before piling up into a few rows of standing grain the combine had missed. If the bird was an inch away it was more than 400 yards. I hesitated for a second to send Raven, not sure if he even could see that far. I glanced over at Raven and it was obvious he was locked onto the bird. I sent him and the entire hunting party got out of their layout blinds to watch the drama unfold.
Because the bird wasn’t visible I had to handle the retrieve as if it were a blind retrieve. A couple times I stopped Raven with a sharp blast of my training whistle and re-directed him with hand signals. Eventually I handled the dog right into the standing wheat and a few seconds later Raven emerged with that beautiful snow goose firmly in his mouth.
The entire hunting party gave Raven a standing ovation and it may well be my proudest moment as a dog owner and trainer. Raven enjoyed an amazing career, retrieving thousands of ducks, geese, pheasants, grouse and a pile of morning doves before passing away quietly in Mari’s arms at the age of 13.
Late in Raven’s life a new dog came to our family unexpectedly. My long time friend and training consultant Bruce Denton found himself with an accidental breeding that produced a litter of black lab pups. Because the breeding was accidental the mother was not old enough to be hip or eye certified. As a result the retail value of this litter was exceptionally low. (Continue below)
Mason Decoy Romanack was the runt of that litter and the only dog no one seemed interested in owning. Mari took an instant shine to this “under dog” and Mason found himself a new home.
The name Mason comes from my hobby of collecting antique duck and goose hunting decoys. The Mason Decoy factory in Michigan produced some of the most noteworthy decoys of the market hunting era.
From the day we brought him home it was obvious that Mason was going to be an over achiever. He was sitting, remaining steady, coming on his name and walking nicely on a leash within a few weeks! Mason breezed through basic obedience and quickly found himself doing single and double marks like a pro. Near the end of his first year he had completed the “force fetch” and “swim by” with flying colors.
During his first trip to Saskatchewan Mason had the opportunity to put his newly acquired skills to test. Mason came home with over 200 wild bird retrieves to his credit and as they say the rest is history!
From that point on Mason just continued to amaze me and my many hunting companions with not only his marking skills, but also his willingness to allow me to handle him and direct his movements for blind retrieves. Together we made an impressive hunting pair thanks to Mason’s natural ability and a lot of practice at handling.
Mason’s skills were so fluid that we started using him in various dog training demonstrations at consumer sport shows and also for dozens of Cooperative Extension Rural Education Days events. At these venues countless kids got an opportunity to meet Mason and actually handle him for a few retrieves. We called the program “Those Dog Gone Labs” and during a period of more than 10 years Mason was the undisputed star of the show.
Mason loved to show off for anyone who would watch, but hunting was his greatest passion. One retrieve in particular stands out as exceptional. It took place at Fish Point Lodge during one of Michigan Youth Hunting Weekends. I can’t remember if it was Jake or Zack, but one of the boys crippled a mallard that sailed out over a patch of flooded pencil reeds before crashing down. The water was just deep enough that Mason had to swim.
When I released Mason I knew the duck was crippled and making distance fast. Mason had a bead on the bird and wasn’t going to give up. At one point Mason had chased the bird so far we could barely see him and for so long I was concerned even if he caught the bird he would certainly drown. In a panic Jake, Zack and I pulled the boat out from the cattails where it was hidden and started after Mason as fast as possible.
When we finally caught up to Mason he had the duck in his mouth and was slowly making his way back to us. We pulled Mason on board and looked back to the spot where the bird was shot. It was easily a mile distant! That retrieve was more than 10 years ago, but Jake still talks about it like it was yesterday.
Not only did that retrieve register as something exceptional in my mind, it helped bond Mason and Jake in a manner that will last a lifetime. Like the time Mason retrieved a bird on Saginaw Bay for Jake and it turned out to be Jake’s first banded mallard! As part owner of Mason, Jake spent as much time helping with training and daily kennel chores as I did. And so the tradition continues.
The problem with dog stories like this one is they all have a sad ending. A few days ago Mason Decoy Romanack passed away peacefully in his sleep. At 13 years young, Mason never lost his enthusiasm for fetching or his desire to make the Romanack family proud.
I’m not sure what life will be like without Mason at my side, but I know with certainty the joy of owning, training, hunting and just hanging out with Mason has given me the most precious gift an outdoorsman can receive. Thankfully there are other dogs in the Romanack family who still need my guidance and love. Drake is a young yellow lab who has every talent a duck hunter could ask for. Stormy is a springer spaniel that might well be the most “birdy” dog I’ve ever owned or hunted over.
Jake is starting his own hunting dog a lab named “Kash” and the process is moving along smoothly and on schedule. At my age I know there isn’t going to be time or energy to develop many more hunting dogs. Thankfully I feel like I have enjoyed every canine opportunity God has provided for us. All of our dogs are special in our minds, but Mason Decoy Romanack will forever be my favorite.