Retriever jumping in water. Photo by Mark Atwater

Mark Atwater


We all know people who make hard things look easy, whether it’s splitting the fairway with a 300-yard drive, running a hundred straight at the trap range, picking a Doc Watson–worthy lick on the guitar, or sketching a perfect likeness with only a few strokes of a pencil. They just have something special, an alloy of talent, training, and repetition that most of us don’t possess. It’s the same with retrievers. There are an elite few who set the bar, define what’s possible, and give the rest of us who hunt with dogs a standard to aspire to. They’re the rock stars of the retriever world. I’d like to introduce you to a few of them.

The Diesel

The Diesel.jpg

Illustration by Natalya Zahn

Name: Karl
Breed: Labrador Retriever
Owner: Shawn Stahl

I’m not sure I heard him correctly. Shawn Stahl is in his truck, driving back to his home in Michigan after a goose hunt in Oklahoma, when I ask him to ballpark the number of wild ducks and geese his 11-year-old black Lab, Karl, has retrieved over the course of his career.

“Probably 8,000,” Stahl says matter of factly. “And that’s a conservative estimate.”

You can understand why I think I might have misheard him. Of course, you need a pile of opportunity to put up a number like that, and Stahl, thanks to his job as the pro staff manager for Rich-N-Tone Calls, typically hunts Karl in eight to 10 states and provinces every year.

“You can put Karl in any situation,” Stahl tells me, “and he’ll adapt to it. He’s just so intelligent and level-headed. Very athletic too. Is he the best boat dog you’ll ever hunt with? No. But he’s better than 95 percent of them. Is he the best flooded timber dog? No. But, again, he’s way better than most. Is he the best field dog? Yeah. He probably is.

Mark Atwater's photo of the Labrador retriever named Karl during a retrieve.

Mark Atwater/

Karl’s owner estimates that his veteran retriever has picked up approximately 8,000 birds over his long career. The black Lab has experienced virtually every kind of waterfowling situation and, during the off-season, excelled in field trials.

“I like to say that Karl’s not a Maserati; he’s a diesel. He’s got that low-end torque. He’s gonna go as hard on the first bird of the day as he is on the last one. Nothing intimidates him. If he can see me, if I can see him, and if he can hear the whistle, there isn’t a bird we can’t pick up. He made a 620-yard retrieve on a Canada goose in Saskatchewan a couple seasons ago, and I gave him exactly one whistle. That was a long way,” Stahl laughs, “to carry a 10-pound goose.”

But here’s the kicker: For most of his life, Karl spent the off-season competing in American Kennel Club field trials under the whistle of professional handler Rick Stawski. He eventually amassed 27 1/2 open all-age points, qualified for two National Retriever Championships, and stood the conventional wisdom about field trial dogs on its head.

“There’s this perception,” Stahl explains, “that field trial dogs can’t hunt, and hunting dogs can’t run field trials. Well, when Karl took first place in the open all-age stake that made him a Field Champion and qualified him for his first National, we’d just gotten back from a three-week hunting trip to Manitoba. We literally had one day to train for the field trial, and Karl hammered it. You can’t take a field trial dog hunting? Yeah, right.

Still, in the same way that superstar human athletes are people too, at home Karl is just another member of the family. “My wife taught him to high-five,” Stahl says, “and she thinks that’s cooler than anything else he’s ever done.”

The Chip Off the Old Block

The Chip Off the Old Block.jpg

Illustration by Natalya Zahn

Name: Falco
Breed: Golden Retriever
Owner: Mark Atwater

It takes Mark Atwater a good five minutes to decode, for the benefit of a layman, the alphanumerical soup of abbreviations that signify the long list of distinctions that Falco, his eight-year-old golden retriever, has earned in hunt tests and field trials. It’s an impressive record, to be sure, but not unexpected when you consider that Falco’s sire, Yeti, was a legend in his own time. Yeti’s toughness, intensity, and rugged athleticism blew a lot of wrong-headed stereotypes about the breed right out of the water.

 “We call him Yeti 2.0,” says Atwater, a well-known sporting dog photographer who divides his year between northwestern Montana and southern Georgia. “He weighs about 60 pounds, he has that shorter, smoother, wash-and-wear coat that you want in a working golden, and he’s very agile. When I hunt him in the woods, I don’t take a dog stand with us; I just find a stump or a big limb that’s down and hunt him off that.”

Mark Atwater's photo of the golden retriever name Falco during a hunt.

Mark Atwater/

At eight years old, Falco represents all of the best qualities found in working golden retrievers—athleticism; a shorter, smoother coat; toughness; versatility; biddability; and heart.

Falco demonstrates this tactic in “Red Dogs,” the DU Films episode starring Falco and his full brother, Hopper. “That was a great day,” Atwater recalls. “We were hunting a willow brake in Arkansas right after a front had gone through. It was colder than heck, and the ducks were really flying. John Gordon, Hopper’s owner, and I shot limits of greenheads, and it was incredibly satisfying to watch the brothers work together. The icing on the cake was a long retrieve Falco made on a duck that sailed across a beaver dam. Falco swam out, crossed the dam, disappeared, and came back a few minutes later with the bird.”

Atwater typically hunts in five or six states every season, putting his dog in pretty much every waterfowling scenario imaginable. “Versatility is Falco’s greatest strength,” he says. “He has an ability to go into a situation he’s never been in before and adapt to it seamlessly and effortlessly. The first time we went to the coast to hunt divers was just another day at the office for him—and he’d never hunted out of a boat before. It was the same the first time we hunted flooded timber. He sat there like a perfect gentleman until I told him to go—and then he stomped on the gas.

“He’s really a best-of-both-worlds dog,” Atwater adds. “He’s got the guts to break ice and the horsepower for 500-yard retrieves—which he’s done numerous times on snow geese and specklebellies—but he has the compliance and biddability to work with me when the situation calls for it. One of my standards for evaluating a great hunting dog is that the handler disappears. There isn’t a lot of ‘Hey, look at me.’ There’s just a lot of the dog going out, getting the bird, and bringing it back. And that’s Falco. He has a big heart, a lot of go, a terrific personality, and he does everything with style. I don’t know what more you could ask of a dog.”

The Head-Turner

The Head Turner.jpg

Illustration by Natalya Zahn

Name: Beretta
Breed: Chesapeake Bay Retriever
Owner: Leroy Mulrooney

In Leroy Mulrooney’s world, a duck dog has to crawl before it can hunt. “Where I’m from on the coast of Newfoundland,” he explains, “there are no trees for cover. The environment’s too harsh. So when you hunt for sea ducks, you have to shimmy out to the edge of the cliffs to look down into the coves, and your dog has to crawl with you. Every dog I’ve ever had would do that, including Beretta. If I get down and crawl, she gets down and crawls.”

But that’s the easy part; the hard part is what comes after, when they’ve worked their way down to the wave-torn rocks at the ocean’s edge. “You don’t send your dog away from shore in Newfoundland,” Mulrooney tells me, “unless you have a rope and a harness on him. The swells are so high and the undertow’s so powerful that you need to be able to pull your dog right out of the water—or you might not have a dog to bring back. It’s the most hard-core duck hunting that anyone’s ever seen.”

Mark Atwater's photo of the Chesapeake Bay retriever name Beretta retrieving a duck.

Mark Atwater/

Chesapeake Bay retrievers were bred to hunt in some of waterfowling’s harshest conditions. Beretta brings that toughness and drive to her retrieving work on the Canadian prairies.

With Newfoundland as his standard for comparison, the field hunting that Mulrooney and Beretta do in Alberta, where he makes his home these days, is child’s play. As he puts it, “Anything at all can run out in a field and bring in a duck.”

Until Beretta came into his life—she’s four years old now—Mulrooney didn’t know that such things as hunt tests and field trials existed. He didn’t know much about training either. The dogs he had before Beretta, including her sire, Bear, essentially learned on the job. But Mulrooney got a helping hand from his new friends in Alberta and from Brian West, who bred Beretta’s litter at his Westpeake Kennels. West says that Mulrooney has “an intuitive gift for training,” and he’s developed Beretta into a Master Hunter. Along the way, she’s become the talk of the Canadian retriever community.

“She’s turning every head in Canada,” Mulrooney says. “She’ll mark a bird out to 300 or 350 yards, no problem. She’ll take a line perfectly. She does every single thing I ask.”

“Beretta’s a special dog,” adds West, who’s bred, hunted, and campaigned Chesapeakes since the 1970s. “She has a wonderful temperament, and while she has tremendous drive, she’s very biddable and trainable. She has what we call the ‘on-off switch’; when she’s not working she’s just as laid-back as can be.”

The Natural

The Natural.jpg

Illustration by Natalya Zahn

Name: Buck
Breed: Boykin Spaniel
Owners: Blaine Tarnecki and Dr. Ken Sellers

When Buck came to Blaine Tarnecki for training as a one-year-old pup, it took the Georgia-based pro about a nanosecond to see that the dog was something truly special. “You could tell,” Tarnecki recounts. “He was just naturally good at everything. He was a breeze to train; all I had to do was show him how to do things the right way. He was super sweet, he got along great with other dogs, and my wife loved him too.”

Once Tarnecki had gotten Buck’s original owner to name a price, he convinced Dr. Ken Sellers—a well-known Boykin fancier who was looking for a stud dog to head up his breeding program—to split the cost with him. Since then, Buck has become perhaps the most successful Boykin of all time in hunt test competition, and even after he’d earned every possible distinction, Tarnecki continued to run him.

Buck’s hunt test prowess opened the door to plentiful hunting opportunities, from the flooded timber to the coastal marshes. “When I was starting out,” Tarnecki reflects, “Boykins weren’t especially welcome among serious duck hunters. They had all these negative preconceptions about the breed. Then Buck came along, and all of a sudden people started calling to invite me duck hunting—as long as I brought Buck, of course.”

Mark Atwater's photo of the Boykin spaniel retrieving a duck.

Mark Atwater/

Buck is one of the most successful Boykins of all time in hunt test competitions, and his owner says this little dog has changed a lot of peoples’ minds about using the breed for waterfowling.

An invitation to hunt in Arkansas produced one of the most memorable hunts of Buck’s career. “It was the only time I ever saw him tired,” Tarnecki recalls. “It was cold and so windy there were whitecaps on the rice field. Buck picked up 11 limits of ducks and several limits of specklebellies—at least 80 birds in all. The last bird of the day was a drake pintail that sailed 250 yards before it fell. It took Buck six or seven minutes to make the retrieve, and when he brought it back he dropped it and just started rolling around on the ground trying to dry himself off. He was beat.”

Closer to home, Tarnecki tells of the time Buck followed a crippled drake mallard into a tunnel-like tangle of roots at the edge of a Georgia creek—and disappeared. “It scared the heck out of me,” he admits. “I waded across, ran down the bank, and when I got to where he’d gone in I could hear him breathing under the ground! Then I heard the duck quacking and flapping, then I heard Buck bark, and a little while later he came out of the hole with the mallard in his mouth. There’s no way a dog the size of a Lab could have made that retrieve.”

True to the Boykin’s heritage as an all-purpose hunter, retrieving ducks and geese is only part of Buck’s skill set. “He’s a heck of a dove dog,” Tarnecki attests, “and he’ll tree a squirrel pretty good too.”

The Butler

The Butler.jpg

Illustration by Natalya Zahn

Name: Carson
Breed: English Cocker Spaniel
Owner: Bruce Deadman

You might guess that Carson, Bruce Deadman’s four-year-old English cocker spaniel, is named after Johnny Carson, the longtime host of The Tonight Show, who for years was considered the king of late-night TV. But Carson the cocker is named for another television personality: Mr. Carson, the impeccably proper butler on Downton Abbey.

Naming a dog after a butler is nothing new for Deadman, a former DU board member who lives in northeastern Wisconsin. He named one of his Labs Jeeves, in honor of the P.G. Wodehouse character whose name has come to be synonymous with the quintessential British manservant.

“The thing about these characters,” Deadman explains, “is that while on paper they’re employees, in reality they’re the ones who are running the show. To me, that’s a perfect description of the relationship most of us have with our hunting dogs.”

In Carson’s relatively short career, he’s done everything Deadman has asked of him, proving his mettle as a retriever of ducks and geese on land and water as well as a flusher and retriever of pheasants.

Mark Hawkins's image of the English cocker spaniel named Carson during a training session.

Mark Hawkins

After hunting with Labs for many years, Carson’s owner made the switch to English cocker spaniels, which fit the bill for his type of hunting. He says that in some ways Carson was easier to train than his Labs.

“Last fall in Saskatchewan,” Deadman recounts, “we were strung out in some bulrushes, and I had Carson in a dog blind. Well, someone sailed a snow goose that disappeared over the hill. I sent Carson for the retrieve, he took off like a shot, and it was so dry in that field that he raised a puff of dust with each stride. It was like watching a cartoon dog. Five minutes later, here he came with the bird.

“On another hunt last fall, we dropped a big Canada goose in Detroit Harbor, on Washington Island in northern Green Bay. It was a windy day, and the goose was lightly hit, but Carson swam out there so fast that he actually got around the bird and was literally herding it in. He finally grabbed it by a wing and was not letting go, despite snagging a couple of decoy lines and my buddy’s German shorthair swimming out to get a piece of the action.”

Switching to a cocker after having a succession of top-notch Labs, Deadman was prepared to make some compromises. But with the exception of being a little more careful when hunting in extremely cold and/or wet weather, which the cocker’s coat isn’t made for, he hasn’t had to make a single compromise.

“In some respects, training Carson has been easier than training my Labs,” Deadman attests. “He’s a fast learner, he takes a line well, and he’s the best marker I’ve ever had. We’d sometimes get together with a local pro, Roger Hanson, to train, and after he worked his other dogs, almost all Labs, he’d say, ‘Let’s see what the little guy can do.’ Well, the little guy did pretty darn good. He’s just jolly all the time, which makes him fun to be around. Whatever that is, he’s got it.”