She was a Phantom of delight, when first she gleamed upon my sight. A lovely Apparition sent, to be a moment’s ornament. – Wordsworth
When we first brought Phantom home in March of 2011, I was still reeling from the loss of my bird dog, Trigger, six months earlier. She was to be my wife’s dog, but Phantom had other plans. Right from the beginning, the little pup followed me around everywhere I went. She never stopped.
It took me awhile to adjust to her style. Phantom was a sensitive girl and took what dog people call a “soft hand” to train. Discipline required only a stern word. Phantom’s response to correction was simply to nibble on my chin and lick my face. It’s hard not to fall in love with a creature so full of love. She quickly became spoiled.
However, Phantom possessed a prey drive that belied her sweet demeanor. If it wasn’t human or canine, she viewed it as prey.
The second or third day she was home, Phantom killed a garter snake in our backyard. As my wife described it, the tiny pup snatched up the snake while at a full run, gave it a shake, and that was it. So began an ongoing crusade to eradicate our yard of serpents. I never hunted her in rattlesnake country.
I hunted her a lot, though. Phantom retrieved her first birds, doves, and pointed her first prairie chickens when she was only eight months old, in September 2011.
The drought of 2012 messed us up some. Birds in general were scarce that fall, especially pheasants. As a result, it was a couple seasons before I shot Phantom’s first wild rooster. She eventually became a good pheasant dog, but she was really an expert quail hunter.
Phantom pointed, and I shot, more quail than I ever thought possible in our eight seasons together. I had record year after record year, topped off by an incredible 2017-2018 quail season. And it was all because of Phantom.
Phantom didn’t just point game, she also retrieved it. Some say pointing dogs aren’t natural retrievers, but that wasn’t the case with her. She retrieved ducks, geese, doves, prairie chickens, sharptails, pheasants and lots of quail.
Phantom was also a great tracker. Her most memorable tracking job was on a Canada goose my dad shot. He’d actually dropped two birds, but his dog, Chester, found the closest honker.
“Send Phantom after the other one,” he ordered when we arrived on the scene.
She picked up the scent and was gone.
Phantom trailed that goose a quarter-mile down a cut corn field, then followed it into some uncut milo. When I finally caught up to her and called out for her, she popped out of the milo, gave me a look that said, “Follow me,” and disappeared back into the milo. I followed.
Phantom led me to the wounded goose, which was too big for her to fetch out of the tall milo in its feisty condition. I grabbed it and carried it back to Dad, who was elated.
I’ve witnessed some really great dog work over the years, but that remains the most incredible display of tracking skills I’ve ever seen.
We had some great times hunting, but my all-time favorite Phantom memory occurred during our trip to Canada in 2013. I was always trying to sneak Phantom into places I shouldn’t, which her stunning good looks helped facilitate.
It was only natural, then, that I attempted to take her inside the Chateau Lake Louise. We marched right in like we owned the place, no problem.
Phantom was an instant hit. She first met some young girls from Louisiana, who petted her lavishly. We then entered the main lobby, where I plopped myself down on a chair near the doors, Phantom sitting attentive at my feet like a little lady.
A few seconds later, the doors opened and a bus load of Japanese tourists poured into the lobby. They spotted Phantom immediately and went crazy.
The Japanese are known for their love of electronics. Cameras and phones were whipped out as the tourists started snapping photos of Phantom like she was a movie star. She savored the attention.
The Japanese are also known for having a different concept of personal space than us Americans. Next thing I knew, a teenage girl was sitting on the floor next to Phantom and leaning against my leg, her parents furiously clicking away on their cameras. My wife was taking pictures, too, and laughing hysterically.
The mom then leaned down to pet Phantom.
“Say ‘kissy, kissy,’” I told her, which she did.
Phantom responded by licking and nibbling her chin.
Her husband found this hilarious and started yelling, “Kissy, kissy!”
This sent Phantom into a frenzy, and she really started licking the lady’s face!
I don’t know how much English they understood, but they understood enough.
I laughed, and laughed, and laughed – and am still laughing six years later.
Unfortunately, our good red and blue days came to an abrupt halt last spring when Phantom was diagnosed with lymphoma. However, she took chemo and eventually went into remission.
Chemo bought us some more time together. During that time, we got a new pup, Komet, who is Phantom’s first cousin, to both encourage her and relieve her of some of the workload.
When hunting season rolled around last fall, Phantom was nearly at full strength. She hunted doves and prairie chickens in September, retrieved a duck for me on my birthday in October and pointed a pair of opening day roosters a few weeks later. We were having a great season.
However, by the end of November she started losing her appetite and weight. She had developed pneumonia, likely the result of a weakened immune system. We treated that, and by mid-December, she was back in field. When she needed a rest, Komet filled in.
On Dec. 23, I took both dogs hunting. Komet flushed a quail, which I shot and Phantom retrieved. Then we sat down by a tree for a moment to admire our prize.
Phantom woke up sick Christmas morning. We took her to the vet the next day. He feared the lymphoma had returned, and tests eventually confirmed it had. Plans were made to restart chemo.
Phantom continued hunting, though. On Jan. 9, she retrieved a big Canada goose for me. The following afternoon, I took both dogs hunting and shot a rooster, which Komet found. It irritated Phantom that he got credited with the retrieve, and she kept trying to pick up the pheasant and hog the glory while I attempted to take pictures.
In retrospect, at that moment the torch had officially been passed.
The next week, my friend Jason asked me to help him hunt a covey of quail behind his rural home. Of course, I took Phantom.
We didn’t find the quail, but Jason shot a barnyard pigeon, which Phantom happily retrieved. This was her first pigeon, and as she brought it to me, I couldn’t help but wonder if it would be her last bird. It was.
Chemo was scheduled to begin the following week on Jan. 21, Phantom’s eighth birthday. However, she woke up sick that morning, and the vet decided to postpone treatment by a day. That never happened. The next morning, Phantom passed away quietly at our home, in our bedroom, of her own accord.
My daughter, my Phantom, my delight, was gone. What had been a brief but beautiful dream was over. That God made such a lovely and compassionate creature and entrusted her into my care, if only for an instant, is beyond my comprehension.
Komet and I will carry on her hunting legacy this fall.
Everyone who knew Phantom will carry the love she so freely gave to each of us within our hearts forever. She was a momentary ornament in our otherwise ordinary lives.
May we all mimic the kindness she exemplified. That is her true legacy.
Jarrod Spilger writes about the outdoors for the Independent.