The first year we took our awkward Labrador bird hunting he was, well, awkward.

He spent most of the season chasing mice, prairie dogs and rabbits.

He was lovable, but not all that useful in the field.

And it was fine. Tuco (named after a character in the “Good the Bad and the Ugly,” not the vicious monster in “Breaking Bad”) joined our little family unit first as a friend and companion, second as a hunting dog. He sleeps on my feet during the day and jogs by my side on the weekends.

He comes from good stock, certified by papers we never bothered to send in. And he is the sweetest, gentlest creature I have ever met. But he wasn’t much of a bird hunter.

He tracked down a couple pheasants in his second season, but when a rooster ran toward him instead of away, our 90-pound Labrador looked at us like he was being attacked by a pterodactyl, not a brightly-colored upland game bird.

I’ll never know why, then, he decided one day to pick up a pheasant in a beet field on a farm in South Dakota. Maybe it was because the other young dog with us was more interested in eating the pheasants then retrieving them. Maybe he didn’t like the competition. Maybe it just clicked. Whatever it was, a bird fell from the sky and he chased after it, picked it up with his giant, gentle mouth and brought it back, placing it at our feet.

He wiggled in the way dogs do when they know they finally figure out they shouldn’t pee in the house, and left to find another.

Two years later, he still spends most of his time running with me and sleeping on my feet. But in the fall, when the leaves change, the days shorten and snow dusts the ground, he remembers what it is he was made to do.

Follow managing editor Christine Peterson on Twitter @PetersonOutside

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A Casper native, Christine Peterson started as a Star-Tribune intern in 2002. She has covered outdoor recreation, the environment and wildlife since 2010, and became managing editor in 2015. If not tracking bears or elk on assignment, she's chasing trout.

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