My best fishing partner for the last 17 years was Bear – a Boston terrier I got from a shelter when I was in seventh grade. She was put to rest this winter, but my favorite memories with her came from our fishing trips. While she didn’t facilitate with catching fish, she certainly thought she earned a share of hush puppies and fish fillets around the campfire.
Bear wasn’t a sporting dog breed, but I treated her like one. As long as the adventure didn’t put her danger, she was at my side.
I subscribe to the philosophy that fly fishing is like a religion, or at least something more than just catching fish because I am skunked more times than I like to admit. There are rituals; it’s a connection with nature and a time for quiet reflection. So I was hesitant to take my dog along, and wondered if there was a commandment against it. But those first few tips when I left her behind, I felt disloyal. I decided I had to give it a try. Here are some things I learned on our journeys:
Teaching a dog how to behave at the river is a process. The first time out, Bear had no idea what we were doing. Were we playing fetch with the fly on the end of my line? Were we going swimming? Like anything else, it takes training. On the first few trips, expect to spend more time directing your dog than fishing (you’ll want to wait until the hatch is over).
Eventually Bear got the message that we went to the river so I could tear my waders, break leaders and occasionally dip my net into the water and she could explore the bank until she found a rock to rest on. There will be mishaps during the early expeditions, which brings me to my next point.
No matter how hot the bite is at a particular hole, my style of fishing is to avoid crowds. I want peace and quiet. This is good because your first few times out, you need a buffer between the dog and other anglers. I don’t know if taking a dog disobeys any fly-fishing commandments, but not respecting other anglers does. Bear was deaf, so we communicated by hand signals.
Even if my next dog can hear, I will train it to respond to non-verbal communications because my commands never bothered the fish or other anglers. Whenever we came across another angler, Bear would look to me for orders like she did wherever we were. A point to the ground next to me told her to stay by my side. Work on training your dog to stay by your side until told and respond to hand signals. This preserves the tranquility that we seek when we head to the water.
You may have heard the phrase, “There are no bad dogs, just bad owners.” I never ran across a dog on the river that spoiled my experience, but if I did, I wouldn’t have blamed the dog. A dog can be born with a poor temperament, but that doesn’t make it a bad dog. As owners, we know – or should know – the situations our dogs behave poorly in.
I haven’t researched if particular breeds are better fishing buddies than others. There may be some. But I know there are some characteristics that can’t be trained out of dogs. Some labs (not all) I know would not make a good fishing buddy because of their intensity around water. Maybe this passion can be tempered over time, but many of my buddies knew their pups were not angling dogs.
Yes, there will be times where a dog’s shoreline romp will encroach into your fishing water and fish may spook. There will be times they are going to take your focus off fishing. If you measure your outing solely in the amount and size of the fish you catch, perhaps it’s best to leave the dog behind. To me, a properly trained dog makes a bad day of fishing more enjoyable.
Now that Bear is chasing rabbits somewhere else, I still catch the same paltry sum of fish. But I find myself missing my fishing pal. I miss the way we both got excited when I grabbed the fly rod from the garage and put her in the kennel of my truck bed. I miss the way she would circle back to me and share in the excitement of my fly rod bending (although once she realized the fish was not yet cooked, she took off again). I miss us being both dog-tired at the end of a day spent wading. I miss fishing with a dog.
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