"Training" the "Perfect" Fishing Dog - Randall Bonner
Author John Gierach wrote book called, "Death, Taxes, and Leaky Waders," in which he says "People who claim to own "fishing dogs" are all blinded by love." I don't necessarily disagree with that statement, but he goes on to say that "There's no such thing as a good fishing dog."
On that subject, I disagree. In fact, I'm proud to say that my best friend just happens to be one. He's always ready to go to the river, he never complains, and he's always got my back (well, most of the time at least). There have been times when I've broken off my last bobber and he's swam out there to retrieve it on command. How many of your fishing buddies will do that for you?
The author and Wrangler with a fall steelhead from the Siletz River Gorge. Dawn Neva Gambell photo
It's quite possible that I've just gotten lucky, but I've learned a lot from fishing with him for the past thirteen years, and wanted to share some of what he's taught me (because that's how it works, not the other way around). Whether you're looking for a fishing dog, or trying to make one out of the dog you have, hopefully some of my experience with Wrangler will turn your canine into a good luck charm, which, for starters, is about as high as you should be setting the bar for your expectations from your canine companion. As far as your expectations as their provider and caretaker, be mindful of broken glass, hooks, line, bait, salmon poisoning, and traffic.
Wrangler is an Australian Cattledog x Australian Kelpie mix that has been the subject in the background of many friends who have fished with us and had successful days on the water. His signature photobombs are ironic to me, because in reality, he actually hates being photographed. He will shy away from me the instant he sees I'm trying to take his picture. His fascination with fish is an exception to the rule, and he weasels his way into the frame of whoever happens to be there with us, intensely focused on the fish. They say pets resemble their owners, and that's the only explanation I really have for this behavior.
Jacob Mikoleit and Wrangler with a fall steelhead from the Siletz River Gorge. Randall Bonner photo
Behind the scenes, there's plenty of "Hey, back up! Get outta the way!" He just wants to be where the action is. I'm fortunate that when the fishing is slow, he gets bored and stays out of the way. If we're on the bank, he'll chew on sticks or dig up a little bed to lay in, and keep himself occupied while we wait for a bite. If we're in a boat, he tends to hunker down somewhere, and everyone seems to forget he's even there. Once the net comes out, he's up and at 'em. Not really in the way, just attentive and curious. As he's gotten older, sometimes a fish will hit the deck, and before the hootin' and hollerin' is done, he's got that look like, "Yeah, another cookie cutter chromer. Wake me up when you join the dub-club." Then he'll wander back to his hunkering down spot and go back to bed.
Guide Matt Halseth holding a rare wild winter steelhead from the North Santiam River. It’s the author’s mother’s first ever steelhead (Julia Russo). Louis Russo is in the background. Randall Bonner photo
The good news is that there is such a thing as a good fishing dog. The bad news is that not every dog is going to be a good fishing buddy. Gierach says that, "Most of these beasts are retrievers that think they can do to trout what they've been trained to do to ducks. It may sound cute, but it's not. Stay away from people who take their dogs fishing." I don't know about the rest of you, but that quote hurts my feelings and makes me want to cover Wrangler's ears when I read it out loud. He just might be the exception to the rule. As far as rules go, here's a few to keep in mind:
Plan for a day fishing with your dog like you would a significant other. I would encourage you to read Josiah Darr's STS article on "Finding a keeper," and apply a great deal of his advice on relationships and fishing to creating a positive experience for your dog. Make sure it's comfortable, warm, and has plenty of snacks. Keep a positive mental attitude throughout the day and associate fishing with fun. If you're constantly yelling at your wet dog in the rain when it's 34 degrees after you've hiked a few miles into a river gorge, you're not going to have a good time.
With that being said, that is exactly the kind of scenario that is plausible after a 13 year relationship, but you've got to work you way up to that. Start small, particularly with your own expectations. My first trip out with Wrangler as a puppy was in a tippy canoe during the summer. Him feeling the boat wobble around a bit was a clue not to move around too much. He's always hunkered down ever since. If things went wrong, the hazards were minimal. Minimizing those hazards could be the difference between associating falling out of a boat a "Whoopsie-daisy" experience, or severe trauma that associates boats with danger and fear. Maybe by the time they're 12, you can tuck them under the bow onto a piece of cardboard when it's 28 degrees and pouring sleet in the Tongass National Forest, which is exactly what I did with fellow STS writer Tony Ensalaco while fishing the Situk in Yakutat, Alaska.
Wrangler and morels in Mt. Jefferson Wilderness. Randall Bonner photo
Prepare them for old age at a young age. Use hand signals along with your voice, because there may come a day when they can't hear your commands (or requests, depending on how you look at it). Hand signals are also helpful in situations that require some stealth. Wrangler began losing his hearing at 11. It got progressively worse, especially when we started doing a lot of hunting together, which is something to keep in mind if you want a gun-dog.
I'm so used to him following me everywhere that I tend to stay focused on the water. One day I was fishing a spot for an hour before moving downstream a few hundred yards, then realized he wasn't with me. Slightly panicked, I ran back to the spot I moved from, and found him there basking in the sun, sound asleep. While in his younger years he could hear a piece of kibble fall into his bowl from a quarter mile away, at 12 years old, the sound of rapids and the warmth of the sun in early March is like a lullaby to a dog that's too deaf to wake up to me beating brush.
On the note of beating brush, if you plan on hiking in and out of river gorges and having a dog that swims, runs, retrieves ducks and bobbers and hauls loads of chanterelles and morels in saddlebags while jumping over logs, you need to start giving them supplements BEFORE their joints begin to give way. Maybe not as a puppy, but once you start to see them reach their full physical potential in peak condition, start a vitamin regimen, particularly with glucosamine and fish oil. Avoid excess fats like bacon grease in their later years, as it can cause serious pancreatic stress, or even cancer. Those fish skin leftovers on your plate or the sinew from your buck are a natural source for those vitamins as well, and healthier treats than pork belly.
EE Wilson Wildlife Area. Randall Bonner photo
Choose a breed that you're compatible with. Retrievers are great water dogs, but sometimes their love for the water means they're going to be constantly in it. Hounds are going to follow their nose, and there's lots of stinky stuff for them to get into while you're fishing. A chihuahua is compact and portable, but is it really built for beating brush along the banks or being on an all day float in winter weather? Don't get me wrong, I've seen plenty of various breeds make excellent fishing dogs, but there's a few things about small Australian breeds that make them my favorite:
They're tough as nails. They're literally built for being kicked by cattle as a herding breed. They're going to be able to withstand poor weather conditions and putting in miles on foot.
They're agile. A popular breed for frisbee competitions and freestyle tricks, getting in and out of a boat without breaking rods and getting tangled in line comes naturally as those things are just seen as obstacles to avoid.
They're obedient and loyal, sometimes to the point they're neurotic. They're better suited for following you everywhere without a leash.
They're compact, but have a lot of attitude in a small package. If you leave your gear in the truck with the dog, it's probably going to protect it's space and your belongings. If you make contact with an aggressive animal, it's going to protect it's space as well as yours.
The author and Wrangler in Yakutat, Alaska. Lael Paul Johnson photo
There's exceptions to these rules too. While fishing in Alaska, I had to fend off an otter that followed a steelhead I hooked to the bank. While I had a short scuffle with the critter, Wrangler never budged from his perch right behind me. I guess he figured I had things under control, but I'm just thankful it wasn't a wolf, cougar, or a grizzly. While telling the tale back at the lodge, I heard a story of a group of otters carrying off a corgi to it's death, and a pair of cattledogs that tag teamed a grizzly, running circles around it and biting it in the rear end. Who knows if these tales are actually true, but they're a testament to the reality of bringing a dog with you that will have your six (most of the time).
Regardless of what breed of dog you bring to the water, understand that every dog has it's own individual personality, and a large part of it's character is developed through it's experiences with you. Start them young and introduce them to as much as you can. They say that "you can't teach an old dog new tricks," and maybe that's true. But when you know your dog well enough that it's trained you to adapt to it's behavior, you can begin to find ways to manipulate those behaviors to your benefit. When I figured out I could get Wrangler to fetch a stick in the water by throwing rocks and watching him swim towards the splash, I figured out I could get him to retrieve a bobber years later. I used the same trick to teach him to retrieve waterfowl for the first time when he was 11 years old. As you grow together and get comfortable with each other, build their confidence by beginning to push their limits, and you'll be surprised by what they can handle when you put your trust in them.
Whitetail buck in Camden, Alabama. Donald Harvey photo
This article was written a year ago when Wrangler and I returned from an adventure hunting whitetail in my home state of Alabama for our birthday (which we share). Because he had began showing his age and knowing that he would soon no longer be able take flights with me as a service dog, my mother suggested that I write this article while Wrangler was still alive. The article sat in a pile of unpublished work until he was struck by a vehicle last fall and died without suffering. I will miss him pulling deer bones out of the compost pile. Tearing open my friend's new gore-tex dry bag to get to a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Chasing the seagulls away while pumping sand shrimp. Dropping sticks at everyone's feet and goosing all my first dates as a test to see if they're "cool." I'll miss his nose against the window as we drove down 101, and rolling down the window so he could take in the scenery and get a whiff of that ocean breeze. It's tough opening the door to my vehicle without saying "Load up!" or "Roll out!" I'm doing my best to look forward and just trust that his spirit is at my heels without looking back there for him. I have never given a friend so much freedom that still chose to stay so close to me. I hope to find peace knowing that I gave him a better life full of adventures that most humans will never have the opportunity to experience for themselves, and vow to carry his legacy of loyalty, courage, and love with me forever. In memory of Wrangler, January 27th, 2007- October 30th, 2020