There’s a lot of white on that black muzzle these days. Flecks of canine wisdom. I never thought Phoebe would get old, but then, I had a hard time imagining me getting old right along with her.
Several months back, she stopped trying to jump into the truck. It was just too much. Now, she just lifts her front paws onto the seat, turns around and looks at me expectantly and seems to ask, “Hey, bud. You mind getting the caboose?”
I guess she stopped elevating into the truck about the same time I had three vertebrae in my lower back fused. It took me some effort to get in the truck, too.
Over the years, she’s easily been my best fishing buddy. Others come and go—and some leave impressions so lasting that it’s painful to return alone to fishy haunts without them—but Phoebe, since she was a puppy, has always been there.
And she was a horrible puppy. Like, “I’m taking this damn thing to the pound” horrible. If not for the tortured sobs of two small children, I would have done it, too.
The classically homely mutt—a mongrel mix of wire-hair and (maybe?) wolfhound—Phoebe has always been the bearded lady. She started as a babysitting project one spring more than a decade ago. Some young, newly married friends of ours had moved into an apartment complex north of town, and they immediately noticed their neighbors had a dog. So off they went to the pound and adopted a dog.
Never mind that $300 pet deposit or the size limitations on the animal. They wanted a dog. And they got one. And then they had to get rid of it.
So they showed up at our house one nice spring afternoon with this high-energy, manners-free puppy who immediately walked into our living room and peed on the white carpet.
“Will you just keep her until September?” the husband asked. “Our lease is up, and we’re going to buy a house then.”
It was all I could do to keep from blurting out the obvious.
“Dude,” I wanted to say, “you’re flunking out of college and your wife is the office secretary for her dad’s company. There’s no way in hell you’ll have the money or the credit to buy a house in six months.”
Instead, I offered up another solution.
“Why don’t you let me pay your pet deposit,” I said. “Call it a wedding gift.”
“She’s going to be too big,” his wife said. “And she already ate the couch.”
Yeah. She had a promising career in sales.
The kids, of course, begged and pleaded. My wife tried to be accommodating to our friends—we were young once, too, she reminded me. And we’d always had dogs in our life because, well, life is better with a dog in it.
I acquiesced. Reluctantly. Just until September.
That was 10 Septembers ago. Since then, Phoebe has survived a divorce. She watched as her buddy, Hannah, another great dog, cross the Rainbow Bridge. Three years ago, my daughter left home, and Phoebe rolled with it. She’s the rock in the house these days.
But it took time. More time than I really wanted to invest. Phoebe had a horrible habit of jumping up on people. Not just paws to the crotch. No. She’d jump up and put her nose on your nose. Sometimes with the zeal of a Tyson uppercut. More than once I had to look for somewhere to sit down for fear of falling down after Phoebe greeted me at the door.
A trainer friend of ours, for $50, solved the issue. Phoebe went to jump up on her, and she simply stuck her knee in the dog’s chest. The “oof!” was audible. It was the last time Phoebe jumped up on anyone.
Since those maddening early months, Phoebe has become — and this statement comes with no small amount of guilt on my part, because I’ve been very lucky with dogs — the best dog I’ve ever had. She’s loyal to a fault. She loves to go. Anywhere. Anytime. For any reason.
And she loves to fish, almost to her detriment. Last fall, she and I hit the South Fork on a blustery, chilly day, and after about 20 minutes of standing knee-deep in a side channel, I could see her visibly shivering. I had to take her back to the car and pretend we were done, just so I could get her into the back seat and curled up into a blanket.
Had I let her, she would have stayed with me all day, and it was just too damn cold.
But on warm summer days, she relishes standing in the chill of trout water. And she knows the rules. Generally speaking, her place is to my left about a step behind. That gives me the room to cast and let any fly line I might bring in slide unimpeded to my right. If she gets out of line—if a water ouzel or a mink makes an appearance and gets her wound up—a simple snap the fingers brings her to heel.
She is quite birdy, and we’ve taken our share of fowl from the woods. But in her heart, Phoebe is a fishing dog. If she sees a fly rod case pulled from the rafters, or me hauling my waders up the stairs, she deftly wanders to the front door and waits. Then, she’ll nose open the screen door if it’s not latched all the way, and she’ll bounce to the passenger door of the truck and turn and watch me.
“Hey man,” she seems to ask. “You coming or what?”
I’ve noticed her slowing down a bit of late. In addition to not just hopping effortlessly into the truck, she’s also more deliberate about the little things. Years ago, if a pine squirrel scolded her from the heights of a lodgepole, she’d wait patiently for the critter to move through the limbs, seemingly plotting its demise. Now, she’ll lift an eyebrow, only bothering to sneak up to the tree trunk when the squirrel is out of sight.
No, she’s never succeeded in her squirrel quest, and she likely never will. But she’s a thinker, and, of course, with age comes wisdom.
She can open the sliding glass door to the backyard if I don’t hook the latch. And that’s generally fine in the summer, but when it’s chilly outside, you have to realize that it’s on you when that draft of Arctic air comes barreling down the stairs ahead of the dog on a below-zero January night.
I’m slowing down a bit, too, so it’s kind of nice to have a dog that’s generally the same speed. After back surgery last winter, I honestly had no idea if I’d be able to fish the way I like to fish — I’m a walk-and-wade creek freak. I like the intimate connections an angler can have with small water, and I’m a deliberate angler. It means things like stepping over downed logs, sliding down embankments and traversing greasy creek-bottom rocks.
I did better than I imagined I would, and I did it almost entirely with Phoebe at my side. It was almost as if she knew I was still a bit fragile… that bones were still growing and fusing and that things were good, just not great.
And when we’d crawl into the camper at night, she was quick to assess my situation before curling up and drifting off to sleep herself.
Winter’s here in eastern Idaho—we experienced a white Thanksgiving and got a couple of big dumps of snow right after Christmas—and it’s cold again. And Phoebe is here, curled up in her dog bed, licking the bottom of the soup bowl and enjoying the lunch I just couldn’t finish. Her eyes are wise and patient as she looks up at me gratefully.
It’ll be warm again soon. And we’ll go fishing. We’ll be a bit slower and a bit more purposeful, but we’ve got some time, yet.
She’s a good girl. The best. She’s my fishing buddy.
Chris Hunt is the national digital director for TROUT Media. He lives and works in Idaho Falls. This story first appeared in Hatch Magazine.