Voices from the river

Voices from the River: Fishing dogs

By Chris Hunt

The low grumble in Phoebe’s throat grew into a steady growl, and her floppy ears perked up. She stared across the Little Greys River Canyon in the fading twilight, clearly interested in something across the river.

“Hush,” I said instinctively, nursing a gin and tonic and staring into the flames that were slowly losing their battle against the Wyoming chill. Then I heard the call.

Phoebe knew seconds before I did that a band of coyotes was close. Only when I heard the chorus of yips and howls did I know the wild dogs were wandering nearby and setting out on the night’s hunt. She stood quickly and faced the wild chant, her subtle growl now a full-throated grumble. She stepped between me and the edge of the willows near where we’d camped, a time-honed, natural propensity that dogs have acquired … that desire to protect the hand that fills the dish full of kibble every morning.

I reached out and touched the dog behind her ears, caressing the nape of her neck. The coyotes’ chorus was joined by that from another pack down the canyon—the distant howls crept up the river, echoing off the timber and the rocks. It’s the call of the West, a song that emotes pleasure in knowing that wild places still exist and a tinge of fear that, just like those canine instincts, has remained in us humans from the days when toothy predators looked at us with dinner on the mind.

I stirred the fire a bit, and the flames responded. Phoebe sat down next to my camp chair, but kept her diligent watch across the canyon. It had been a long day spent hiking up the Little Greys to a destination that never quite materialized. The river comes out of a tight canyon miles higher into the Wyoming Range than where we camped, and we made it high enough to see where it tumbles off a cliff and begins an angry course downstream.

We fished at the trailhead and caught a couple of truly gorgeous Snake River fine-spotted cutthroats, but once we hit the trail, we didn’t see much of the river again for miles. Only when we realized that fishing above that waterfall was likely an exercise in futility did we turn around and wander back to the trailhead.

And, of course, for every mile I put on my Tevas, Phoebe probably doubled it. We walked through waist-high meadows full of wild iris, columbine and Indian paintbrush. We trudged uphill for hours on our own little course of discovery. We drank from cold springs, watched as a cow elk and two young-of-the-year calves navigated the steep hillside down to the river to drink and wandered across new country.

I’m sure Phoebe was as confused as I was frustrated, what with the general lack of fishing. The supple 3-weight fly rod I toted along through the woods was simply window dressing. The size 12 Madam X never left the hook keeper. It was a hike. Nothing more. Nothing less.

She’s a good fishing dog that comes from a long tradition of fishing dogs. My old mutt, Spooner, was the ultimate fishing companion—together, we chased high-country brookies in Colorado, coastal range rainbows in California and eventually backcountry cutthroats in Idaho before he finally expired after 16 years of wandering up blue lines on the map.

Then came Hannah, a black lab-spaniel mix who was a solid fishing dog when she could bring herself to stay out of the water. When she realized where the fish came from, it was tough to keep her attention. She loved to carp fish on the mud flats along the Snake River, and would have done so around the clock if age hadn’t claimed her earlier this spring.

And now Phoebe.

She’s a wire-hair mix and so ugly she’s cute. She’s the bearded lady, and something of an evil genius—she knows how to open the sliding glass door with CIA stealth. I’ll put her outside and sit down at the computer. Minutes later, I’ll turn around, and there she is, stretched out on her dog bed with that, “Oh, you didn’t expect me to stay out there, did you?” look on her simple little face.

She’s nearing middle age herself, probably close to 9. She started out as a dog-sitting proposition years ago when we took her in after a newly married young couple realized they couldn’t keep her in their apartment.

“We’ll be back to get her in September when our lease is up and we can buy a house.” That was March of 2009. We’re still dog-sitting.

Phoebe is actually a great fishing dog. She stays close and when she wanders too far ahead, a simple snap of the fingers brings her to heel. She’s not rabid about fish, or, frankly, about the water. She’ll wade next to me, and when I wander into deeper waters, she’ll grudgingly swim, too. And when I’m lucky enough to hook up, she’ll show appropriate interest in the fish, but, unlike Hannah, she won’t dive into the creek in pursuit when the fish is released.

She just looks up and opens her doggy muzzle into a grin, as if to say, “Good job. That was a nice one. Let’s get another one.”

We fished a bit on the river when we got back to camp, and we fished again a couple days later just across the border in Idaho where the cutthroats were even more cooperative. And, as the days turned into evenings, she’d find a spot by the fire and relax, just as I did.

When the coyotes shut off the music and got to hunting in earnest, we turned in, closing the door to the camper against the chill of the Rocky Mountain night.

“We’ll fish tomorrow,” I said, patting her head as she took her customary spot by the furnace fan. She opened her mouth into that happy smile and rested her head on her dog bed. Her eyes closed and she was asleep almost instantly, dreaming of trout.

Chris Hunt is the national editorial director for Trout Media. He lives and works in Idaho Falls.

By Chris Hunt.