My Fishing Dogs

by | Aug 11, 2021 | 35 comments

In 1998, I made friends with a Border Collie. I found him at a breeder in a small town tucked into the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, and I named him (Bob) Dylan. He was four months old, the largest in a litter of four brothers. And as many stories like this go, Dylan chose me.

I was working construction, on a ten-month stint in Charlotte at the time. Life was alright, but I was a little lost. And in my early twenties, I was searching. I went to work on a Friday morning like any other, and when I came home, my girlfriend showed me a newspaper ad for Border Collie puppies.

“You know how you’ve always wanted one of these dogs?” she said. “I called the breeder in the ad.”  She pointed at the newspaper again and smiled.

I raised my eyebrows at the thought of everything changing in an instant.

“The lady said we can come tonight, as long as we get there before 9:00.”

We left on a whim, yet I had every confidence in my decision.

We traveled west and arrived just before dark. And when I walked into the backyard under a floodlight, Dylan walked straight to me. He was marked with the classic black-and-white Border Collie pattern, and he was friendly. I picked him up.

We had fourteen years together. And Dylan led me to all the best things that would happen in my life. Being responsible for him changed me. He gave me purpose. When my girlfriend left, I trained Dylan as a frisbee dog, every evening after work, without fail. And on the weekends we traveled east, just the two of us, to play in the sandy waves of the Atlantic ocean. Or we journeyed west to hike long trails in the Smokies. Those paths were inevitably carved around trout streams, and the darting colors beneath the surface were irresistible. So I started bringing the fly rod.

Dylan loved creeks and streams. And it was his enthusiasm for the woods and the water that got me back out there. Just a few months later, I longed for my Pennsylvania roots, for the hemlocks, the ferns and cold water. The endless mountains brought me home. I moved back, finished college, met my wife and made my return to Penn State country, making it full circle, right back to where I’d fallen in love with trout fishing in the first place.

READ: Troutbitten | Border Collie and the Thunderstorm

For the next six years, Dylan and I fished together nearly every weekday. Spring, summer, fall and winter, I fished like it was my day-job, and I was a gigging musician at night.

Do you know what it’s like to fish every day with the same partner? With one who’s genuinely excited for each catch, who has an endlessly high motor? Dylan didn’t argue against long walks, and he was a tireless explorer. He was my constant inspiration to keep fishing. And when I did sleep late once in a while he was there to ask questions and hold me accountable. With a tilted head and a quizzical look, Dylan seemed to ask, why aren’t we on the water today?

Dylan

Fishing with a good dog brings a novel joy to average moments. It’s the wet nose on your cheek in the middle of a bankside sit, the shared ham sandwich under dripping evergreen boughs while waiting out a soggy thunderstorm. It’s the simple companionship — the kind that comes without questions or conditions. Our bond with a good dog is pure friendship. It is, quite simply . . . love.

READ: Troutbitten | From Pennsylvania to Montana and Back

Around the time my wife and I started a family, Dylan’s health began to fade, and he could no longer sustain the full days and long hikes. I remember the trip when I realized this, and I couldn’t deny that things had changed. Dylan and I had hiked a half-mile into a ravine to fish a brook trout stream that we hadn’t seen in ages. He seemed tired as we fished. And when it was time to walk out, Dylan couldn’t make it up the rocky mountain. His legs struggled and he faltered. Dylan looked up at me, apologetically, over and over again. The grey hair around his eyes stood out against the distinct black and white pattern. He was my friend. So I picked him up. I carried Dylan up the mountain and over the fallen timber for many hours that night, alternating between short sits in the dark to recover my breath and powerful strides upward. I climbed and carried six pounds of fishing gear on my back and fifty pounds of my best friend in my arms.

Sadly, we had to put Dylan down that next winter. Immediately, there was a deep loss in my experience on the water. My forever companion was gone. I tried to fill in the hole with other friendships. I fished with more people, and I focused on family and work. I built Troutbitten upon the memories, tactics and lessons that I learned while fishing with Dylan. But while on the river, nothing filled my vacancy. That emptiness never eased or softened. And if I allowed myself to acknowledge it, the days never felt complete.

Dylan in the Montana wind. Circa 2005.

River

Australian Shepherds are like Border Collies with a sense of humor. Or, Aussies are like Border Collies with an off switch for intensity. I heard these descriptions time and again in the eight years after Dylan left. And I knew an Australian Shepherd would make a better family dog than a Border Collie. Having two boys in baseball, a busy schedule and a business to run, life is a lot different these days compared to the limited responsibilities and wealth of free time that I had in ‘98.

So last summer, my wife and I took the boys to find our Australian Shepherd puppy. And once again, he picked us. The dog who we would come to name River was about six weeks old the first time we met him among his scrambling brothers and sisters. River walked up to me as I knelt down. Then he crawled into my lap and fell asleep.

The first time we met River.

Our blue-eyed boy has captured the hearts of everyone in this family. Against my better judgment, he’s found his way onto the beds of both boys, and he enjoys making his rounds at night. His bond with every member of our family is tighter than I ever expected. The boys are learning not just about having a dog, but about forming a relationship and a friendship built on trust. Aussies are good for that.

And I have a river companion again. I’d nearly forgotten the feeling of being watched over and protected. Dylan took his job seriously, and now River does too. What is that job? I didn’t know at first. But Dylan decided it years ago — he would be my constant guardian and a companion on every fishing trip. That all seemed confusing to River at first. And it took a half-year of fishing before he understood that I didn’t need anything more from him than to just be there. I tell him “keep watch” now, and River understands. He’s grown content and proud to do his job well.

River sits more, whereas Dylan paced bankside. River relaxes, and that’s good to be around. I’ve even caught him napping on a rock a few times. Dylan was more guarded, and he often barked a warning before wagging his tail to greet others. But River is my extroverted pup, wishing to make friends with every human that he sees. I’m still getting used to that.

What Makes a Good Fishing Dog?

While I’ve published the pics of River this last year, I’ve gotten countless inquiries about fishing with a dog. What breed? How should you train them? And can you really get any fishing done while babysitting a dog?

That last question betrays a misunderstanding of what’s going on. A good fishing dog does not need much direction through the day, only a few redirections, requests or corrections. Make no mistake, it takes a lot of work and training at first. For a while you take care of them out there. And then they take care of you.

River doesn’t jump in the water that I’m about to fish. He swims only when he’s told to “cross the creek.” He will reliably sit, down, stay and come on command — well, he’s still a puppy. And while he’s learning, I don’t take him places where he will disturb other anglers.

READ: Troutbitten | River and Rain
READ: Troutbitten | Riverside

What’s to Come . . .

I’m not an expert dog trainer. The process of raising a good fishing dog isn’t easy, but I’ve been stubborn enough to see it through a couple of times.

I’ve had two excellent fishing dogs — and River is really just beginning to come into his own.

There is nothing like the companionship of a great dog on the water. Nothing. So in the next couple articles of this series, I’ll answer some questions and share what I’ve learned.

Fish hard, friends.

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Enjoy the day.
Domenick Swentosky
T R O U T B I T T E N
domenick@troutbitten.com

 

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Domenick Swentosky

Central Pennsylvania

Hi. I’m a father of two young boys, a husband, author, fly fishing guide and a musician. I fish for wild brown trout in the cool limestone waters of Central Pennsylvania year round. This is my home, and I love it. Friends. Family. And the river.

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35 Comments

  1. Great article. Being a lover of dogs and a lover of fishing, this is pretty cool. I also grew up with a border collie, they are a great dog.

    Thanks

    Reply
    • I love all your good dog pics. The pic on July 26 article is the best. River is looking at the trout like, “Dude you so ugly, and did you find the only hook in miles of water?” The fish is just hoping the dog tongue is not going to lick him. You are fortunate Dom.

      Reply
      • Loved the article. My oldest son grew up with our Aussie Mix, Brain (after Inspector Gadgets dog). 15 great years! Brain loved the woods often sitting by a tree and just watching. And he never missed a good splash in a river!

        Reply
    • Nice!
      I miss my dogs from the past and think about the memories we shared. Each one had their own unique characters. I think about getting another – who knows maybe I’ll get a river dog and call him LJ!
      Thanks, Dom!

      Reply
    • Really enjoyed your piece on fishing dogs. I am a (retired) vet in Charlotte, trying to learn more about trout fishing, and I have enjoyed your posts while trying to recover from a post-op mrsa infection in my hand. When people ask me about the biggest changes in vet medicine in the last 40 years, my answer is “ we live with our dogs now, and they are family members”. New technology is wonderful, but the bond between owner and dog is what changes everything!

      Reply
  2. Great one! The times outdoors with my dogs have been the best of my life. Looking forward to the rest of this series.

    Many thanks!

    Reply
  3. Nice!

    Reply
  4. Great article, Dominic, as always. Being from Indiana, I don’t have a “river dog” but do have a great dog (had 5 dogs so far). Almost took him to PA last trip but kinda glad I didn’t after hearing about the copperheads and timber rattlers you guys have up there. Any issues with snakes for you?

    Reply
    • Hi Steve, I hear that a lot about snakes. I’ve even had people offer me unsolicted advice that I shouldn’t have my dog in places where they may encounter a venomous snake. Life is a risk. Yup. He might get bitten someday. But in all my years on the water, I’ve never had a close call. Undetrstand, though, my dogs are not about chasing wildlife. They are cautious about wildlife. They would not paw at a snake, but would likely stay pretty far back in curiosity. But again, they could be surprised one day. I accept that.

      Dom

      Reply
  5. Great article !!!
    Dogs are truly mans best.
    Thanks for the personal insight of you and your family.
    I completely understand the bond and the Love for Dogs.

    Reply
  6. Dom, I know this may sound snobbish especially to other ‘fishing dog’ fans but be careful if you ever get a non-herding breed…because you are clearly spoiled with the likes of Dylan and River! I have a bumper sticker on my fishing cooler that says, “If it’s not a Border Collie, it’s just a dog…” I was responsible for over 200 Military Working Dog teams in Iraq as a US Army Veterinary Corps Officer, and every one of them was a Walt Disney movie hero. I often wonder how they would have been on the trail and streamside… Keep up the great stuff; thanks! – Tim Loonam DVM

    Reply
  7. There is nothing—nothing—like a BC. But if you really don’t understand their intelligence and personality, don’t get one.

    It’s a two-way commitment, as you’ve clearly indicated. Thanks.

    Reply
    • I agree. Honeslty, I don’t recommend these dogs. Like you said, it’s a different level of commitment.

      Reply
  8. Your story touched my heart in so many ways. I love dogs and fishing and you know how to talk and photograph both beautifully. Thanks.

    Reply
  9. I’m really looking forward to the rest of this series!

    My Belgian shepherd puppy is about to turn 1 year old on a trip to Wyoming, where he should get a lot of fishing practice. He’s been out with me a few times and is progressing through the basics, i.e., “I’ll fetch the fly line myself, thank you very much.” He’s excited to see trout come in, but very skeptical of them when they arrive. They might flop at any time and are not to be trusted.

    I’m still getting used to his freakish mobility. The other day I was looking for a good place to set my rod down so I could help him over a chest-high obstacle, and he just jumped to the top of it and licked my face.

    Reply
    • Ha! That sounds familiar. I remember being stunned this past winter when River leaped about five times his body length to get across a little side channel because he didn’t want to swim. Did if from a standstill. Looked like he had superpowers.

      Reply
  10. There was one remaining acknowledgment for this story. It encapsulates what you portray and what I feel should be stated. Two beautiful angling colleagues in one short period…You Are Blessed!

    Reply
  11. BEAUTIFUL article Domenick. I’ll admit to my eyes watering and having to take a few deep breaths as I read and reflected on my Taz. In addition to companionship, he supplied me with fur for the Taz Fly!!
    Regarding your mention of the Smoky Mountains , I submitted a book “TailsOfTheSmokies” for review to sale in their Park stores . I even committed to donating those proceeds to them. One story is about the Taz fly, “The Last Fly”. They rejected the book because of a stray, lost puppy the characters find while on a fishing trip. The Park’s reason, “dogs are prohibited in the GSMNP except on a few trails and campgrounds”.
    BTW, the book is FICTION!!!

    Reply
  12. Great Domenick!! I think that an important aspect of a fishing dog is an appropriate breed. You have laid out the job of a fishing dog very well. That matches the breed requirements for a herding dog. I had two Shetland Sheep Dogs consecutively and now Maggie, an Aussie marked much like River. The Aussies were developed for the California sheep industry. A shepherd was given several dogs and 500 head of sheep and sent up to the mountain top till the snow fell. Thus the need for a dog who liked people, especially the boss. And the work consisted largely of sitting on a rock and watching the sheep. Maggie doesn’t fish with me. We have alligators down here in Florida. They love dogs. I was sitting alongside a pond with the second Sheltie one time when a gator displayed in front of me. His intention was plainly to scare me away so he could eat Widget.

    Reply
  13. Ditto. I have a 12 yr old chocolate lab mix. We fished alot together on the many Wyoming streams where we encountered nobody to disturb. Yes, I do love her. She was more an explorer than over-see-er. Twice, I was fishing the Snake with her and asked her where her ball was. That was easy when skiing the golf course, but those two times she came back with tennis balls…I never trained her other than to say “back” when she decided to lead me, which worked maybe 80% of the timed. It never bothered me to lose a hole or a run opportunity because of her explorations, maybe 10% of them. All she has to do is look at me to melt my heart, especially now that she is having trouble breathing due to paralysis of the larynx.

    Reply
  14. I love that story about your dogs but I love dogs too. I’m afraid to take our dog fishing because I might lose him and I worry about snakes in California.
    But it was a beautiful story and I appreciate that. Love your blog.
    Mayson Neel

    Reply
  15. Oh the memories… My first fishing dog was Max, an 87lb Boxer. Man did he love to watch me pull fish out of the water. Stayed right by me the whole time on the bank until I would get halfway across a stream, then he would get nervous and try to wade to me. Only dog I’ve owned who couldn’t swim. One time I was loading my vehicle for a trip with the guys but wasn’t taking him and had to command him “out”multiple times. After the third time of commanding him out of the vehicle he ran inside head down and broken hearted. I returned to my living room to retrieve my open tackle bag and found Max waiting for me. As I walked through the door he got up, made eye contact while hiking his leg and urinating all over my tackle…I was late meeting the guys.

    Reply
  16. Terrific story and well told, Domenick.

    I have a book for you: Home Waters: Fishing with an Old Friend: A Memoir by Joseph Monninger. You’ll enjoy it.

    Reply
    • Thanks very much, Mark. I just bought the book upon your recommendation.

      Cheers.
      Dom

      Reply
      • You are welcome.

        Reply

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Domenick Swentosky

Central Pennsylvania

Hi. I’m a father of two young boys, a husband, author, fly fishing guide and a musician. I fish for wild brown trout in the cool limestone waters of Central Pennsylvania year round. This is my home, and I love it. Friends. Family. And the river.

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