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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
T R O U T B I T T E N