Just about any canine not unreasonably afraid of its own shadow and who is judiciously exposed to water at a relatively young age can potentially become a fairly decent Trout Dog.
IT’S A TERRIBLY DIFFICULT THING to find a good Trout Dog. A Trout Dog does not have to be of any particular breed or philosophical persuasion. In fact, just about any canine not unreasonably afraid of its own shadow and who is judiciously exposed to water at a relatively young age can potentially become a fairly decent Trout Dog. But there are precious few who, in the end, can really become masters at their craft.
I once had a Brittany who, when grouse season ended in January, was still reluctant to hang it up until fall. So she would come with me in spring back to the same hollows where we had hunted grouse during autumn and winter. Only this time I carried a fly rod instead of a side-by-side, and I don’t think she ever fully bought into the program, though I will have to give her credit for her attitude.
But she could never properly adjust her thinking; for in her perfectly logical dog mind, these little, wet speckledy things didn’t come close to passing for a respectable bird. So she would just drink water from the streams and pee a lot.
THE DAY EVENTUALLY ARRIVED when she came as close as she ever would to figuring it out for herself. We were in our canoe in a little cove on the lower end of Melton Hill Lake on the first Friday evening in March. The sky was somewhat overcast, but it was unseasonably warm, and I thought this might be a good evening for my four-weight and some small poppers for bluegills.
And we actually got a few to hit. But as I said before, if Betsy wasn’t all that impressed with trout, she considered a bluegill to be beneath her canine dignity.
As I continued to drift and cast, she sulked in the bottom of the canoe and barely looked up when Junior and Son skidded to a stop a hundred yards across the cove in their twenty-foot, fiber-formed Bass Hawg with tandem turbocharged 200-horsepower outboards, pushing a massive bow wave in our direction. I quickly dropped the rod and grabbed the paddle and turned the pointy end of the canoe into the oncoming tsunami, and once it had subsided I began casting again.
That’s when it got good.
I think Betsy actually heard it before I did—the tearing whisper of wings ripping the silky evening air. She was up in an instant and spotted four mallards careening around the point at treetop level and coming straight for us.
I must confess, this was somewhat of a surprise to me. For in all her dog years, Betsy had never once expressed any interest whatsoever in the pursuit of waterfowl—though she had once given Harvey, Mr. Galyon’s old grey goose, a good run across the barnyard before he had suddenly turned on her and explained the term “pecking order” in a way she would always remember.
Now, she was past me in a flash heading for the front of the canoe. She landed already on point to receive the ducks as they set their wings and lowered their landing gear and skidded to a stop barely forty yards away, chatting discreetly among themselves and casting wary glances up in our direction. Still on point and hanging precariously over the bow, Betsy quivered and whined and threw backward glances at me and my fly rod, imploring me to cast to the ducks.
I could have sold her right there on the spot to Junior and Junior, Sr. had I taken their offer—and for high dollar at that.
I would just as soon have sold my one good eye.
That may have been the last time Betsy ever showed any interest in the canoe, though once I bumped it and knocked it sideways in its berth atop her kennel as I was feeding her, and she quietly stepped back inside her condo and refused to come out for dinner that evening.
As I said, it’s hard to find a good Trout Dog.
THE SINGLE MOST DISREPUTABLE trout dog wannabee I ever met, however, was a half-bluetick, half-redbone, half-husky cur named Randell who was owned by (or perhaps I should say, lived in the same general vicinity as) my old friend Al up in northern Ontario a few miles west of Thunder Bay.
Randell had the sickliest coloration of any mutt this side of Sirius, a leftover product of his unique breeding, which had resulted in a light grayish purple that I have seen turn much stronger stomachs than mine on first viewing.
Betsy never did like Randell all that much, and she made darn well sure he knew it. Al had hopes of turning him into a bear dog, but it never quite panned out. Because aside from his inherent ugliness and the fact that his name was misspelled, Randell had one overriding flaw you absolutely never want to find in an aspiring bear dog: He was afraid of bears.
Al tried him on moose a time or two, but that didn’t work out very well either, because the moose just couldn’t seem to come to grips with the concept that they were actually supposed to be intimidated by this oddly colored little fellow-quadruped, and so they would just as often chase Randell instead of running away.
It was quite an embarrassment to all concerned—especially for the moose once they realized just what it was they were actually doing. For his part, Randell had no pride, so he really didn’t care; private speculation was that he simply enjoyed the run.
But it was while they were working on moose that Randell and Al accidentally discovered the one thing they thought Randell might be able to do with conviction, infinitely worthless though it might be.
And so began their initial experiments on deer.
YOU SEE, with Randell’s unique three-part breeding, he loved to chase anything that couldn’t have him for supper and that wouldn’t chase him back.
Now the voluminous song of a redbone is sweet and compelling, and the eloquence of a bluetick hound will stack goosebumps on top of goosebumps with its deeply embedded undertones. But a husky is more contemplative and therefore just doesn’t have a heck of a lot to say—at least not that he can say all that well.
It is extremely rare to hear a husky bark, and a long modulated “ooooo” is about as much as one can hope for, even on a good day with a tailwind. So when Randell was after a deer, a good, loud, deep-throated whine was about all any of us could reasonably expect.
The single worst habit that Randell ever developed was directly attributable to his laziness and inherent lack of character. For if the chase for a deer went on for more than ten or fifteen minutes, Randell would simply run out of steam.
And so he would tree the deer.
Now a deer up a tree is an awkward and disconcerting thing to view, because You know and I know that deer did not become famous for their abilities to climb much of anything, except perhaps each other. Which created quite a dilemma once a deer was actually up the tree, because it simply had no idea how to get down, especially with something resembling a half-eaten grape popsicle ecstatically crooning and whining below.
So most of the time the unfortunate deer had to be shot to get it down; otherwise, they would slowly starve to death once they’d consumed all the food they could reach in the upper canopy.
On rare occasion a deer, once dispatched, would fall all the way to the surface of the planet. But in most cases their long legs or antlers would get hung up somewhere in the branches on the way down, and we would either have to climb up and retrieve them ourselves or simply cut down the tree. All the while Randell would be bouncing around ever so joyously with an expression of accomplishment on his little huckleberry face as he whined with glee.
If he happened to tree a deer while out hunting on his own Randell wouldn’t stick around much past suppertime, and so he would leave the unfortunate deer to its own imagination.
SO NOW THAT RANDELL had flunked out as a bear dog, and the moose would no longer play chase with him, and with most of the remaining deer population around Shebandowan either succumbing to altitude sickness or shifting their paradigm, the only thing left for Al and Randell to try was fishing.
The first time Randell tried to retrieve a walleye he wound up with a severely perforated palate from chomping down too hard on the fish’s needle-sharp dorsal fin, and he didn’t even try making friends with northern pike once he saw their hideously toothy smile and realized they were probably more likely to retrieve him than the other way around.
So about all that was left was trout.
And Randell took to trout like . . . I’m so sorry . . . a fish to water.
Once Al and Randell worked out what I must admit was a rather ingenious method for him to actually spot the trout, he would jump right in after them, water and fish retreating around him like the Red Sea from Moses as he splashed wildly about with a confused expression on his disgusting little face, wondering where the heck all his new friends had gone.
I tried reasoning with Al that if he would just stop duct-taping those silly polarized sunglasses to the base of Randell’s muzzle, that Randell would have a harder time actually seeing the trout through the surface glare and wouldn’t be so quick to jump in after them.
But Al stubbornly insisted that without the polarized glasses, Randell was worthless as a Trout Dog—which was exactly my point all along!
FOR BETTER OR FOR WORSE, Randell’s outdoor career came to a sudden and ignominious end during one of his wider swings, which had taken him all the way to the northern outskirts of Thunder Bay. To this day Al swears it was an innocent and completely unintentional coincidence of timing, but at that very moment the circus just happened to be packing up and heading to Edmonton. Seeing such a uniquely colored dog showing such intense interest in the animals being loaded for the trip west, some young, well-meaning roustabout packed Randell up with the other critters.
The last we heard, Randell had made himself right at home with the rest of the clowns and actually fancied himself to be a fully functional member of the big show.
Understanding the dog’s inherent itinerant tendencies as well as he did, Al had earlier made certain that Randell’s name, address and probation number were engraved in brass on his big leather collar in anticipation of just such an occurrence.
He told me later that after a few weeks he received a phone call from the circus manager somewhere down around Bismarck. The man made the rather ludicrous offer that for $750 he would put Randell on a bus and send him straight home—and even pay the fare himself.
In his very best Canadian, Al retorted that he thought $750 wouldn’t even come close to what it would take to close a deal such as this, and so he courteously but firmly declined, whereupon the circus manager offered him an even thousand.
But my friend Al is a wise man; he knows when to accept things as they are and simply be grateful.
This is a story from Michael Altizer’s book, THE LAST BEST DAY. This book, along with the author’s other books, NINETEEN YEARS TO SUNRISE and RAMBLINGS—TALES FROM THREE HEMISPHERES, can be ordered online at SportingClassicsStore.com—click on “BOOKS.” Or call 1-800-849-1004. You can also order Jim’s books here at www.riversandfeathers.com/books.
The author always welcomes and appreciates your comments, questions, critiques and input. Please keep in touch at Mike@AltizerJournal.com.
© MICHAEL ALTIZER