“A Fishing Dog”
For 30 years now, I’ve looked forward to Salmonfly Madness on Oregon’s Deschutes River.
But I dreaded it this year.
I wasn’t worried about getting away from the mobs of other anglers — or the long odds against really nailing the perfect day of silly, big trout whacking silly big flies.
I was worried about Berkeley, our fishing fool of a Labrador.
Berkeley is 13 years old now, and he runs dry after a morning running around in my wife’s pear orchard. For years, he kept up with Heather all day — even if she were on a tractor or a 4-wheeler.
These days, Berkeley likes to spend his afternoons dozing in the sunshine — or in front of the wood stove. His paws twitch and paw his blanket while he dreams. He’s still ready to jump out the door when Heather calls, but he’s stiff with age. He looks like a marionette with tangled strings when he’s getting on his feet.
Last week, it looked like the salmonflies and golden stones were on their migration from the fast riffles to the banks, where they crawl out — slowly, like Berkeley — and then hatch into big, winged insects. Salmonflies are about 2.5 inches long, and golden stones get up to 2 inches. These bugs are big, juicy meals for big Redsides rainbow trout.
We hardly ever get on the river when the fish are going absolutely nuts for these big flies — imagine wads of $100 bills dropping from the sky onto a crowded city park — but we usually get our biggest Deschutes River trout of the year during this hatch. Let’s say 20 inches or so.
Trouble is, these fish lurk along very steep banks — many with big rocks or slick slides of basalt scree. Then, when you finally inch your way down to the river, you’ve got to crawl under trees, creep over logs and inch around slick rocks. Rattlesnakes, ticks, spiders and scorpions are down there too.
I kept getting this image of Berkeley getting halfway down to the river — and then getting stuck or collapsing. That would break Berkeley in every way. It would break us too.
You see, Berkeley ranks fly fishing up there with chasing squirrels, shadowing Heather or playing with our terrier mutt Cooper.
Way back in 2006, we took Berkeley — then a floppy, skinny yearling lab with big feet and energy to burn — on his first drift boat trip down the Deschutes. We stopped at a nice backeddy, and Berkeley raced down the bank and leaped into a pod of big, rising trout.
Heather dragged him out of the river, and we spent the next 20 minutes lecturing him on river manners. We walked into the river — telling him to “stay, stay, stay.” Berkeley sat on the bank like an Egyptian Sphinx — and he watched.
And he learned.
Berkeley never ran into the river without permission again. Perfection in any way is rare beyond belief, but Berkeley is perfect in many ways.
Over the next few years, he became an avid hunter of trout and bass. Berkeley likes to amble up the bank until he sees fish. Then he stops, looks back at us, grins and wags his tail. Yes, Berkeley is the best dog I’ve ever met, and he has a sense of humor.
Looking on, wagging his tail and grinning is how Berkeley laughs.
Berkeley likes to look at a caught fish before it is released. If we’re fishing in a boat, Berkeley lies down and enjoy the cool of the river through the hull. But he scrabbles to his feet whenever a fish splashes.
When I go fishing by myself — Berkeley never leaves Heather — I always call her on the way home. I always tell her Berkeley would have loved it — and it’s true.
One year, we found ourselves fishing a half-frozen Oregon trout pond the day after Thanksgiving. Snow drifted down like sifted flour, and the fish were eating tiny chironomid pupa mired in the surface tension. At the end of the day, Berkeley was at the other side of the pond — maybe 50 yards away.
“Berkeley!” Heather yelled.
Berks sat down in his Sphinx position — this is when he’s thinking deep thoughts. We started going down the path to the cabin, and we expected him to trot around the pond and join us.
Instead, Berkeley got into that icy pond and took a swimming shortcut. Trout were still rising to those pupa, and Berkeley turned his heard and peered at them as he swam by. After he got out, he wanted us to stay and hook those fish, damnit.
He’s a fishing dog.
“it would just break his heart not to go,” Heather said the other morning, as we loaded the truck for the Deschutes.
So, Berkeley came, just as he has since time began for him.
When we got to the river, Berkeley motored down the steep trail to the water and sat down — as we inched down carrying fly rods.
Heather took Berkeley and Cooper to a shallow spot, where they lapped up cool river water like beer drinkers at 5 p.m.
For the rest of the day, Berks climbed over rocks, waded the edges and slipped under bankside trees as we cast big Chubby Chernobyls to big redside rainbows. Berkeley wasn’t fast, but he sure wasn’t slow.
The fishing was better than the catching, but we knew were were a day or so early. After a while, the day became all about hitting casting targets, enjoying the warm sun on our backs — and watching our two dogs hunt for trout. I went off to fish a very tricky bank — sharp basalt rocks that slid with the sound of breaking glass, fast, swirling water and rattlers.
I hooked and bungled a big, heart-stopper of a trout. Any other year, I would have kept working this bank, but I wanted to be with Heather, Berkeley and Cooper.
I hiked back downstream, where I found Heather casting her fly to a trout that rose every now and then under some low-hanging tree limbs. The two dogs were sitting in waist-deep water about 20 feet away. Their heads moved back and forth in time to Heather’s cast. It looked like they were watching a tennis match.
“I might have spooked this piggy trout,” Heather said. “Let’s go to Maupin and have a late lunch or early dinner.”
Berkeley led the way as we scrambled back up yet another steep bank.
Just before I reached the top, my left boot slid on some gravel, and I fell forward with a clatter of rocks and fly rods. I whacked my shin pretty hard on a basalt rock, and it stung.
I paused a moment to regain my footing.
Berkeley stopped, looked down the bank at me, grinned and wagged his tail.