I woke up a few days ago to a beautiful, sun-kissed, dead-calm spring morning (a rare combination in these parts), so I did what any sane person would do: I went fishing. I abandoned the wife, the kids, the dogs and the rest of the world and felt not one pang of guilt. Sometimes you’ve just gotta be selfish. I hit the road with no defined plan, and eventually found myself on one particular piece of water that I sometimes use for training dogs. It’s not a bad little pond for fishing, either, so I broke out the fly rod.
Alone, with neither dog nor fellow human for company (I tend to do all my flyfishing solo, to minimize uncontrollable laughter at my casting “style”) I soon found myself in a contemplative mood. I recalled that this little pond was the spot where, a number of years prior, I first started training with the man who would, more than anyone or anything else, stoke my interest in gundogs, not just as a tool for hunting, but as a means to its own alluring and obsessive end.
And for many of us, that’s what it becomes, something that grows to be of equal importance with the hunting itself, if not more so. Recently I was talking with a buddy of mine about the chicken-and-egg nature of gundogs and hunting. Our basic question was, what comes first: the interest in hunting or the interest in dogs? And how much does the one stoke interest in the other?
I suspect, for most of us, hunting was the initial catalyst for our subsequent interest in dogs, but over time I believe the dogs actually become the primary interest and reason for hunting.
That certainly was the case for me. My first real, purpose-bought gundog was a lab, bought as a pup off an ad pinned to my local tackle-shop’s bulletin board. At the time I was about as clueless on how to train a retriever as a guy could be, and honestly didn’t have a helluva lot of interest in dog training as a pastime. I just knew I was tired of wading for my ducks and figured a dog would take care of that nicely. Plus, at that time I was an obsessive, hard-core bass fanatic and couldn’t see myself spending time anywhere but on the water with a rod in my hand.
But something clicked, some switch flipped with that first mallard she dropped in my hand, just as something clicked the first time I watched my long-ago first pointer instantly transform from a flowing bit of grace into a quivering mass of instinct and intensity. It just clicked, and its been clicking ever since, louder and louder. Age will do that to you, I guess. Whatever the reason, I find myself casting off things which used to be of some importance to me in favor of things that still are.
I use to bowhunt, a lot. And while I still shoot and hunt with a recurve for the sheer primal romance and artistry of it, my days of spending week after precious fall week in a stand holding a compound are over. Same with most of my big-game hunting. I’ll never stop deer hunting, simply because I love venison, but my dreams of a Booner or a Pope & Young buck and other big-game glory have dissolved into visions of dogs, feathers and lonely roads. I doubt I’ll ever shoot an elk, a bear, a caribou.
I used to, a long time gone, entertain the notion of becoming a professional bass angler or a guide. And while my passion for fishing remains, (there’s still a bluefin and a slat-run striper out there for me somewhere) I no longer think spending 250-300 days on strange water is a grand idea, especially in the fall.
I suppose this internal winnowing process is something we all – hostages to age and the awareness of its inevitable destination – eventually go through, and we balance what remains as best we can. Which is why I found myself on that glorious spring day flailing away with a fly rod on the same pond where I’d learned so much about dogs, thinking about the man who taught me.
He died not long ago, that old man who once, when we were training on this very pond on a spring day much like this one, good-naturedly scolded me for thinking out loud about fishing when I should have be thinking about water blinds. “Water’s for dog training and drinking, in that order.” He was joking, of course. Sort of. I never knew him to go fishing when he could be dog-training, but that off-hand quip has always stayed with me.
We never got the chance to take that last hunt we talked about, and as I threw my awkward, ragged loops across the surface of the water that had seen so many dogs, both his and mine, I wondered what he would have thought of me wasting such a perfectly good training day on fishing…