A fishing dog might be a little unpredictable, but land yourself a keen riverside Jeeves and it’s worth the risk of them making a splash, says Vicky Warren
While fishing dogs can be unpredictable, find a good one and you’ll never be lonely on the river again, says Vicky Warren.
Your guide on where to flick your fly and catch the prettiest brownies. Charles Rangeley-Wilson selects the best trout rivers in the UK and Ireland for fly fishing.
As your mind wanders while sat on the riverbank during a slow day, try conjuring up the perfect stretch of water for the best salmon fishing in the world, says Sam Carlisle.
THE BEST FISHING DOGS FOR THE RIVERBANK
A warm day, overcast, nothing in a rush but water and hatching insects; stillness dappled with bird chat and the swish of reeds. A rise plops; you lift your rod and the reel spins. Add to this picture an adoring presence, silently appreciating the scene, a companion thrilled by the fight, bursting to admire your fish when it comes to hand, and above all never expecting to have a go themselves. Who would not fancy this idyllic vision, even just a little?
Unless it is sunny, the riverbank is dry and I have a good book, the delights of spectating my husband’s angling skills generally wane after an hour. It has therefore fallen to the dogs of our household to play fly-fishing sidekick, with inconsistent results. Daisy, our sweet Airedale, learned eventually not to stray ahead. In her maturity, she even listened for rising trout. Our first pointer, Coral – a German wire-haired virtuoso of Fenland rough shooting – found the riverside experience so dull beside the pheasant hunting she was built for that she collapsed in a malaise whenever Charles cast a line. And yet Molly, our second, much heftier pointer, explodes into capering arias for as long as it takes to land a trout. Frequently, she launches in to help.
It was on one such day, Charles in charge of fishing, me in charge of Molly, and my book therefore unread, that we wondered about the perfect fishing dog. Is one breed better than another? Or do you need a combination? Would you cross a guide dog with an otter, for example? There are even dogs with water in their names, but none we could think of that were line-bred for fly-fishing.
TIGGY’S TRIO OF FISHING DOGS
Beside the Usk, Tiggy Pettifer, instructor and Atlantic Salmon Trust fundraiser, runs a crack team of canine lunatics – labrador Zulu, Parson Russell terrier Bombshell and Bandit the lurcher. Pettifer has fished all her life with man’s best friend. “To go fishing without dogs is miserable,” she muses, “but to take them is even more miserable.” Bombshell used to sit in the front of Pettifer’s waders when he was a puppy. “They’ve always come fishing with me from the minute they could. You hope they’ll twig that they should sit on the riverbank and watch Mum. It worked like a dream with Hercules. It’s just gone horribly wrong with this lot.”
“Darling old Hercy” the labrador was the love of Pettifer’s life, an old gundog who patiently endured being repurposed outside the shooting season. “He’d sigh and lie on the riverbank and watch me, and if a salmon jumped, he’d prick up his ears and look. I loved fishing with him. He hated it, but I loved it.”
On frantic days when none of the boys in her house are home to help, Pettifer must choose between fishing and walking the dogs, or somehow combine the two. But with Zulu, Bandit and Bombshell, events can quickly unravel. “Lurchers hate rivers but Bandit wades right on in, while Zulu pulls rocks from the water with his teeth. The reel need click only once and Bombshell knows a trout is on. ‘Arf! Arf!’ Before I blink, he and Zulu are in the river after it, and I’m yelling, ‘Get off! No, it’s not for you!’ You really do wonder why you bother taking them with you. Just take a really nice, peaceful labrador,” she concludes. “It adds to the tranquillity and joy of standing in a river.”
Nick Parker, who keeps the Lower Brook fishery on the Test, accompanied by his battle-hardened, wire-haired terrier, Buster, is not convinced by such advice. “Labradors are passionate about swimming,” he points out, “which is no good if you are trying to stalk a trout. I have a client who literally stands there while his two labradors swim around in front of him.”
Similarly sceptical of the virtues of a labrador on the riverbank is Gilly Bate, a guide, instructor and director of Fly Odyssey. Six weeks ago, she abandoned the last vestiges of fishing with labradors when her dream arrived in the form of little Hebe, a brown cocker who Bate had known since puppyhood. Hebe grew up in a house by the Itchen, a mum’s dog who fished with dad. When they were posted overseas, Bate – who guides on beautiful stretches of chalkstream – jumped at the chance to have this loving canine princess and keep her in the lifestyle to which she was accustomed.
“In 25 years of fishing, I’ve always wanted a dog I could take with me,” she says. Bate’s husband farms and their home seems full of bored, bulky labradors. “Labs are good on shooting days, but by a river all they want to do is wander off. If I’m teaching, they think the fly-line is a ball to jump at.
“Everywhere I go, little Hebe just wants to be beside me. I love her. I can fish late on my own in the middle of nowhere or crawl home through traffic after a long day’s guiding, and she’ll be there. I’m booking a couple of long-distance trips this year, and for once I don’t mind how far I drive. Isn’t that funny, the difference a tiny wee companion can make?”
Amy Hulme, a latecomer to fieldsports, left a career in banking and now manages a fishery on the banks of Tweed. She bought and trained Knud, a springer spaniel, for the peg. But he’s now spent so many hours around the fishing hut that he has qualified as a fully fledged fishing dog. “He enjoys just pottering about by the river,” she says. It helps at work that Knud loves the company of fishing guests. His friendly presence breaks the ice and encourages nervous anglers to relax and enjoy the day. “He’s almost as excited as we are netting the fish,” says Hulme. “He shakes like a typical springer, glued to my leg with his head near the net, as if to say, ‘Come on! We can land this’.” Poetically, they found themselves alone together when Hulme caught her first salmon, a 15½ pounder. “It was a really nice moment.”
Parker’s two wire-haired terriers were also both with him when he caught his first salmon, on the Spey. Or rather, “they were off digging mice somewhere nearby”. Parker grew up among working spaniels and labradors in a riverkeeper’s house. He and his brother both followed their father’s career path, but Parker had different ideas about dogs. “I quite fancied something that would catch rats,” he says. His Instagram account shows that fishing is both work and play for him and Buster. When they are not patrolling their two-mile beat twice a day, they have been salmon fishing on the Spey and Dee, and sea fishing for sharks in a boat off Cornwall. “Buster’s quite well travelled,” says Parker. “My other terrier, Alfie, snuffed it a couple of years ago. They’re a law unto themselves, terriers.”
If Alfie’s vigour was tempered by his eight-mile constitutionals, he still harassed swans, fought squirrels and once almost buried himself alive in a 4m mink tunnel under a Scottish riverbank. He also made a habit of breaking through a fence to gatecrash anglers’ barbecues at the fishing hut 200 yards from their house. When a fisherman once proudly led Parker to where he had left his catch, Alfie was eating it. The trout had weighed 8lb. “Loyalty is important, so you don’t spend your fishing time looking for your dog. But don’t get a labrador or a terrier,” he summarises. “One’ll swim in the water, the other will stress you out.”
Or as international game-fishing agent Nick Zoll says: “If you set out to put yourself and a dog into a situation where you aren’t necessarily going to be fully focused on the dog, you want one that is easy to please, devoted, biddable and obedient.” Near the abbey-lined chalkstreams of Norfolk, Zoll owns a matriarchy of black cocker spaniels – Olive, Spinner and Midge, all named after trout flies. “Midge is nine months old, going on three years,” he says. “After they lose their puppy teeth they suddenly think they are full-blown dogs, so it’s lucky she has Spinner with her on a fishing afternoon.” Aged six, Spinner has seen it all and understands that the day won’t be about picking up birds. Midge learns from Spinner that rules are different on the river. Her calming influence is ideal, explains Zoll, “especially where you don’t want your dog to chase a moorhen upstream or splash over that rising trout”.
It was Olive’s wildfowling prowess in freezing creeks on the Norfolk coast that convinced Zoll how good cockers are in water. The River Nar where he fishes is so wild and woolly that by mid-summer, access along the banks becomes impossible, so while Zoll wades, his cockers just jump in behind and swim until he finds a spot to climb out.
Perhaps we’ll try a cocker next time, so we can get a smaller car. Ultimately, I suspect, it’s not about the breed or even how rigorously we train them as a riverside Jeeves. It’s about having something to keep you company in an otherwise rather solitary sport. “The companionship is the best thing,” agrees Parker in Hampshire. “If I’m out on my own with Buster, he’s something to talk at. If he sees welly boots go on, he’s at the door waiting.”