By Jerry Wright
I first met Rod in the early 80’s shortly after I moved to Denver from Tennessee. With his tight smile, hesitant, deep laugh, and his love of fly-fishing, I liked him right away. Having fished the small streams of the Smokies, I had grown confident in catching willing brookies, but was quickly humbled after several unsuccessful trips to the South Platte. Rod invited me to accompany him into Cheeseman Canyon and the techniques he shared I use to this day.
Work took Rod to Utah, and we had sporadic contact in Provo or along the Wasatch Mountains, but we never got to fish together. That all changed in 1986 when we found ourselves working together in southwestern Wyoming. I ended up staying with Rod in a construction trailer on the Green River. Our days consisted of working hard, then returning to the trailer to grab our rods and head down to the Green searching for big browns. Off and on for the next two years Rod and I fished together the upper Green venturing as far as downstream of Flaming Gorge Dam. At Little Hole, I won a six-pack from Rod when he proposed he would catch a fish on his first cast. He pulled in a beautiful 18-inch rainbow downstream of a gravel riffle on his second cast with a size 18 Blue-Winged Olive. Later that evening, back at the trailer, I shared my winnings and we relived the day.
Rod transferred to Billings, and our fishing expeditions moved from the Green to the Bighorn. Rod thought December was the best time to fish, crowds were gone and weed beds would have died back. Who was I to argue, so I packed up my winter gear and headed north. We selected days when the daytime temperature was above freezing and the wind only “moderate”. We launched Rod’s drift boat, floated a short distance, anchored, dropped into the chilly water and began casting and stripping a large black Wooly Bugger streamer. Watching Rod double haul that streamer was poetry, and even though my casts were clumsy and much shorter, we both landed multiple fish, most exceeding 18 inches. We proceeded downriver stopping periodically to fish or hug the leeward bank to get out of the wind. On one deep run Rod’s line straightened, his rod took a deep bend, and his reel began shedding line – “I think it’s a good one” his only comment. I dropped my rod in the boat, grabbed the long handled net, and waded upstream along the submerged gravel bar to watch the fun. What eventually ended up in the net was a 26-inch, hooked-jawed brown. After that the wind didn’t feel nearly as cold. Thus began my pilgrimages to Montana.
On a subsequent trip I met the subject of this article, Dexter, an energetic, orange-and-white Brittany pup. Did I mention energetic? He greeted me, with wagging tail, licks and pink- nosed wet nuzzle. He was beautiful and Rod’s new bird dog, although Rod wasn’t confident of Dexter’s grouse-flushing skills. Did I mention energetic?
Years passed, and with Rod’s persistent and patient training, Dexter grew into a fine bird dog and companion. While sometimes flushing birds well out of range, with his personality he was readily forgiven. I know I mentioned energetic.
Eventually our trip moved from December to spring for the blue-winged olive hatch. Rod had sold his ageing drift boat, so we planned to wade fish. Arriving late, I grabbed my gear and headed up the trail where I knew Rod would be. Halfway up, an orange and white streak came out of the sage, tail wagging. Once again, I was licked and pink-nosed nuzzled. Then Dexter was off, his mission in the sagebrush not yet complete. Rod and I fished a while, Dexter periodically checking in, then headed back to our cabin near Ft. Smith. We sat on the porch a while reliving past trips and watching Dexter work the field. After inhaling his can of dog food, Dexter finally lay down but I swear he was still out there, running in his dreams.
The next day the three of us headed to our favorite fishing hole. Dexter, I would say, was “unconfined to the path”, but he would return now and then to check our progress. “Why are those guys so slow?”
Fishing was good. We slipped into an easy rhythm, one fishing while the other sat back. Dexter, on the other hand, was not into relaxing. He took great pleasure in diving into a still water eddy, retrieving sticks and rocks from the bottom. He would go completely under in his pursuit and seemed oblivious to us until the splashing of a fish-on caught his attention. He launched himself into the current and attempted to help land the fish. It then became the job of the person watching to hold Dexter to intercede his interception.
That’s when it happened. It was my turn to watch. Dexter and I sat patiently observing our friend casting and drifting a dry fly down the run. All was well until Rod hooked a nice fish, which resisted with two subsequent splashy leaps. Dexter’s trigger was pulled. He lunged forward straining while I gripped his collar tightly. He was very strong with those well-exercised legs, but I held fast. That’s when Dexter changed his strategy. He lunged backward, pulling out of his collar, and vaulted into the river to help his buddy retrieve the fish. To our surprise he succeeded in grabbing the trout, swimming to shore, and racing up the gravel bar, the still-hooked fish in his mouth. To the laughing fishermen on the opposite bank, what followed must have looked and sounded like a circus riot. Rod went charging up the bar, fly rod in hand, line still connected to the hooked fish, futilely calling for Dexter to stop while I ran behind carrying an empty collar. Eventually the parade stopped, Rod removed the brown, unharmed due to Dexter’s “soft mouth” and released the panicked fish back into the river. Oh, the tales that fish can tell his children.
That was the last time I fished with Rod. Ensuing grandchildren’s birth and a family health crisis have precluded my return to the Bighorn. We’ve kept in touch sharing hunting, fishing and family updates both sad and happy. In December, Rod told me he had to have Dexter put down as those ever-moving legs slowed down and finally stopped. He is heartbroken as am I for him.
I been there. I lost my fishing buddy Mae, a Wheaten Terrier, four years ago to darn cancer. To this day, my mind sees her running the banks of the Arkansas or sitting beside me intensely watching my dry fly floating the river.
What is it about dogs that bores deep into our hearts? To my friend Rod I say this: I look forward to being on the banks of the Bighorn with you again. Maybe we can sit on that gravel bar and teach each other what our dogs have taught us- an unfettered, energetic, exuberant life and how to be a loyal friend.