Fish and Fetch
For 15 minutes my American pointer, Doc, sat on the creek bank in the shade and watched while I angled for panfish around the submerged roots of a downed sycamore. Having caught three good-sized goggle-eye and one warmouth, I decided it was Doc's turn for activity. As I unclipped one of the retrieving dummies from my belt loop, Doc perked his ears and looked at me with anticipation.
"Mark!" I commanded as I pitched the dummy across the creek and into a tangle of weeds and brush. "Fetch!"
At the command, Doc raced to the water and splashed through the shallows. He swam hard when his feet no longer touched bottom. Emerging from the water on the opposite bank, he quartered over to the area where the dummy fell.
"Good boy!" I praised when Doc turned to the water with dummy in mouth. After Doc swam to my side of the creek, I commanded him to heel and sit. He complied, and then accompanied me at heel to the next fishing hole.
Mixing creek fishing with gun-dog training is a sweet way to mix the pleasures of summer and fall. Here's why.
Beats the Heat
Summer's swelter often makes gun-dog training miserable for both dog and trainer. You can avoid the heat by training early in the morning and working your dog at and in a pond or lake. Morning lows of 60s and 70s and waters cooled overnight provide workable temperatures for dog training. However, on days when summer temperatures reach into the 90s, surface waters in many impoundments quickly climb into the 80s and are insufficient to keep a dog cool. After a few retrieves in a warm pond on a hot day, most gun dogs are exhausted.
Creeks, flanked and shaded by trees, maintain cooler water throughout the heat of summer and offer opportunities to train gun dogs during any time of day. The cool water and shade of most creeks allow a trainer to work his gun dog whenever it's convenient.
Some individual gun dogs require little training. Gifted with superior genes, these dogs, with little more than time spent hunting, naturally hunt as they are expected to, and they hunt well. Such dogs, though, are rare. Most dogs require careful training to become helpful hunting companions.
All training, from basic obedience to advanced hunting skills, requires a dog to first associate responses to commands. This initial learning is best accomplished in the yard or a place where there are few distractions. Once a dog links responses to commands and complies readily, the dog must then learn to comply amid distractions. Creek fishing provides plenty of distractions.
For some retrievers with strong instincts, a lure hitting the water is cause enough to break the "sit" command. In his eyes, that lure needs to be retrieved, as does a splashing bass on the end of your line. A green-backed heron swooping down the creek, or the fact that you have been fishing a long time and are now moving to the other side of the creek, all serve to tempt a dog to break "sit." When the dog does, you're there to enforce your command.
There's another benefit to taking a gun dog creek fishing. It prevents obedience training from getting boring. When I take one of my gun dogs on a creek outing, I enjoy the fun of fishing while my dog, on "sit" or "lie down," remains alert because he is watching me cast. When I catch a fish, I may bring the fish over and let my dog sniff it. Sometimes, if the fishing is good, my dog might sit or lie down for 30 minutes or more while I bring fish to hand. This teaches the dog patience and mirrors conditions that retrievers work under while hunting, which is mostly sit or lie down and wait, with brief periods of activity when birds work within gun range.
Heel work comes as we walk from fishing hole to fishing hole, which is far more interesting than walking up and down the driveway. Sometimes, when we are walking to a new hole, I let my dog run ahead, then give him the "come-in" whistle for practice on that important obedience command.
After fishing a hole, I let my dog do some retrieving. For this, I keep a couple of retrieving dummies snapped to my belt loops. Working a dog on water retrieves in a pond is fine, but a creek provides a greater variety of places to throw a dummy--places where crippled game tends to hide. These include undercut banks, tangles of downed trees and brush, root wads and thick growths of creek-bank and gravel-bar vegetation. I throw dummies in these spots to improve my dogs' skill at making retrieves in places similar to where they will be retrieving during hunting season. I do this with both my pointers and retrievers. They enjoy the work. I enjoy watching them, and I like the results. Come hunting season, we lose few cripples because our dogs know to root them out from hiding places.
Once a retriever understands hand signals and blind retrieves, creek fishing provides an excellent opportunity to polish these skills. Sometimes, when I let one of our retrievers walk ahead of me along a creek, I'll flip a dummy into some creek-side cover when he's not looking. I remember the dummy's location, then walk on. Fifty yards or so down the creek, I whistle the dog in, bring him to heel and give him the "back" command straight down the creek. When he is adjacent to the dummy, I give him the "sit" whistle, then give him a hand signal to the dummy. It works well.
On a creek outing with a retriever, I make sure I offer hand-signal work and opportunities for the dog to mark dummies down (see dummies fall and remember their location) so the dog gets good practice at both skills.
At our home we kennel five hunting dogs. Two belong to my 21-year-old son, Mike. When Mike joins me on creek fishing/dog training trips, we bring two dogs. It makes the training even better. We'll have two dogs on "sit" while we fish. When it's time to give the dogs some action, we alternate which dog gets to retrieve. One dog hits the water while the other sits and watches. This further steadies a dog to sitting when it really doesn't want to.
Unlike yard training, where a long session might be 30 minutes, these fishing/training sessions may last three hours or more, which equals the length of many hunts. Again, it doesn't get boring for dogs or trainers because of the action and change of scenery. It's great practice on basic obedience and general gun dog work. It also keeps dogs in top physical shape.
As much as I enjoy taking my dogs on these outings, I realize that some people do not share the same feelings toward dogs. If my son and I see a fisherman ahead, we bring dogs to heel. If we can, we leave the water, and with dogs at heel, we walk around the spot to avoid disturbing our fellow angler. Part of the joy of creek fishing is solitude. Most creek fishermen don't want to see another angler while fishing, much less splashing dogs, which brings up another point. Combining creek fishing with dog training is for a dog that already has a solid hold on basic obedience. A dog that has not been taught to come, sit or heel will benefit little from time spent creek fishing, other than enjoying a good romp. And a dog enjoying a good romp will most likely ruin your fishing as well as that of any other angler you meet.
My son and I also limit our dog training to the creek channel, and never enter private property without permission.
A Safe Trip
As with any outdoor activity, combining dog training with creek fishing poses a few hazards. During summer, animals are out that bite and sting, including snakes. Most that reside along Missouri's creeks are harmless water snakes, but cottonmouths inhabit scattered locations in the Missouri Ozarks. These venomous vipers will bite if approached too closely. A curious dog, sniffing at a cottonmouth, might get bitten on the nose. Such a bite could prove fatal.
My son and I avoid this problem by knowing snake species and knowing the creeks in our area. Over the years, we have spent much time fishing creeks close to home. We know those that support cottonmouths and those that don't. We typically limit our dog training to creeks that don't harbor cottonmouths. If we take a dog to a creek that does support cottonmouths, we keep the dog out of the brush.
Wood nettle poses another problem. Found statewide and along most creeks in Missouri, this plant, though not a serious threat, has stiff, stinging hairs, called trichomes, that can pierce human skin and a dog's nose. The result is intense itching. Some people call the plant "itch weed." When my son and I are working our dogs along a creek, we keep an eye out for wood nettle, both for our sake and the dogs'. When pitching dummies into thick vegetation, we make sure it's free of nettle.
Also consider your dog's feet. Dogs do fine walking and running over gravel, but too much time over this terrain can leave a dog tender-footed, particularly if it lives in the house and is accustomed to walking on carpet. If a creek-fishing trip leaves your dog sore footed, all it needs is a couple days rest. Their feet heal fast.
While your dog sits as you fish, make sure deer flies and horse flies are not bothering him.
A last consideration is water hazards. Before allowing a dog to jump into any pool, know what lies beneath. On clear creeks, that's no problem. You can see to the bottom. In creeks that offer water with less visibility, wade in to make sure there are no structures that might hurt a dog that enters the water with an enthusiastic leap.
Follow these tips, and you and your dog will find creek-fishing trips top-notch practice for the upcoming hunting seasons.