March 24, 2022
The first time I saw her she was only a week old, a fist-size fur ball, black, and blind, and smooth like velvet. There were eleven of them in that litter, all identical siblings, except for Runty who was just as identical, only smaller. Mostly they slept, cuddled up in a pile of bodies, which bristled with big stubby noses and ratty tails shaped like question marks. Or they clustered on their mother’s belly, oversized ticks literally sucking the life out of her.
All in all, it was your average litter of purebreds, impossibly cute and so desirable there was a long waiting list of prospective owners. There was absolutely no indication that, within only a few months, and without any training but for some basic obedience, one of the pups would become the best fly-fishing dog I could ever imagine. A dry-fly prodigy. A natural.
I managed to bypass the waiting list due to my sadly preferential circumstances. Only a couple of months earlier I lost my first Airedale named Mops. She was killed by a car in a pile-up of coincidences that was impossible to either foresee or prevent, and this turned me into something of a dog-less orphan, which among the “Airedale people” is about as tragic a calamity as can befall a human being.
I visited the pups a few more times, and as soon as the prescribed seven weeks were over I brought mine home. I named her Maya, and from the very beginning it was clear she was no ordinary poodle-face show dog. For one, she had no inherent fear of anything: fireworks, thunder, lightning, or gunfire—sounds and sights that can turn many dogs into nervous wrecks—elicited no more than a head cocked to the side in curiosity. Then, true to her otterhound genetic inheritance, she took to water as if it was her preferred element. Soon after that, she discovered fly fishing and the mesmerizing quality of moving water.
I don’t remember exactly how and when this began, but sometimes early in her first year Maya started to point rising fish for me. I never taught her that, or even thought it possible, so in true Airedale fashion she must have figured it out herself, the cause and effect, the work and the rewards. Her logic would have gone something like this: ring on the water = (not always but often) the exciting singsong of the reel and the fish splashing on the surface = (not often but still often enough) a dinner.
In a way of positive reinforcement so recommended for Airedales, and sometimes simply because we ran out of food in the woods, I’d feed her a carefully selected fish, dispatched with respect and by ikejime, filleted and cubed, and sometimes—despite all that—still flapping.
Maya has never quite become a convert to catch-and-release fishing. Every time I’d release a fish, her body language would say: “Wait! WAIT! What are you doing? Don’t! No! Don’t do it! . . . Oh man!” Then, as the fish streaked off, Maya would pounce after it, until it got too deep, then turn around and give me the “what did you do that for?” look.
And I’d always say “Let’s go find another one,” and she’d already be up ahead, looking for it.
We’ve fished like that for a decade, to a point I could not imagine fishing without her. She’s matured and settled, and become an even better dog, and I, wary of past experiences, have taken extreme care to protect her from all motorized traffic. I’ve adjusted where I fish, developing a new geography of dog-friendly or at least dog-neutral rivers, reasoning that I’d rather not fish a place than do it without my dog.
She has weaseled her way into all my books, into magazine stories, onto the cover of a mountain clothing catalogue. Even some of my regular fishing clients demand outright that Maya comes on our trips. One guy even said “If she can’t come I’m canceling.” And so, as always, she came, and spotted fish for us, and played her part of the jester, and somehow miraculously, despite her frantic excitement at every hookup, she has never ever caused anyone to lose their fish, although a few times it was close.
Yet, apart from her unbridled excitement at seeing fish either rising or jumping when hooked, her clownish disposition and other idiosyncrasies, it is Maya’s undying fascination with staring into moving water that is both the most puzzling and endearing. She never tires of it. Perhaps you can relate?
After a full day’s fishing, when we finally make it back to the camp, she would eat her dinner then go find a good vantage point on the riverbank and never take her eyes off the water until it gets too dark to see. And if the dinner was a meaty bone she would take it to the river’s edge and eat it there, front paws clasping the bone, those hyena jaws working methodically, while her eyes scanned the river for any sign of rising trout. This may be her take on eating in front of a TV, but perhaps also a hint that the fearless Airedale may harbor one little fear after all, and it is one of missing out on action: a fear that a fish may rise and she would not see it, and missing out on seeing the trout rise is like missing out on life itself. So many times I’ve found myself joining her in this evening contemplation, gazing at the river and letting it work its magic, not wanting to miss out on life either.
Fishing together like that—hiking rivers, staring into their waters, sharing the last of our food or keeping each other warm through cold camp nights—we’ve had an untold number of “best days ever,” regardless of what the trout were doing. It seemed like we’ve always done it and always would. But time is a disease, and none of us is immune to it.
It began with her reluctance to going on runs and bike rides, and I thought maybe the pace was too fast for her now; she had never been a racer. She would still hike and fish—there was no leaving her behind for this—but it seemed to take her a lot longer to recover.
There would be mornings when she got up visibly stiff and her back legs and hips would take ages to work properly again, and she was stoic and matter-of-fact about it, just lying stretched out in the sun as if absolutely nothing was wrong. Then, one morning on the edge of a river, she jumped out of the camper, yelped, lay down again, and would not get up. Not even the sight of fishing gear would get her enthused, and I sat with her much of that morning, rubbing her back and ears, trying to massage some life back into her hindquarters, and my throat was choking up at this sudden realization that our days together, fishing and otherwise, were coming to an end.
It was my partner Jennifer who brought me back from this edge of premature grief and into reality again. She has always had dogs, usually strays, and rescues and the “unadoptables.” She has given them love and care, and a home to live out their troubled lives, and along the way she has seen them age and deteriorate until the moment she had to let them go.
“You need to cut Maya some slack,” she said. “By our human standards she’s over 70 years old. You have given her the best possible life and now she’s coming to her retirement.
“When you get a puppy, you’re getting this too,” Jennifer went on. “We don’t think about it because there is a time delay built in, ten, maybe fifteen years. But you can’t have one without the other.”
Of course, I knew that. Mops had taught me a lesson about living and mortality, and this is precisely why I named the new dog Maya. In Eastern traditions Maya means illusion. As the short life and sudden departure of Mops made me realize, it was an illusion to think we have dogs, much less own them. They come into our lives for a time and then they leave again, and the only part of it we have any control over is what we do with this time and what quality we imbue it with. The big lesson here was to make every one of the days together count because we never knew how many of them we had.
A few weeks and a disheartening number of yelping incidents later, I was selling my inflatable boat, and a man and his wife came to look at it. He was an avid fly fisher too, but he had hurt his back so walking riverbanks was now difficult.
The boat was an instant sell, but as we continued to talk about fishing and places, I noticed they had a black Lab at the back of their twin cab. I suggested we let our dogs out so they could meet.
The Lab tore out of the truck, jumped around everyone, then saw Maya’s tennis ball and instantly brought it to be thrown for him to fetch. As the man did, his dog galloped after it. Maya did not follow as she normally would. I’ve stopped throwing the ball for her after, one time, her back legs collapsed as she tried to chase it.
The ball throwing went on for a few more laps and the Lab was keen and sprightly, never tiring of fetching.
“You’d never tell he is twelve years old,” the woman said. “A few months ago his arthritis was so bad he could barely walk but then the vet put him on these wonder drugs and well, it’s been like having a new dog again.”
So we are doing drugs now, reluctantly as they come with side effects, but meantime we too have a new dog. She tears after her tennis ball again, puts in big days on a river, and the sight of the fly rod excites her as it always has. There is no telling how much longer this will go on, in effect we are buying her more quality time and so far this is working beyond any hopes I had only weeks ago.
I’m sure that when the time comes it’ll be one of the hardest goodbyes I’ve ever had to say. I’m equally sure she’ll want to fish until the very end, or at least to watch fish rise even if she can no longer go after them. Meantime, we live for the now, taking it a day at a time, making every one count, or as Jennifer would say, making sure each of them is “the best day ever.”
Derek Grzelewski is an author, fly-fishing guide and an FFF casting instructor who divides his time between New Zealand and Colorado. He is the author of The Trout Diaries and The Trout Bohemia, and his final book in the New Zealand trout trilogy—The Trout Dreams—will be out next year. You’ll find him at DerekGrzelewski.com.