The Substitute


My angry, loud voice: “NO, NO, NO…Sit! Stay! NO!”

My nice, high pitched voice: “Go sit down. Get the rock on shore! Bentley!”


This substitute black lab/fishing partner is on the brink of being fired. I can’t blame him- he is the dog we decided early on that training was of no use (as he stumbled to learn even the basic commands). He remained in the shadow of my amazing yellow lab, Opal, who was my best friend and the most graceful fly fishing assistant. She would have perched herself silently on a rock or log, aware of my need for casting room, and waited to move until a fish was successfully netted. She passed away three months ago and being at the river without her is painful; I can barely say her name without swallowing tears. For Opal’s sake, among other reasons, Bentley and I have to find a way to get along.

After my last couple of fishing trips alone in the city, I not only felt naked not having a companion, but I also ran into a few situations that made me feel like I either needed a dog, a gun, or some serious ‘nun chuck’ skills. Long story short: I found myself in the middle of an inner-city homeless colony that was shielded from the outside world by a brushy encampment. It was so well hidden that I didn’t even notice what I had stumbled into until I was half way in the middle of it, surrounded by little huts, a wash sink, an eclectic pile of garbage and a nice size fire pit. I was worried they were going to kill me because ‘I knew too much’ so I literally ran through the trees in my waders and gave up on exploring new access points to the Boise river.

There is no doubt that my vivid imagination gets the best of me when I am alone out on the river. I often think the van that keeps driving by is trying to find a place to stash a dead body or the guy with the hood on and walking mysteriously back by the water is planning on trying to kidnap me. But I’m too addicted to fly fishing to allow my fears to keep me from going to the river. This morning my husband asked me if I wanted to take Bentley and it seemed like a decent idea.

I call Bentley out of the water and tie a piece of rope that I brought along for the day. We move to a stretch of untouched water and I have him lay down while I stand on the roap. I float a nymph set up through a part of the river that looks like it would hold trout in the winter. Every couple minutes I say ‘good dog’ or reward him with a positive gesture, which he is not used to getting from me very often. I seriously have treated him like the evil step mother treated Cinderella, or a parent who accidently judges their younger kids by the success of their first born and says things like:

“Why can’t you be like your sister?” Or, “Try harder!”

 I am sorry for that now, and I realize if he is going to be my substitute I have to start from ground zero with him and be patient. I let go of the rope and he sits there quietly- he may not even know I have let go of it, he is just that dense, but I am still impressed.

Every few minutes I say “stay”, and by golly, its working! I move into the water and encourage him to stay and he does, while desperately searching my face for approval. I fish for about 20 minutes before he stands up. I cross back over and praise him exceedingly for being a “good dog”. We play for a bit and I decide to walk up stream.

Just in case he floats down river while we are wading up and across the river, I take off Bentley’s rope and let him go free. We perch ourselves on a small island that is covered in snow. I begin my training tactics again without the make shift leash and he sits quietly on the island- I am shocked! I throw on a streamer and jiggle it around in a riffle and let it fall hopelessly into the pool below it. After I strip it in slowly, a fish grabs the streamer and my line tightens; the fish dives back down into the pool and then comes up and leaps out of the water. When Bentley sees it for the first time he jumps right into the water. I start yelling because I don’t want him to get caught up in the line!


I wade out to try to intercept the possible unfortunate scenario of Bentley wound up in my line and breaking my fly rod. I grab his collar, while still holding onto the line with my fly rod tight under my arm pit, and start backing up slowly. I’m sure I look hilarious and I hope someone is videotaping this interaction somehow. The fish is yanking on my line and Bentley is pulling away from me to attack the fish splashing around.

Once I get Bentley to the shore, I quickly put on his leash, shove it under my foot and finish pulling in the brown trout; I hold it in front of Bentley and let him get a sniff and release it carefully back to its habitat. After I make Bentley lie down, and tie his leash to a rock, I notice he is shaking. Thankfully I brought my smart phone out on the river and like an idiot, I Google: ‘How long can labs be in freezing water’. The responses help me realize he is shaking because he is excited, but I’m not 100% sure so I decide I should probably get him out of the water.

Instead of heading back, we take a walk on the pathway next to the river. The sun is shining through the trees and I can hear melting snow trickling down into the water. As a fly fishing addict, I am constantly watching the water and sizing it up for decent fishing spots. As we pass a log that is resting in the middle of the river, I see a large fin poke out and dive back under the water. I hold my breath, as if it will help me be quiet, and watch for another sign. Sure enough, it floats back up and dives under again. I have to get closer to watch, so I tie Bentley up to a tree and plead with him to be quiet.

I feel like I am catching frogs as I slowly move in the water, trying not to disturb the fish I am stalking. Once I am about 8 feet away from her, I am thankful to see that she does not know I am there as she goes about her business. She is a huge rainbow trout, or even possibly a steel head, but I can’t tell because her whole back end is covered in white. Her face has white patches on it as well; and from my time in Alaska, I know that white coloring means the fish is slowly dying.

She floats up and her fin brazes the surface and she apathetically makes her way back down. A bird flies over and she moves under the log as quick as she can, which is half the rate of a healthy fish. She is beautiful, but she is dying.

Being a medical social worker in recovery (I quit a year ago), I start to problem solve on ways I could help her. How terrible to be trying to die peacefully while also still worrying about predators. I want to save her, but after I realize that calling a vet or alarming the Fish and Game to come meet me here for a 911 emergency, they would just laugh at me and say that this is a part of a fish’s life and that I need to let her go.

I stand there for a while, watching her gracefully dance around the log and easily being moved by the current that surrounded her. Bentley is standing at the furthest point his leash would allow, staring at me as if he was curious about what I was doing. He barked a small bark and it reminds me that I should probably move on and let her rest in peace. I feel honored to be able to watch nature first-hand and witness a brave fish doing what she was made to do. I picture her prodigy swimming over her final resting place in the future, on their way up to spawn and then join her in the end, floating in the river.

Once I peel myself away from my dear fish friend and approach the cut bank, I notice Bentley wagging his tail incessantly. I let him off of his leash and walk down stream to throw a stick a few times to reward him for being a semi-good dog. I even threw in a few kind words and a pat on the head.  

When I get back to the car, I take off my waders and break down my fly rod, like a spy putting their fake identity away and turning back into themselves. Bentley loads into the back of car and lies down immediately- he is exhausted from a busy day on the river.

The long drive home gives me time to digest the experiences of the day and I realize that today was healing for me. I was reminded that death is just as much a part of life as birth; and losing my fishing buddy was so hard, but life, although never the same, carries on.

And despite his negative scores on the performance scale, Bentley really impressed me today. I’m not sure I felt safer by having him with me, but I do know that I was so pre-occupied with what he was doing that I did not have time to worry about the teenagers smoking pot across the river or the creepy van guy looking for a place to stash a body.

I miss my Opal every day, but I think she was really proud of me for giving Bentley a chance today and continuing to get out on the river…..Even if we only landed one fish.



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