The Angler’s Tonic Archive: Clearwater Steelhead and Labrador “Sleep”

Note: This story occurred several years ago. The two main characters, Shadow and Moose, are long gone.

I’m on night one of a five-day trip to Idaho’s Clearwater River, an attempt to land and release as many of those big, meaty B-run steelhead as is humanly possible. Butit’s 4 o’clock in a narrow, mountain canyon and, to my surprise, already dark. Suddenly, I have no idea what I’ll do during the 14 hours before daylight returns, sentenced to the back of the truck with two spoiled Labrador retrievers. Already, I’ve tied enough egg-sucking leeches and conehead muddlers to supply an army and the 20-mile run to the bars in Orofino represents a dangerous foray. It wouldn’t be so bad, but not so long ago there was a lot of booze one night and a friend who didn’t notice her missing tooth until morning. I don’t want to see this gal and explain why my friend hasn’t called. So, basically, I can’t be seen in Orofino.

Moose and Shads, tug-o-war.

I place a Coleman stove on the tailgate, oil a pan, and construct a monumental meat patty before a captive audience. Snow falls in heavy, wet, saturating flakes. The temperature falls from 35 degrees to 15 in about an hour. “It’s going to be fun tomorrow,” I tell Moose and Shadow.

I’m three bites away from completing the meal when I retrieve a stocking hat from the cab. I return and the tailgate is licked clean, my High Life knocked to the ground. It reminds me of the time Moose opened a cooler and ate five Hungarian partridge—every wing, foot, head, beak and bone. Shadow is no saint either; I recall her stealing 62 strips of deer jerky off a counter when I was living in Sun Valley, Idaho. I say, “Who ate my burger! Bad dogs!” The dogs look innocent as larks. Moose’s left eyebrow raises, the right falls in unison. I interrogate the animal and he diverts eyes. Shadow moans and inches her 13-year-old frame onto the nest I’ve created—two cedar-chip beds, a foam pad and a down sleeping bag. It’s an act. She shares equal blame. A hidden camera would have recorded a dead-heat. Her stomach growls, the grease taking effect.

Mooseman on the banks.

I stash the stove and a nasty pan under the truck and climb in with the hounds. I kill the dome light and retreat to my down bag. It’s dark as a cave. The dogs sense we’re in for the long haul. They know the routine as well as I do. There are rustling noises, motion and Shadow’s cold snout against my cheek. Moose’s 115 pounds rises then falls hard against my hip, pinning me against a wheel-well. In another life he played linebacker for the Bears. I place hands against cold steel and leverage my ass to regain a portion of the sleeping pad. It’s a turf war to last all night.

Now it’s nine and I can’t begin to sleep; I can’t stop thinking about a steelhead hooked earlier that day, visualizing its determined run to the far bank, its impossible six jumps, and its crimson gillplates. I rise, turn on the light and greet the Old Crow. I fill half a coffee mug. It’s harsh and warm.

I pour another, acknowledge the shivering dogs, and recall a wicked-cold New Year’s Day when I drove from Seattle to Montana, across ice covered roads, stopping here and there to check the bowl games. I was headed to the Gallatin. I ran out of gas near Drummond. The temperature was minus-twenty. Seriously. Minus-twenty. I didn’t have a sleeping bag. I put on every item of clothing, climbed into a pair of 5MM bootfoot neoprenes and sprawled down in the bed of the truck. I held Shadow in my arms and Moose slept on my head. I wasn’t sure we’d make it.

Early in the morning an officer tapped the canopy. I rose, alive, minus a contact lens, covered in a death frost and dog hair. My breath stank. I lifted the lid and that cop’s expression said he’d awakened the dead.

The Old Crow is so good I poor another. Now, feeling giddy, I’m willing to forgive. Shadow crawls headfirst down my sleeping bag and I say, “Oh you’re a good dog.” I offer Moose a Vienna sausage. Who the hell cares about sleep and smelling like a wet Labrador? We’ve got four more days and the steelhead are in. No need to get worked up, even if it was a tasty burger and my last High Life.

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4 Responses to The Angler’s Tonic Archive: Clearwater Steelhead and Labrador “Sleep”

  1. Jeff Erickson says:

    Great story about your old dogs, Greg. Thanks for sharing!

    • Greg Thomas says:

      Glad you liked it. You know the van/back of the truck lifestyle so I I’m not surprised it resonated with you. I’ll be on the water later this week. Hope you will get to do the same.

  2. Tobin says:

    That was good. Yep, two labs in the back of the truck in cold weather. Been there. One time fishing down on the San Juan in November, had the dog on his bed just by the tailgate, was reading a book. Reached over, took a sip of beer, went to put the can back on the tailgate and missed. nearly full can of beer hits the lab on top of his head, sprays beer everywhere. typical lab, just licked up the spill and went back to sleep.

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