by Frank Sargeant

Photograph by Justin Gonsalves and artistically interpreted by David Van Wie.

Dogs are not human, I know.

They’re much more than that.

A human can’t smell a tarpon at a hundred yards. Or know your heart better than you know it yourself.

My Uncle Bob, his skin blackening like an overripe banana, left eye sagging like the broken shutter on his old house, died on April Fool’s Day.

It was no joke.

He had been “failing” for a long time, as we say in the Midwest.

When you fail long enough, you pass.

There is no remediation class or summer school, apparently.

Bob had never seen a tarpon. Adirondack trout were his game—the one he taught me—and he would have scorned a 12-weight had he ever seen one.

“F’n broomstick,” he would have growled.

But he surely would have loved being on the bow with the big rod that morning at Chassahowitzka Point.

We drift on water clear as air, 4 feet above a magic carpet of turtle grass and basket sponge where baby pinfish flash like silver dollars. Air so calm the splash-plunk of mullet—the fish that wishes to fly—is clear from a quarter mile off.

The planet spins the rising sun into view, a fat egg yolk rising out of the sea.

Pistol shrimp fry bacon below the hull.

Why didn’t I eat breakfast?

A ray pops out of the sand and scoots off drunkenly, an astonished remora trying to catch up.

No tarpon for an hour. Who cares? Where would we rather be? Here is the answer to the question we forget to ask.

An osprey goes by close enough to touch with the push pole, a writhing mullet in its claws. I can see the eye of the fish, his dream of flying finally realized.

But now he knows the cost.

At least the osprey is happy. Her wings squeak lightly, as if they need oil.

If I had a pin, I could hear it drop.

We are the painted skiff upon the painted ocean.

All that suddenly is forgotten when Fish stiffens up into that little half-point Labs do on game, looking south.

And a tarpon rolls a hundred yards out.

Behind it comes a porpoising silver school longer than a football field.

It is April 1.

Fish was Bob’s dog to start, one in a long line of yellow Labs that had ridden in his disgraceful pickups to an assortment of grouse and woodcock coverts, steelhead pools, and occasional night trips to posted streams where monster browns were rumored. But when he saw the final sundown was not far off, he called me to the house and gave the six-month-old pup to me.

“She’ll make a good dog if you raise her right,” he told me. “No damned shock collars!”

It was the last time I saw him.

I never needed a shock collar for Fish. She was a natural—but from the start she liked fish better than feathers.

The tarpon were coming fast riding the rising tide, which runs south to north here.

It was hard to get hooked up on those dead-calm mornings because they could see you as well as you could see them, but I liked those mornings best because you could watch every stroke of the tail and roll of the eye.

You could also hear them coming, even if you weren’t looking their way, with their rolling gulps, baloop, a sound no tarpon angler ever forgets.

These fish, some of them as old as I am, should know better than to eat a ball of feathers on a hook, but they do it—sometimes, if you’re quiet enough and careful enough and quick enough.

Other times they eyeball it like a bomb specialist looking for the detonator.

I was a bit slow to start stripping line off the reel, and Fish rolled her eyes at me and gave a little huff that seemed to say, “They’re right there, you putz—cast!”

Bob would have been proud.

Tarpon are the wrong fish in the wrong place, which is what makes them so right for fly fishing.
Giants like these should be swimming with a thousand feet of water under their bellies. Maybe they were when the sea began a hundred miles west of here at the shelf. Now they travel in the shallows at the edge, gulping air. Give or take a few million years, and they’ll be crawling on their fins in the mangroves. For now they’re in the perfect zone for fly fishers.

And their dogs.

I push out a cockroach pattern on a hook big enough to choke a respectable steelhead. It drops 20 feet in front of the lead fish. Five little twitches make the feathers kick.

Most of the time, the fish are just a little too far. Or a little too deep.

Or a little too damned persnickety, Bob would have said of a brown turning up its nose at his hopper.

Or “hoper” as he called it.

Most of the time your hopers fail.

But sometimes they don’t.

This fish adjusts her route, glides up to the fly, and inhales.

Strip-set 3-4-5 times, pulling the hook into the right corner of her jaw as she turns left. The massive chrome body flashes, a plateglass mirror catching the morning sun.

Five heartbeats later she’s a hundred yards into the backing and comes up in that first furious, world-splitting jump higher than my head, spitting diamonds, and Fish is going crazy with that big, deep bark that everybody within earshot understands; we are hooked up.

Tarpon should perhaps be a controlled substance. They are a pharmaceutically pure addiction.

At least for the first ten minutes.

This one did the usual tarpon thing, an elephant attempting ballet, giving me a chance to examine the bare spool of the reel several times.

Then we settle down to the grunt work, rod tip down, pull her backward—watch that crab trap! Pull and reel and pull and reel.

This is the long part. The part when you remember what you’re out there to forget.

We lived in a stilt house a couple miles up Mason’s Creek, a hovel that I had cobbled together enough to be habitable by man and dog, though apparently not by women for any extended period. Who knew they were so sensitive to a little leak in the roof, a little sulfur water in the faucets, a large dog sleeping in the bedroom?

When the tarpon run was not on and I had no charters, which was frequent, I was a carpenter’s helper, an electrician’s apprentice, a store clerk—and now and then a writer, though the checks were spaced almost as widely as the comings and goings of the women.

Fish celebrated with me when a new lady arrived and consoled me when she left. She was noncommittal on most.

Except for one.

One day she stopped eating. When a Lab stops eating, you know they are in deep trouble. Or have an ulterior motive.

I took her to the only vet in Homosassa.

The doctor was a slender woman who wore no makeup but had deep blue eyes into which you could fall—and drown.

Castor oil was the prescription. For the dog, not for me—though I was immediately stricken.

Fish pooped out the problem that night—a mullet head the size of a golf ball.

Fish was better but I was bewitched.

I called the vet and asked her to go fishing.

Six months later she moved in. She had grown up with sulfur water. And she didn’t mind a dog sleeping in the bedroom.

“This could be the one,” I told Fish.

“Humph,” said Fish.

A tarpon season later the vet—Callie—was still there. Fish switched allegiances, riding to the clinic with her every day except in tarpon season. And Callie caught her first fish on fly.

“I could get used to this,” she said.

So could I. We married.

Shortly after that we were pregnant. (She more than me.)

Robert would be the name if it were a boy—she was good with that.

“The present is a present,” Bob frequently said. “The future is a gift.”

Things went well for six months.

We bought a crib. A bassinet. A rocking chair. Everything was right.

“There’s something wrong,” she said one morning.

We fail until we pass.

Three hours later, our baby was gone.

How can you love something you never had so much? You think it hurts as much for you as for her, but of course it doesn’t. The life was not inside you.

“We could try again,” I suggested a few months later.

“No,” she said. “This was a mistake.”

“OK, we can wait longer,” I said.

“No,” she said, “Not that. This.” Her hands enveloped my world.

Two weeks later she moved out.

The present is a present.

Fish never got over it. She searched the house at all hours, but found nothing but a leftover hairbrush, a worn-out shoe. She watched the road at 6 every night, looking for Callie’s car to pull in.

Sometimes I did, too.

Time flies when you’re having fun. And when you’re not.

The fish began to tire—she was not a giant as giants go, maybe a buck twenty-five, as tarpon guides like to say, and before long I could stop her surges, then pull her backward by palming the reel.

Thirty minutes later I stuck my thumb in her jaw, no small trick solo but I had wasted a lot of years chasing these fish.

She was warmer than the air—the water was 85 degrees—and her hard side felt almost mammalian. The dark eye, large as a tennis ball, turned to look into mine.

Terror and defeat and sadness in that look.

Now she knows.

You fail until you pass.

It almost makes you want to quit catching them.

But not quite.

Fish came up front and gave her that little nip on the nose she always had to do, sort of counting coup, perhaps, before we sent her on her way.

She headed north, trying to catch up with her school. By July, she’d be a hundred miles offshore spawning. And we’d be alone in the stilt house on the river.

The tarpon seasons came and went. I finished the house, piped in city water from the street. Got a real job, with a steady paycheck.

Twenty-eight dog years flew by.

And Fish lost her appetite, again.

This time castor oil was not the cure.

Nothing was.

First she couldn’t see the fish, then she couldn’t smell them. Finally, she stopped caring if they were coming or not and simply slept under the console.

One morning she couldn’t make it into the boat. I lifted her in. Then back out, and we went to see Callie, still the only vet in town.

“I’m so sorry,” she said. “It’s called glioblastoma. Maybe three months.”

Dog years are no joke.

“Help us?” I asked.

“You know I will,” she said.

We launched at first light the next morning, and Callie brought a syringe.

“Pentobarbital, it’s called,” she said. “It won’t be painful.”

She was very wrong about that.

I lifted Fish aboard. She seemed a bit better, seeing Callie there. But she went to sleep as soon as the motor started.

The water on the point was flat when we got there, the tide rising, south to north, mullet splash-plunking inshore.

And out just on the edge of the flat, the glint of tarpon rolling in the early sun, baloop.

Fish raised her head, half wagged her tail, and went back to sleep.

I held her in my lap on the bow deck.

The needle went into her left front leg, in a vein just beneath the skin.

She looked in my eyes, then Callie’s, and died.

“I have to do this a lot,” Callie said, but she was crying, too, slipping an arm around my shoulders. We sat there in the boat and hugged and cried like children for ten minutes.

A pair of tarpon slid by, in easy range.

“They’re right there, you big putz,” Fish would have said. “Cast!”

We held each other, and watched the fish swim off.

The present is a present. The future is a gift.

Frank Sargeant is author of ten outdoors and boating books and a regular contributor to a number of outdoors magazines and online publications. He is a former fishing guide—in Homosassa, where the story takes place—and has owned a number of dogs who were his best friends and fishing companions. Every one of them broke his heart when it was time to let them go.

He has an MA in English from Ohio University—the one in Athens, not the one in Columbus.