Some Dogs Can Herd Trout, Others Know How to Retrieve Them

Article excerpt

Let's play the "I can top that" game just as soon as we finish with Helen O'Neill of the Associated Press, who last week sent a story from Turnwood, N.Y., concerning two Labrador retrievers that have learned how to herd trout in a pond much the way sheep dogs keep their flock in line.

O'Neill wrote, "The dogs pace the banks eagerly. They yelp in anticipation. They paw the ice gingerly and bark madly as their quarry scatters in every direction. Finally, on cue from their owner, they plunge into the water and begin their task: herding thousands of darting, shimmering trout.

"Their names are Kayla and Maggie. At the Beaverkill Trout hatchery in the heart of the Catskill mountains, where the Shavers have been trout-farming for generations, they are known as the world's only trout-herding dogs."

According to O'Neill, hatchery owner Lisa Shaver wades hip-deep through the pond in a neoprene jumpsuit, pushing the ice aside so the dogs can work better. Behind her, she drags a 60-foot net with weights on the bottom and floats on top.

The trout take off in a frenzy in the other direction - goldens, rainbows, brooks and browns. The two Labrador retrievers swim after them, one on each side of the pond, corralling the swarm, driving it toward the net. As they do, Shaver pulls the two ends of the net together, tightening it into a large floating noose of glistening, leaping fish that eventually will be sold.

Bystanders are forever agog at the trout-herding dogs' ability to work with a human in an effort to drive the fish into a net.

OK, then. Wonder what these people would say if they had a chance to see a black Labrador owned by Eddie Davis, a St. Mary's County, Md., charter fishing captain.

Captain Eddie's dog will sit on the dock near the boss's charter boats, intently staring at his owner, who takes a pen knife and marks an oyster shell. He throws the shell into the normally clear, salty waters of Smith Creek, into a collection of other oyster shells. The dog leaps into the creek, dives the four-odd feet to the bottom and returns with the marked shell. No joke.

Then there was my old West Virginia friend, Howard Holliday, who long ago told me a story that I never was able to completely check out. It concerned a family member who received a puppy as a gift. It appeared to be a Pekingese, flat face and all.

"But it wasn't a Pekingese," Howard said, hand over his heart. "It was a trout retriever. I was told that hundreds of years ago this rare breed of dog had a long nose no different than those seen on German shepherds."

The way the story went, the breed displayed an unusual affinity for watching trout streams, and whenever their sharp eyes detected a brookie or a rainbow trout swimming by, they'd dive in and try to snatch it up.

"Sure, it was a hit-and-miss affair," Howard recalled. "They'd often dive in and slam their snouts straight onto creek boulders, missing the fish altogether. Over time, and in successive breeding attempts with other, similarly "gifted" dogs, their noses had receded so much it appeared they didn't have any at all because of all that slamming into underwater rocks over the decades. By the time they got the hang of actually catching a trout and holding onto it, their faces had been rearranged so much they looked like a Pekingese, but they were trout retrievers."

Howard would tell that story again and again, eyes twinkling, then always finish up by saying, "You know, sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction."

What's with the weather gurus? - Remember last Thursday's warnings about a snowstorm ready to pounce on the Washington area by Friday? The only place to be spared would be Southern Maryland's Charles County, the meteorologists said. Thanks a lot, Bob Ryan. Being a resident of that county, let me tell you how I did the slipping and sliding thing in a veritable whiteout that day. …