Red Dog’s Retreat

Catchin’ grief over cold fish

It was nearing the end of winter, but there was enough ice left on the lake to safely hold Jack’s snow machine and utility trailer, flanked by Smokey LaFleur’s quad loaded with gear.

As a Christmas present for Jack, I’d given him a portable woodstove for his ice fishing tent. Smokey had wired an electrical inverter and a small satellite receiver to his rig. It was the fellas’ plan to drop anchor about 100 feet offshore, stoke Jack’s heater, drill a couple of holes and watch the Canuck’s game while they jigged for rainbows from the comfort of their kerosene-stained and mildewed monument to, “Remember the time…”

By game time the next day, we were tiptoeing Freddie the flat deck out onto the ice over the shallows to unload the gear onto the bank along the shore. Luckily, the day before, while they were laying in supplies, I realized my error in judgment about joining them.

Jupiter, our one-of-a-kind African Highland red spaniel thundered along the underbrush routing anything that hopped, flew or climbed trees. There’s actually no such thing as a red spaniel but Jupiter, being in a unique orbit of his own, was revered far and wide as a one-and-only canine fish finder. He could hold a perfect point at anything sub-aquatic that had fins and weighed over four pounds.

The men went to work setting up the tent, drilling holes for fishing, stoking the woodstove and adjusting the satellite dish. Jupiter and I set out for the far side of the lake, about a kilometre away, pulling a small sled. I had a trap line over there that occasionally gave up a fur-bearing animal or two. Jupiter trotted along with his nose down, aimed at possible fish targets. I did sort of look like his master, in my Canadian Flyer survival suit and knee-high trail busters.

With the trapline in sight, we fell in behind what seemed to be ski tracks. The funny thing was that there was just one track at a time, each one about eight feet long, then a space, then another eight-foot track, but never two tracks at once.

We followed the skid marks into a bay that I call No Fish Here, one of several such locations on the lake that Jupiter and I both deemed pointless to fish.

Finally, the track ended with the convergence of several other tracks just like it at the bank where the trapper’s trail began. Jupiter went wild, pawing at the undercut in the shore. Seconds later, he turned around with a four-pound trout in his mouth, all set to hand it over.

From out of nowhere an otter appeared and slid down the bank going for the dog, which was all right with me, he could hold his own, except a stand off began. Jupiter wouldn’t cough up the fish and the otter wanted her dinner.

Illustration by Keith Milne & Gord Coulthart
Illustration by Keith Milne & Gord Coulthart

Then came big papa, round the point, humping along and sliding to the rescue. I whistled, caught Jupiter’s attention and our retreat began.

We must have looked like something out of a James Bond movie, yeah, Cold Finger, that was it, with these two determined carnivores gaining on us, snow surfing and snorting their contempt toward their uninvited dinner guests.

Suddenly, the big one, that must have weighed 40 pounds or so, disappeared.

We were gaining as we hit some surface water left behind by a couple of anglers. As we slopped toward the end of this watery well spring, we were ambushed. That diabolical, dog-diving fish gobbler sprang from a fisherman’s hole and the fight was on, with me tangled in the sled harness.

It didn’t last long. Within seconds the trout was being dragged back to the den while we hobbled home to fish camp, soaked and freezing to the bone.

We burst into the tent and held our paws over the glowing stove. The men were sitting on beer coolers with the trap doors of their red woolens buttoned up, thankfully. A fight broke out in the hockey game and I had to wait my turn to replay our encounter with diabolical Dick the furry freestyle Pescadores.

When I was done and out of breath, LaFleur had the nerve to say ­– now get this – “Dat’s purdy funny, Esther. Got any more? Tell us an otter one.”