By Alexandra Stark
While humans have been breeding dogs for water applications hundreds of years, in the sportfishing industry one variety of canine is becoming increasingly popular: the Boat Dog. The Boat Dog comes in all shapes and sizes. Some are known to wear sunglasses, others life jackets. Some of them get fired up when the reel goes off and others get their feelings hurt when their owners try to go offshore without them.
Not only is bringing a dog offshore a very common and acceptable practice but boating with dogs is AWESOME. There are so many benefits for the humans and the dogs. What makes it so special? Well, dogs truly are great companions. Whether you are fishing alone or with several other people, dogs are a pleasure to have around. They can even be a selling point for charters.
Legends of Boat Dogs
Boats and dogs have gone well together for as long as there have been boats and dogs. Retriever breeds like labs and goldens were bred specifically for use on the water. Their webbed feet and ever readiness to bail off in the water to fetch ducks or geese have made them the perfect boating companion for hunters for centuries. They also make great companions for anyone who likes throwing tennis balls or sticks at the lake or the beach. The Newfoundland, a large and powerful swimming dog, was bred specifically to help fishermen in eastern Canada. These dogs helped with net placement and their role in saving people from shipwrecks or falling over board is the stuff of legend.
From the practical applications that led people to breed dogs to work on the water, the creation of the boat dog was only a matter of time. As they have become increasingly popular, the boat dog has created some great stories. Captain Terry Stancil told us about a 58-foot Hatteras that fished out of Panama City, Florida a while back. He couldn’t recall the name of the boat, but they had a dog that could climb the ladder to the bridge. We made a few phone calls, but we couldn’t track down the people or dogs involved.
When you bring dogs aboard, you never really know what might happen. My husband likes to tell the story of fishing with a boat at a tournament in Puerto Rico. The owner and his wife had their little, sort of grumpy lap dog on board. Whenever the clicker would go off, the dog would run out and bite something or someone. He got it on the ankle a couple of times before figuring it might be safer to sit on the mezzanine.
Then there are the stories about dogs jumping or falling overboard miles at sea, presumed lost only to swim and walk their way home days or weeks later. A quick internet search reveals that stories like this happen with some frequency and in many places—Florida, the Carolinas and even the Great Lakes. The story line is reminiscent of the movie Homeward Bound, only it involves a boat.
Beyond the myths and stories of dogs and the crazy things that can happen on the water, we’ve spoken with a number of fishing operations that incorporate the canine perspective into their everyday fishing. What follows are some profiles of boat dogs and the humans they allow to wind in their catch. They were mighty generous in sharing why and how dogs bring enjoyment on the water as well as providing tips on keeping the four leggers happy, comfortable and safe.
The Adventures of Fisher and Rigger aboard the Fish Tank
Chris and Laura Jessen own the Fish Tank, a globetrotting, world smashing 63-foot Hatteras. With a base of operations in Los Sueños and a regular jaunts to Mexico and the tournament circuit in the Gulf and East Coast, the Jessens and their two Australian shepherds—Fisher and Rigger— are fixtures on the fishing landscape.
Fisher and Rigger know when it’s time to get ready for a fishing trip and they know when the ritual begins. They get excited and cannot wait to get out on the water. They are so much a part of the fishing life—they have their own Instagram hashtag to document their epic days #riggerandfisherbigadventures.
Makaira and Rigger Ensure Everything is Up to Protocol
Captain Alex Rogers (@marlin5401), resides in Bakersfield, California. An owner/operator of his charter boat, the Protocol, Rogers has spent many years patrolling the waters around Cabo San Lucas for marlin, dorado and tuna. In part the result of his success in staying on the action, Rogers and his operation have been featured on a number of television shows and he has a large social media audience as well.
That however, is not the most interesting part of Rogers’ operation. Alex and his girlfriend not only rescue dogs and bring them into their family, but they also incorporate four leggers heavily into their fishing lives. Capt. Alex’s cockpit crew includes not only a first mate, but also his dogs, Makaira and Rigger. Makaira comes with him on every trip, including the plane ride and loves every bit of it.
Not only does Makaira provide great company on the boat, she is also a selling point for many of his clients—who love taking pictures with her. More than just a pretty face, Makaira is part of the crew. When the sound of the drag goes off—she knows what is about to go down.
Lucy the (Boat)Yard Dog
For the past 42 years, Rick Scarborough has owned Scarborough Custom Boat Builders in Manteo, North Carolina. Ricky is a kind man who agreed to be part of the article to tell a little bit of his story on his yard dog, Lucy. Lucy is a big black lab who never met a ball or a stick that she didn’t like.
Many people who visit Scarborough’s yard are first greeted by Lucy. She is known to meet visitors outside and commence to giving them a tour of the property—whether they had planned on taking one or not. Lucy’s first move is to invite folks to follow her to the dock that sits adjacent to the shop. If all goes according to plan, Lucy convinces her new friends to give her stick (that she just happened to bring along with her) a toss into the water.
When not giving tours, Lucy spends her days in the yard with her Dad checking out the progress of the magnificent boats. Lucy loves the yard so much she has learned to toss the stick for herself—she lets it go into the water, waits for it to drift a bit then jumps in to retrieve. It is not only Ricky who likes having Lucy around, all his costumers enjoy her company. Some so much so that one client was motivated enough request a 74-foot custom boat with a built-in dog bed extension out of the wall!
While Lucy is certainly part of the Scarborough crew, her duties are mostly in the realm of customer experience. She lets other people turn the wrenches (Ricky typically doesn’t let her get too close to the actual construction) … Yard dogs, after all, do need to be careful around the shop—a dog with glue in its paws can be a sticky situation.
A Mako on Board You don’t have to be fishing on a boat to enjoy the company of a dog. Plenty of people just enjoy their pets with them for a casual day out on the water. In speaking with April Brownlee of Jupiter, Florida, she details how her French Bulldog, Mako, enjoys sitting on rails as her family cruises around the Intercoastal. Mako makes himself at home on the boat and certainly looks the part.
Ziggy, the Hawaiian Lucky Charm
Captain Kerwin Masunaga runs the Rod Bender, a 40-foot Cabo in Kona, Hawaii. A two-time InTheBite Captain of the Year, Kerwin is something of an Aloha legend. Fishing is often a family affair for Kerwin, his son and daughter frequently run the cockpit. When flipping through the pages of Masunaga’s fishing picture album, two things jump out at you.
First, that Kerwin has caught a whole pile of big fish (many with money and prizes on the line) and, secondly, that Ziggy, his trusty rat terrier, really likes to fish. Masunaga credits Ziggy with being his lucky charm and says that if he fishes on another boat and can’t bring Ziggy, the little fella gets mad.
Tips for Creating a Fun, Dog Friendly Boat Environment
With all of chaos that can go on in the cockpit when you get a fish or two hooked up, Chris Jessen recommends putting the dogs inside the cabin when fish are on. This will keep the dogs from being trampled in the excitement and can keep the crew and anglers safe as they navigate the cockpit. The dogs don’t look at this as punishment—after all, when it comes to tournament billfishing, every team member must do his or her part. Even when they are inside in the AC, Rigger and Fisher like to keep their snouts plasters to the window as to not miss out on any action!
There can also be safety concerns raised by rough seas. An inexperienced pooch might be thrown off balance by a big or unexpected wave. Were this to happen while the dog is on the covering board, the next step might be a soggy pup bobbing in the wake. Some of our experts recommend the option of life jackets with handles for boat dogs when it’s rough. It’s also important to stay vigilant when a dog is in board to know of their whereabouts.
Another great idea from Captain Alex Rogers is to take a test trip with the dog(s) to see if it is a good fit. Although the human may want to bring their furry buddy along—some dogs don’t enjoy the experience as much as others. Just like people, dogs can get seasick.
Dog Piling in The Action
There are stories of dogs who can actually see blue marlin on the teaser (you’ll have to check out a future installment for that one). A friendly dog can help sell charters. Some even seem to have a nose for the fish. Then there are the lucky dogs who seem to call the fish up.
Some of them also do some funny things when fishing. Our golden retriever, Lucy, will submerge her head in a bait bucket and come out with a pilchard in her mouth. Bait thief? Sure, but it’s a pretty great party trick.
Rigger and Makaira are at the center of some pretty great stories aboard the Protocol as well. When asked about funny stories involving his Cabo boat dogs, Capt. Alex Rogers says, “There have been a couple of them, but I would say the funniest, and also the scariest, was when Makaira decided to run all out across the cockpit and jump out off of the transom. She literally leapt off the boat while trying to catch a pelican that had his face in our bait tank as we were heading through the marina!” Rogers then had to slam the boat into reverse to block the other boats from running over his dog. “I guess it was funny after we got her back on the boat!”
Not to be outdone by his partner in crime, Rigger has a few fish stories of his own. “One time, he was up on the covering board barking at Pancho the seal who was at the transom begging for bait as we were coming in. As he was standing there barking down at Pancho, a frigate bird flew by and bumped him off the side of the boat. I thought for sure the seal was gonna eat him!”
Who Doesn’t Love A Boat Dog?
Everyone loves dogs… and everyone love boats… at least all the people who you can actually trust. Combining man’s best friend and everyone’s favorite pastime, Boat Dogs are great. They are universally excited to be part of your boat day and to share in the action. Better still, Boat Dogs never seem to complain about the hot temperature or that you have been out for too long. Not only that, you’ll never have to worry about them drinking all of the beer or hogging the rod.
Special Accommodations for Dogs on the Boat
Here is a list of best dog practices, as provided by those who participated in the article.
- Make a special spot for them to go to the bathroom because most dogs will hold it all day.
- Use baby sunscreen (SPF 70+) on their snouts because their noses can burn easily.
- Cool towels, kept in the fridge to drape over them to cool them off.
- Using dock carts as transportation to and from the boat since the dock can get so hot and their pads will burn. Some of the other boats have made custom dock carts outfitted just for dogs!
- Keep a full bowl of fresh clean water—with some ice cubes. This will keep Fido cool and hydrated, even on a hot day.