A Tribute: Reflections on the Fishing Life of Kodiak
written by Mike Durkalec, Cleveland Metroparks
I have so many memories following a decade and a half of fishing with Kodiak, that I wanted to get down a few in writing so they aren’t forgotten, and hope a few of them will make folks smile.
I got Kodiak as a 6-week-old English chocolate lab puppy back in May 1997. His official AKC registered name was “Steelhead Kodiak”, since I had big plans to make him a fishing dog. A few weeks after we got him we took him on a camping trip to Findlay State Park. I was so excited to take him fishing for the first time. When I caught a little sunfish, though, he was actually afraid of it! I was horrified. Was my future fishing buddy actually scared of fish? Fortunately, a few sunfish later and after some gentle encouragement, he approached and barked at them and even licked a few. Whew!
I remember taking him along everyday that same summer when I was an ODNR creel clerk. All the fishermen loved the little ball of fur with the oversize paws. I remember coaxing him to jump into the water off some rocks only a short distance to the water by throwing a small twig about two feet from shore. He whined and pawed towards it from the rock, and I was so proud when he finally made the plunge and jumped in after it. My brave little guy!
I remember driving home after a summer day on the creel survey route. Kodiak was curled up sleeping soundly on the passenger side floor. As we rounded “Dead Man’s Curve” on I-71 and hit the rumble strips, which reverberated through the floor of the car, little Kodi simultaneously woke and jumped about a foot in the air with eyes wide open and ears back like the world was coming to an end. I couldn’t help but laugh at the poor, scared little fella.
I also remember the two times I feared I had lost Kodiak. The first time he was just a pup about 12 weeks old. I was checking a site back in the woods on the Chagrin River and he was following along so good on the leash I took him off for the first time. Bad move. I turned away for just a few seconds and when I looked back he was gone. Heavy underbrush was all around. I called and called and he didn’t come. I panicked and went back to the vehicle and there the little booger was, waiting for me, sitting patiently next to the car.
The second time was years later, when a friend and I were crossing Conneaut Creek upstream of a sharp bend in high water. The water got a bit too deep for Kodi to touch bottom and he was whisked off downstream towards a bend full of strainers (dangerous downed trees in the water). I freaked out, running downstream along the shoreline yelling his name, but didn’t see him. As I panicked scanning the water looking for signs of him, I looked down and noticed he was calmly standing between us looking out at the river, wondering what all the fuss was. He had climbed out where we hadn’t seen him and had circled around in the woods to meet up with us. Among the greatest sense of relief I have felt in my life.
I remember taking him fishing for stocked trout on the East Branch Rocky River one spring and hooking a fish that was a little too large to drag up the muddy, steep bank without risking breaking the line. So I pointed at it and said, “Get the fish, Kodi! Get it!” and he scrambled down the bank, grabbed it by the head, and came back up with it in four-paw drive. I put it in the shade in some grass behind me, planning to make it dinner, and continued fishing. I turned around a short while later to see him lying there with the fish. He’d eaten about a third of it! Only fair that he took his share, I guess.
Kodi never met a fisherman he didn’t like, and it was almost universally reciprocated. When he saw someone on the stream with a bent rod fighting a fish, he would run over and sit patiently on the bank and watch, even if he didn’t know them. Once the fish was landed, he would often try to sneak in a lick before it was released.
I remember the time steelhead fishing on Conneaut Creek in winter and Kodiak was carrying around a large stick with some leaves and debris frozen in a clump to one end. This was not unusual, but after a while I noted he had been carrying the same stick for quite a long time (several hours). So I took a closer look and realized he was carrying around not a stick, but a frozen deer leg! No wonder he liked it so much. I can get a bit focused when fishing.
I also remember the time on the Chagrin River in spring when a Canada goose was following us around honking. “OK, I know, we are near your nest and you are scaring us off, goose”. But it kept following us honking away. I looked down at Kodiak and he had his head low, and would not look up when I called his name. I was worried he might be injured and called his name again and he finally looked up at me with an unbroken goose egg perfectly nested in his mouth. I yelled “KODI!” and he got scared and dropped it and it broke. “Well, you broke it so you better eat it”, which he gladly did.
I remember the time I was fishing Cattaraugus Creek in western NY with a friend and Kodiak walked out in water about a foot deep and spontaneously stuck his head under. He struggled a bit with his head underwater for about 10 seconds and I began to worry, thinking is head might be stuck in fishing line or something. But he finally emerged abruptly from the water snorting for air with a fist-plus size rock in his mouth and brought it to shore and dropped it. My buddy and I proceeded to laugh our butts off as he did this over and over again, with some of the rocks being large. He did this totally on his own, and over the years even went so far as diving several feet underwater to bring up rocks that were thrown for him. Robin called this strange behavior “saving drowning rocks”. He also had a habit of fetching “sticks” that were more like modest size fallen trees!
I remember the time Kodi was only a few years old and we did a late fall trip to Cattaraugus Creek. The fishing was great and I wanted to stay another day, but I was pretty poor then and getting a hotel room was pushing my funding situation. I had a sleeping bag and a pick-up truck, and decided to sleep in the uncovered back. I burrowed in and woke up about midnight, greeted to sub-freezing temperature and a shivering dog. I opened up my sleeping bag and pulled in my wet, freezing dog and spooned him the rest of that less-than-comfortable night. We woke up with about 3 inches of fresh snow on top of us, but it was all quickly forgotten following a memorable day of many steelhead.
I remember the horror, that time fishing a popular hole on the Indian Reservation on Cattaraugus Creek, when I looked down and Kodiak was pawing at someone’s discarded fishing line coming from his mouth. I gently pulled but it was stuck. In a panic I called Robin to see if she could get some vet advice. She said feeding the dog bread would help cushion and pass the hook. So I got two loaves of white bread at the gas station and fed them to Kodiak one slice at a time during the ride home. In those days, I drove a Ford Ranger and Kodiak sat in the bed with his head coming through the rear window. I remember each time I called his name his head would pop in and swallow the bread in more or less one bite. This giant head popping in suddenly to devour a slice of bread reminded me of the old video game— Pacman eating ghosts. He ate a loaf and a half of bread before I stopped feeding him (he would have continued eating). To our relief, the next day he passed the hook, along with a bunch of festively colored spawn sack mesh adorning his stool.
I also remember the time in NY at Oak Orchard Creek that Kodiak decided the water was a little cold to be standing in for an extended period and came up with a solution: to balance with all four paws on a bowling ball size rock above the water. He looked like a circus elephant balancing on a ball! We laughed our butts off at the sight while he stared back at us, oblivious to the humor in it.
This one is not for the squeamish. I remember how we would feed Kodiak shiners and chubs while fishing and called them “river dog biscuits”. I was fly fishing the Clearfork River with Kodi and old friend Randy Gerrick one day, and we had given him several such treats. I told Randy he had enough, but several times looked over to see Randy with a mischievous grin and Kodi by his side eating another one. On the drive home, we heard a gagging in the back seat and Kodi proceeded to puke up a pile of half digested fish bits! I still remember all the eyes looking out from the puke pile in every direction. We stopped at one of those DIY car washes and pulled the back seat out (as you can do with Jeeps) and washed it down. Talk about ultimate paybacks for not listening to me.
I also remember back when I lived in Parma and would save the heads of steelhead I caught, freeze them, and give them to Kodiak in the yard to gnaw on in summer as cooling and healthy treats. No waste, right? Anyhow, one day my 90-ish-year-old neighbor Hertha approached me at the fence and said she wasn’t sure what my dog had found earlier, but she swore she saw him eating a big fish head or something like that. I responded, “I know, I’m the one who gave it to him”. She couldn’t even hide the horror on her face as she moved away without saying another word, looking back at me once or twice over her shoulder as she walked away. She didn’t talk to me much after that, although I waved at her whenever I saw her.
This next one is rated R and proves how much I loved that dog. A friend and I were fishing Elk Creek in Pennsylvania with Kodi on a day that started out about 15 degrees (F). Kodi was a dog that could fish all day in winter and not get cold, even when his outer coat would ice over. He was a tough pup. But this day we noticed that Kodiak’s “jewels” (he was not fixed) were turning a disturbing shade of bright red. Fearing my dog was going to get frostbit testicles I knelt down, took off my gloves and cupped them in my hands to warm them. I told the friend, “This never happened, you got that?” His response, between fits of laughter, was “Durkalec, you sure do love that dog!” Of course, a few days later everyone we knew had heard the story. But, most importantly, my dog didn’t lose any of his precious anatomy.
I remember how Kodi used to love wearing his red, dog backpack. He was quite a hit with fishermen, too, and they always remembered the pack. I could be fishing out of state and an unfamiliar fisherman would see us coming and yell “Hey, it’s Kodiak!” and it would turn out neither I nor they would remember each other personally, but they remembered Kodi. The boy left an impression when you met him.
Kodiak fished all over Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey with me over the years, even crossing the border into Canada to fish on two occasions. On these trips he was often crammed in the vehicle between luggage and gear in a space too small to even turn around in. I remember more than one late night effort of my friends and I on our fishing travels to sneak him into cheap hotels that didn’t allow dogs. He never complained about anything and was always happy just to be along for the adventure. Kodiak crossed over a one-way border on his final trip on the evening of Friday, January 4th, after a long, memorable and fun run on this planet. I will miss him for as long as I live and can’t wait for the time that I’ll be reunited with him when my time comes.
So many great memories with my adopted son.
RIP Steelhead Kodiak: May 12, 1997 – January 4, 2013. ::
Mike Durkalec has served as Aquatic Biologist for the past eight years at Cleveland Metroparks, where he oversees the recreational fisheries and aquatic research programs, and also teaches biology at Cuyahoga Community College. He eared his B.S. in biology from Baldwin Wallace University (formerly Baldwin-Wallace College) and his M.S. in Fisheries Management from the Ohio State University, and has had experience in the environmental consulting and fishing industries in the past. Mike is not formally associated with TheRockyRiver.com, but is an occasional contributor to its content on a volunteer basis as a fan of the site and supporter of its message. Mike can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.