My family and I have long regarded loons as a special bird, a coveted creature whose distant, eerie calls, especially at night, always enhanced the outdoor experience. Over the years we have chuckled at their clumsy flight characteristics, or marveled at the sight of a female swimming with chicks on her back. We have known, too, that loons eat a lot of fish. Not a problem, right? Well, read on. Some of us trout anglers are beginning to wonder.
Loons have quite a long history and exhibit performance statistics that are impressive. These big birds have an ancestry that dates back 65 million years ago to the Paleocene era. They fly at speeds reaching 60 mph. They have been known to stay under water up to five minutes and dive as deep as 240 feet! Ornithologists have discovered that a loon is capable of doing a submarine- like crash dive by quickly expelling air from its body and feathers.
Bird books and most loon literature treat loons with great deference, almost effusively so. “Loons delight and inspire,” reports one ornithologist.” They are a shy and wary bird,” reports another. ” The term ‘crazy as a loon’ is really unfairly pejorative,” writes another.
Two days ago at a remote trout pond, my son Scotty and I witnessed the dark side of loons. We watched wide-eyed as two loons made high speed “straffing runs” repeatedly under our canoe in attempts to swipe our trout. These were anything but “shy and wary” birds. Fishing was slow, but the loons lingered patiently not far from our flailing fly lines. When Scotty finally hooked a respectable trout, Loon Number One crashed dived, snagged the incoming trout, and then surfaced beside our canoe with trout, fly and leader in its beak. The loon had managed to break the leader and Scotty watched in disbelief as the loon repositioned the fat trout and then promptly choked it down.
The loon was no longer welcome company. The scene was reminiscent of an Alfred Hitchcock movie, except that the dialogue would never have made it past the censors, even today. These birds that normally “delight and inspire” were invading the sanctity or our trout fishing domain. You could not enjoy playing a fish. In words that echoed off the pond ledges above, we gave these birds new names: #%8^@$!
A few minutes later, my biggest trout of the day hooked itself on my dragon fly emerger. Loon Number two, which was on station off the port side, crash dived toward my bobbing fly rod tip. As I reeled frantically, we could see this fish-eating interloper coming our way like a black and white torpedo. Before it reached my trout, I horsed the 14 incher out of the water and into the air. Loon Number Two attempted an aerial retrieval.
As the fat little brookie – that was to be supper- danced in the air at the end of my rod just above the water, I scolded the loon with epithets unbefitting a church- going man. “Why you no good !!#%# thieving #%&1. Go get your own fish,” I hissed through clenched teeth.
Scotty, who moments before had summoned a few choice words for his attack loon, just laughed.
As you may have concluded by now, these loons were anything but “shy and wary.” They would not leave our vicinity.
We quit fishing early, left the lake to the loons, and returned to our tent site with two trout that we were able to deny the pond thieves. A meal of moose steaks and a couple of pan-fried brookies made up for the calamitous fishing.
As we broke camp, we alerted an incoming fisherman to the attack loons. In an e-mailed follow up report, the angler said that he, too, had had his trout stolen from under his nose by the aggressive loons. “It’s the first time in all my trout trips that I have had to appease the natives with a trout sacrifice before I could settle down and fish,” he reported.
All of which brings us back to the opening query:” Are all loons shy and wary?” Apparently not. Is there something going on out there? With more and more anglers releasing trout, has the catch and release ethic inadvertently fostered a new generation of loon that is conditioned to find an easy meal in the vicinity of those humanoids with funny vests and waving wands?
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