September 18th, 2006

Streamside Companion - Great Blue Heron
Friend or Foe?
By Neil M. Travis, Montana

Stalking gracefully through the shallows, the Great Blue Heron is the perfect picture of composure and concentration. Slowly lifting one foot, it inches forward, sliding the foot back into the water without making a ripple. Carefully it extends its long neck, and then in a blur of motion too fast for the eye to follow, it plunges its needle sharp beak into the water to secure its prey. The Great Blue Heron is truly a master at the art of stalking.

Nearly 4 feet tall, when standing fully erect, the Great Blue Heron is the largest heron found in the United States. Exceeded in height by only the Whooping Crane and the Sandhill Crane, the Great Blue Heron is the largest bird that the angler will encounter while fishing on streams or stillwaters in the United States.

The Great Blue Heron is ideally designed to be a wading angler. Equipped with long legs that are devoid of feathers, the Great Blue Heron is easily able to wade in a variety of situations. Its head culminates in a sharp beak that is propelled forward by a long, powerful neck. Clothed in drab colored feathers, the heron blends in with its background, thus making it less conspicuous as it searches for its prey.

While fish compose the bulk of the Great Blue Herons diet, they are not gourmets. Fish, frogs, snakes, crustaceans, insects, and even small mammals are consumed with relish. Great Blue Herons spend most of their time in aquatic environments, however, they are sometimes encountered hunting for prey in fields.

While the Great Blue Heron is a picture of grace in motion when stalking prey, it is truly a majestic picture when on the wing. Great Blue Herons fold their long necks into a graceful S curve as they fly. Their long legs trail out straight behind, and their broad wings beat slowly, but steadily, as they fly purposefully along. Great Blue Herons rarely glide, and their flight is direct and powerful. When startled they make a gruff croaking noise, but mostly they are silent.

Great Blue Herons search for all their food in the water, but for roosting and nesting purposes, they choose trees. Most herons are colonial nesters and gather together with others of their kind in rookeries. These nesting colonies may consist of several hundred birds, and the rookery may cover several acres. Great Blue Herons appear quite at home in the trees, easily grasping the branches with their long toes and strong feet. They make large bulky nests of sticks in the tops of trees, preferring isolated places, such as islands or flooded swamps.

Some anglers express concern when they see Great Blue Herons or other fish eating birds along their favorite stream or stillwater. While Great Blue Herons do catch and eat game fish such as trout, their impact on fish numbers in a healthy fishery is minimal. The angler can benefit from observing the tactics of a hunting heron, and then, imitate them.

When the heron arrives at a chosen spot he will remain still for several moments to allow the fish to resume their normal activities. All of his movements are slow and deliberate. When stalking a fish he wades very slowly, lifting each foot very deliberately, being careful not to make a splash or create a ripple that might give away his presence. His feathers are drab colored, and he blends into the background. A fishing heron is a picture of total concentration and commitment to a single purpose.

Herons, like many fish eating birds and mammals, may appear to be in competition with the angler for the available fish. The knowledgeable angler knows and understands that a fishery is the sum of its parts. Over time, predator and prey have come to a mutual appreciation and need, one for the other. Elimination of the predators from the aquatic habitat can only have adverse consequences, for both the fish and the angler. The wariness that we find challenging in wild trout has developed over eons of eluding predators like the Great Blue Heron. Eliminate the predators, and the essential qualities of wariness and incentive to survive them, could make fly fishing a challenging sport which might well vanish.

In our world of ever shrinking wild places, let's learn to cherish, enjoy, and protect what's left of our wild heritage. As anglers, we seek out those remaining wild places, as much for their wildness as for their trout. The Great Blue Heron and his kin play a key role in that setting, and the enjoyment we receive from it. ~ Neil M. Travis, Montana/Arizona

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