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We're Just Amateurs Out There

By Joe Hyde, Lawrence, KS

The big redear sunfish was one that on a previous trip I might have caught and released. Even if I hadn't caught it before, the thought crossed my mind that its 9-inch length was achieved with my assistance: for the last two years I've increased its available insect food supply by releasing all redears while removing many of their bluegill competitors.

None of that mattered now to this keeper-size redear; he was wiggling helplessly, his entire body held above the water by a great blue heron that was very deliberately walking onto an exposed mudflat near the lake's feeder creek. Obviously, the heron was taking great care not to lose this meal. The bird's instinctive concern was unnecessary; the redear it had just attacked was doomed, neatly harpooned by a rapier beak that had entered the fish's body one inch aft of a gill cover, entered at such velocity that half the beak was protruding from the fish's opposite side.

Laying the redear on the mudflat, the heron disengaged its beak with a wiggle, stood upright to examine its catch then suddenly drew back its head and stabbed the fish again, the coup de grace provoked by a slight movement the fish made, a death spasm and nothing more.

When we look at a great blue heron as one stands frozen along a stream bank or lake shore, it's tempting to see nothing but a long-legged, snake-necked, slow-flying bird that utters guttural croaking complaints if forced to flight. In truth these birds are superlative predators, fish hunters of the first magnitude whose efficiency is easily on a par with better-known fish killers like the bald eagle and osprey. And if this weren't enough to command our respect, great blue herons possess the ability and temperament to maim and kill humans, and they have a history of doing exactly that. I am one of the lucky outdoorsmen who learned this fact the easy way after very nearly learning it the hard way.

About ten years ago, early one morning I launched my solo canoe on the Delaware River at Perry, KS with the idea of taking the Delaware one mile downstream to its confluence with the Kansas River, then paddling the Kansas 12 more miles down to Lawrence. I was alone. This is a daytrip I've done hundreds of times and I never get bored with it. How can you get bored while slowly and quietly paddling a major prairie stream where so many things in nature are happening all around you?

I'd gone no more than 100 yards down the Delaware when back in the deep shadows along the steep right bank my eyes detected movement. A great blue heron was hobbling along the water's edge. As I moved closer I could see that both its legs and one wing were tangled in a length of discarded monofilament fishing line. It was a pitiful sight, watching the bird's panicked effort to escape. The heron seemed to know it had been spotted and was in peril.

But it wasn't in peril from me; I was determined to free it. Steering right, I brought my canoe as close to the right bank as I could in an effort to cut off the bird's escape route and force it to stop, after which I would reach out and grab it, or hop out and try to climb the steep bank and then grab the bird. If I succeeded in grabbing it, I would pull my rescue knife off my PFD and cut the line.

I have nothing but blind luck to thank for the fact that the heron, although hobbled, was mobile enough to keep just ahead of me, barely out of my reach. After a few minutes of paralleling its movement down the river bank I grudgingly quit the pursuit and with a feeling of shame at my failure to free the bird I proceeded downriver, leaving the animal to suffer its fate. Thoughts of how it would die (coyote attack, starvation) haunted me for days.

Weeks after this trip while visiting one afternoon with Lee Collard, one of my canoeing buddies, I began relating this encounter. Lee froze, giving me the kind of look one might give the unscathed sole survivor of a jet airliner crash. Lee, I knew, had at one time held a part-time job at a Lawrence-based wildlife rescue center.

"Do you have any idea how lucky you are?" Lee asked.

Well, yes, many times in my life I've been lucky. "What do you mean, "lucky"?" I asked him, "About the heron, you mean? He got away from me. How am I lucky; the bird sure wasn't."

Lee took a deep breath and began telling me about a girl he'd known, a Kansas girl who not long before had moved to south Florida to work for a wildlife rescue company there. Not long after starting she'd been left alone to run the office one day, given orders to do nothing but answer and record incoming calls while her co-workers went out for lunch. If a rescue call came in she was to record the information and NOT respond by herself; the company had a strict policy against responding alone.

After lunch her co-workers returned and found a handwritten note left by the girl. A rescue call had come in, a report of a wounded great blue heron in a nearby marsh. Compelled by her caring nature, she had left to rescue the heron single-handedly. Her returning co-workers were alarmed and frightened to discover that the protective helmet with a Lexan face shield, plus the leather neck guard, were still in the office. The girl had left in quite a hurry.

They found her in the swamp. Actually they found the heron first, dead from its wound. Then they found the girl. She was lying dead about 20 feet away from the heron. Later, the coroner would have no need to theorize or investigate the cause of death. The chain of events and the weapon that was used were obvious enough.

She had gone to the scene and found the wounded heron, which at that time was still alive. She'd bent down to pick it up, and may have actually succeeded in grabbing it. The panicked bird had then drawn back its long neck and lashed out in a flash of movement too fast to avoid. The heron's long, sharp beak stabbed into her neck and punctured her carotid artery with the lethal efficiency of a flint-tipped Indian lance. At the strike she released the bird, staggered away a short distance and bled to death virtually on the spot.

"All the wading bird species - the herons, the egrets, bitterns and such - they are all extremely dangerous animals to handle," Lee told me. "It was a tragedy that she hadn't worked around these birds enough times, or whatever the reason was that she decided the risk of rescuing a blue heron wasn't dangerous enough that she violated company policy about "team rescue" and the use of protective gear. A visored helmet and leather neck guard, those items are mandatory equipment for doing that kind of work. I'm sure she knew that but maybe she didn't take it seriously enough, or maybe she just was in a big hurry to help the bird. But now she's dead."

"You," Lee went on, looking at me, "are one lucky paddler. If you'd succeeded in grabbing that heron, he'd have pulled his head back like he was shying away, trying to avoid you? But if your face came into range he'd have begun stabbing at your eyes, your nose or mouth, or your neck, and he'd have kept stabbing until you let him go. It's their nature to use their long, sharp beaks as self-defense weapons, and their stabs are incredibly powerful and accurate. As close as you got to that bird you are very, very lucky to be here."

As the heron on the mudflat in front of me disengaged its beak from the follow-up strike, I watched as it struggled to pick up and position the hefty panfish before attempting to swallow it head-first.

"No way, buddy," I whispered. "You were too good a fisherman this time. That redear is too big; you'll never get it down. Why couldn't you have killed a little one and left that big one for me to catch?"

A minute later to my astonishment, the redear disappeared into the heron's mouth then began a slow, bulge-inducing peristaltic descent through the bird's long, skinny neck. The heron dipped its head and began taking ten or fifteen polite sips of water from the lake to wash down its huge meal. And then with that handsome keeper-size redear sunfish...sprang into the air and flew away down the lake arm and a few moments later was out of sight.

Buzzing through the air the whole time this drama was unfolding were hundreds - no, thousands - of dragonflies. I've never seen so many dragonflies at one time at this lake so I guessed there'd recently been a big hatch. Perhaps the hatch was still happening right now this very minute and the hunt for dragonfly nymphs emerging in the mudflat shallows is what lured that big redear into the heron's kill zone.

Mudflats like the one this heron used as a killing floor, mudflats and lake shores and river banks and marshes and swamps, these are places where opportunity calls to many creatures, including us humans. Opportunities call, and unexpected dangers lurk. I know for about ten years now I've been more mindful about not discarding cut pieces of fishing line. It has to do with more than just good manners or good sportsmanship, or not littering the environment. Many other predators, killers every one of us, will be coming right behind me to fish the places I did. ~ Joe Hyde

About Joe:

From Douglas County, Kansas, Joe is a former municipal and federal police officer. In addition to fishing, he hunts upland birds and waterfowl, and for the last 15 years has pursued the sport of solo canoeing. On the nearby Kansas River he has now logged nearly 5,000 river miles while doing some 400 wilderness style canoe camping trips. A musician/singer/songwriter as well, Joe's 'day job' is with the U.S. General Services Adminstration.

Joe at one time was a freelance photojournalist who wrote the Sunday Outdoors column for his city newspaper. Outdoor sports, writing and music have never earned him any money, but remain priceless activities essential to surviving the 'day job.'

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