Guest Blogger: Mary S. Kuss, Life-long avid angler, licensed PA fishing guide, founder of the Delaware Valley Women’s Fly Fishing Association

IMGP2377My first fishing outing of 2017 was on January 19, an unseasonably warm day. I’ve never been a big fan of winter fishing, and the more years I have in the rear-view mirror the less tolerant I am of fishing in cold weather. For me, the days of being willing to break ice out of my fly rod’s guides are long gone. Winter is a time to tie flies and think of spring.

Still, Cabin Fever is a powerful motivation. The weather forecast for the day met my current winter fishing criteria—an air temperature of at least 50 degrees with little wind. I knew there would probably be a midge hatch at Valley Creek. I’d run into the President of my Trout Unlimited chapter the previous week at the neighborhood CVS Pharmacy. Dave had shown me a photo of a nice wild Brown Trout he’d caught at Valley a couple of days before, on a midge pattern. All the necessary signs and portents were in place.

IMGP2372Some background information on Valley Creek might be in order. This little spring creek flows through Valley Forge National Historical Park. Legend has it that shad running up the nearby Schuylkill River saved Washington’s troops from starvation in the nick of time in the spring of 1778. Historians are quick to point out that there is no evidence to support this idea. It’s a good story, though.

Valley Creek flows into the Schuylkill near Washington’s Headquarters. For many years, Valley was just another unremarkable suburban stream stocked with hatchery trout by the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission. Then PCB’s were discovered in the stream and its biota. The origin of the contamination was the Paoli Conrail Yard, which is now a Superfund Site. Stocking was discontinued, and harvest of any fish was prohibited.

Thankfully the PCB’s didn’t harm the trout. It merely rendered them unfit, or at least undesirable, to eat. Free of competition from stocked hatchery trout, and the catch-and-keep fishing pressure that accompanies them, Valley’s population of wild Brown Trout exploded. When the stream was surveyed a few years later, the density of wild trout present was four times the level required for a Class A rating. Championed and protected by the Valley Forge Chapter of Trout Unlimited, Valley’s wild Browns continue to thrive and provide a wonderful fishery. In the midst of the Philadelphia suburbs, these fish get a considerable amount of angling pressure. Despite their abundance, they are not easy to catch—especially the larger ones.

The weather was not quite as warm and pleasant as had been forecast. When I arrived streamside around 1 p. m. and exited the nice warm car I was greeted by a solid overcast sky and a raw, penetrating northerly breeze. I wished I’d thought to bring handwarmers. No matter, I was not about to be discouraged so easily. I layered up and geared up and headed for the water.

I was delighted when I found rising trout in the first pool I came to. I tried a tandem rig consisting of a #18 Griffith’s Gnat with a #22 Al’s Rat trailing behind. There were several splashy rises to the Gnat but no hook-ups. These were not the quiet, confident rises of trout feeding on midges, but rather an indication that the fly wasn’t even close to being right.

I headed downstream to the next pool. I had decided to switch to a Bead-Head Green Weenie. I wanted something tugging on my line, and as is often the case when the going is tough I wasn’t too particular about how I got it. Several drifts through the fast water at the head of the pool failed to get any response. At the end of one drift I let the fly swing around in the current, then pulled it into the slack water and let it dead-drop to the bottom. I watched an average trout of about 8 inches swim over to the fly and suck it in. I struck, hooked up, and played the fish nearly to hand before the fly came free.

I’d noticed a very sad looking Great Blue Heron standing in the tail of the pool. I often make fun of people who anthropomorphize wild animals. Nevertheless, this bird really did look miserable. It stood there in the tail-out, with its shoulders hunched up and its neck pulled in. I crept closer in hopes of getting a good photo. The bird tolerated this for a while. Then he’d had enough. He lifted off and flew downstream.

After a few more casts, I continued downstream myself, to the next pool. I noticed the Heron below me once again. I focused on my fishing and ignored him. Still fishing the Weenie, I made several casts. No luck. I nearly turned away to head for the next pool, but decided that before I left I’d make a cast or two to the deadfall just upstream of my position. On the first cast the line darted forward and I set up on the biggest trout I’d hooked in Valley for quite some time. I estimated its length at about 13 to 14 inches.

IMGP2378The fish fought hard, running to the opposite bank and trying to get into some undercut roots. I successfully drew the fish away from this hazard and had him coming my way. Suddenly, in a flash, the Heron flew by me and pounced on my trout! It all happened so quickly. “No!!!” I yelled. A tug of war ensued, which only lasted a few seconds but seemed much longer. Had I hooked the bird? No, thankfully. Suddenly the encounter was over, as quickly as it started. I was left with the vivid image of the bird thrashing its huge wings, my trout in its massive bill. I’d wanted a tug on my line, but this was not what I’d had in mind!

The bird stood nearby, shaking the water from its feathers and glaring at me balefully. The trout had somehow gotten back into the water. I even got my fly back. I thought, however, that it was likely the trout had been mortally wounded. It occurred to me that the Heron must have been very hungry indeed to attempt such a desperate maneuver. I decided to leave the area and let him try to recover his meal, since the fish was probably doomed anyway.

I walked back upstream, past the water I’d already fished. I found a pod of trout working the midge hatch in the run at the head of a pool. I modified my leader, stepping down to a 7X point, and tied on my favorite size 22 parachute olive emerger. I treated the post and hackle of the fly with Frog’s Fanny and began casting. This was just the right medicine. I had numerous takes, with a good hooking percentage. The fish took my fly in exactly the same way they took the naturals—the highest compliment a trout can pay an angler. My best fish was about 12 inches, the others smaller, mostly in the 8 to 9-inch range. I brought five trout to hand, with several other missed hits and premature releases.

At one point I noticed my nemesis the Heron eyeing me again from a downstream position. He seemed to be stalking me. Thankfully he did not make another attempt on one of my hooked trout. It seemed like he was thinking about it, though. I had planned to fish until around 4 o’clock, but by 3:30 I was feeling chilled and it seemed like a good time to call it a day. I was able to catch one last trout, my Quitting Fish. I always like to quit on a fish. I reeled up and headed for the car. As I walked back downstream I thought about my day, and mentally replayed my encounter with the Robber Heron. I couldn’t help speculating that perhaps I was not the first angler to be victimized by the bird, nor the last.

16 Comments

  1. I’ve had similar experiences with Bull Trout in the streams of Alberta; you get a smallish Cutthroat on the line and a Bull rises up from the bottom of the pool and sucks in your trout. Now you have a monster on the end of a light tippett, it doesn’t end well. Thanks, I’ll have to watch all those Herons that come to watch me fishing more carefully in the future.

    Phil Rispin

    1. I know what you mean about big trout coming after smaller ones on the end of an angler’s line. I’ve had big Brown Trout grab a smaller Brookie I was playing. After a while the Brown lets go, but the Brookie mwinds up looking like it was hit by a truck. I always release the little guy, but often think as he swims shakily away that the Brown is out there waiting for him and he’s going to wind up as lunch anyway. As for Herons, from now on I’ll certainly be keeping an eye on any of them hanging around where I’m fishing.

  2. Great story Mary! Valley Creek sounds like a nice stream.

    I’ve seen photos of birds (mostly gulls in the photos I’ve seen) chasing some bear who has a salmon in its mouth, trying to steal a piece of the fish. I too have been stalked by herons while fishing, although I don’t think I ever obliged one by hooking something as the bird watched.

    But I always assume a heron knows exactly what I’m doing when it sits there watching, and that its plan is very clearly to grab any fish I hook. I’d bet it only takes a heron watching a fisherman catch one fish inits lifetime to figure out that we’re a potential source of a meal. If cabin fever is a great motivator, so is hunger. They’re shy birds–big and tasty, and they know it–so they have to have a good survival-based reason to come sit close by a human like that. They know very well what we’re up to…and what their plan is…and they unquestionably weigh the risk and consider it worth taking. They pick a spot just close enough to grab our catch yet just far enough that they can hit the road if we take one too many steps in their direction.

    – Mike

    1. With hindsight, I’m not surprised to think that Herons would be smart enough to exploit fishermen. In fact, I heard a story years ago about a local bait fisherman who had landed a trout he intended to keep. He laid the fish on the ground at his feet for a moment while he reached for his stringer and as he did so a Great Blue that had been lurking around snuck up behind him and reached right between his feet to grab the fish and take off with it. Still, it never occurred to me that a Heron would grab a fish I was playing–although perhaps it should have. BTW, Mike, did you see my very belated reply to you about the furled leaders? You can probably find it in the archives.

      1. Yes, found your note! Thank you! …I replied there under your comments.

        Again, loved your Heron story! Now I wish I could hook something just when one of those great birds is watching.

        – Mike

        1. If you really want to have an up close and personal experience with a GBH, I wish you luck with that. As for me, once was quite enough! I’m a birder as well as a fly fisher, and love seeing them while I’m fishing, but in the future I hope it’s always from a distance that’s safe for me and the fish I’m catching.

  3. It’s fun to have Herons, Osprey’s and Eagle’s fish along with you. They create memories that are hard to forget. Back in the 1990s during our regular trips to Northern Minnesota, we occasionally visited a remote, but accessible by road, lake named Black Duck. It was a good place to fish on stormy days that rendered the big lakes unsafe. Black Duck was some 18 miles by gravel road from Orr, Minnesota. Although Black Duck had no resorts or lodges, the route passed right by Elephant Lake which boasted a small resort and excellent bar and dining room. Black Duck, at 1250 acres made for a great day trip away from the big lakes. We went to Black Duck for smallmouth and sunfish, both great fly rod targets. Although the smallmouth population was abundant and held many large fish, it was afflicted with a wormy parasite. The lake also had insufficient numbers of predators, like pike and walleye to keep the smallmouth population in check. There were shallow, rocky lengths of shoreline that just teemed with young bass, 4-6 inches long but thoroughly infested with the wormy parasites. They would never become healthy adults. Unfortunately, you couldn’t keep them off the hook. Everyone we talked to encouraged us to cull as many of these small bass as possible, but just killing them wasn’t in our DNA. On one trip as we fished a long shoreline, a pair of bald eagles and several blue herons became attracted to our catching and releasing these small bass. We discovered that if we chucked the bass away from the boat, it might be stunned long enough for the birds to swoop in and grab it. We also discovered that you could throw a small bass high enough for the birds to catch in mid-air. It was quite a show and clearly the birds relished the easy pickings. On one occasion, a single heron ate so many small bass that it could hardly standup on a tree limb. It finally flew down to the rocky shoreline and somewhat leaned against a rock to stay upright.

    1. Your story reminded me of something I did many years ago, in my home town of Point Pleasant, New Jersey. One day I was bait fishing at the Point Pleasant & Bay Head Canal, and catching what we called “Bergalls,” also known as Cunners. These little fish were not highly regarded, I never tried to take any of them home to eat and never questioned the conventional wisdom. One day I was tossing one Bergall after another back into the water when I noticed a Herring Gull watching me from his perch atop a nearby telephone pole. I decided he looked hungry, so I did the same kind of high toss you described. The bird swooped down and grabbed the fish as soon as it hit the water, then returned to the top of the phone pole. I kept feeding the bird, curious about how many Bergalls it could eat. I stopped when the bird started having trouble flying.

  4. We see this a lot in trout ponds in Maine. The culprits, however, are common loons. Years ago, they would grab a trout on the line, and break the tippet. The last few years, however, their behavior has changed. Many of Maine’s trout ponds are managed for large, wild trout, and will have a minimum size length of 18″. Everything else goes back in the water, and the loons will swim near your canoe, or float tube, and wait until you release the fish, then grab it.

    1. These fish-eating birds are just trying to make a living, so I suppose you can’t really blame them for taking advantage of a great opportunity when they see one. When we anglers set the table for them, it shouldn’t be surprising that they come to the feast–however inconvenient and annoying it may be for us.

      1. I guess you can’t, but it is a shame to see them take 16 and 17″ wild brook trout. The loons have learned to focus on the trophy ponds…..

        1. Predators of all kinds always take the easiest prey, it’s instinctive. I suspect the Loons focus on the trophy ponds not because the fish are bigger there but rather because the birds have learned that following anglers around makes it easier to catch fish. Which is exactly why that GBH at Valley Creek was following me around.

  5. This is not strictly about fly fishing, as we were using down riggers but while fishing with a guide for Salmon in the Strait of Juan de Fuca just a couple of miles over the water from Victoria my friends and I found out that seals enjoy fishing with fishermen. We got into a good bunch of Salmon and started fighting them up from the depths only to have our line go slack. Reeling the line in we would find that we only had a head of a Salmon on the line and the remainder of the fish had become seal dinner. If we had a period of time where nothing was caught we would end up with a cadre’ of seals behind the boat watching us greedily waiting for the next catch. The guide and boat owner wanted to shoot them but we were too close to the mainland and the rifle shots would be heard so he didn’t try to fix the problem. We just headed back for port.

    1. Human/wildlife conflicts are a long-standing problem that will only get worse as human population grows exponentially, which is happening as we speak and is a juggernaut that probably can not be stopped–by us at least. In the short term, wildlife should be managed as needed to restore a balance that human activity has disrupted. When there are so many seals that they are a threat to the salmon population, for instance, harvest of seals should be allowed. We can’t do that with humans when we are out of balance with our habitat–for obvious reasons.

    2. When I go out in the bay with a friend looking to hook some Ling Cod, there’s usually a sea lion as big as the boat who waits for the stringer to get full enough and then it grabs hold. It gives itself away because it’s towing one end of the boat sideways. There’s always a massive tug-o-war because it doesn’t want to give up, and we’re danged if we will either. Sea lions are like hippos so it’s scary in a really small boat.

      I’m with John–nature does what nature does, but it’s no fun to pull in a fish that’s literally half the length of your personal best.

      – Mike

      1. I guess I’m very lucky, in a way, that I’ve never had to deal with marauding seals and Sea Lions going after my catch. I can see where that would give one an entirely different perspective on predators. Most of the fish-eating birds and mammals I’ve seen while fishing have not been actively pursuing my personal fish. Well, except for that Heron.

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