Bycatch

 

The world is awash with specialists. Fly fishing is a case in point. Flies, rods, lines, and techniques have all been developed for specific species and water bodies. Nearly every fish that swims can now be effectively targeted with fly tackle. Purchasing a fly rod for "general" fly fishing would be like playing Pebble Beach with only a five-iron. Hank Patterson would spew warm beer in your general direction. 

Even with all the specialized gear now available, occasionally a non-target species finds your fly. My nickname of "The Sucker King" was bestowed on me one day when a buddy and I were nymphing a run thirty feet apart with the exact same flies. He caught trout after trout. I matched him fish for fish, except all I caught were red horse suckers. I even moved farther upstream and my sucker streak continued. Although I have never had another day quite like that, I have never lived it down.   

Last September I snuck away for a socially distant week alone in the San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado. An early winter storm snow dropped over a foot of snow during my stay, effectively eliminating any angling competition. With snow limiting access to the high country, I opted to fish a favorite creek close to paved roads.

I broke through drifts of virgin snow to reach the water. The absence of any footprints other than my own confirmed that I had the creek completely to myself. Blessed solitude.


I selected a hopper-dropper setup, expecting that the hopper would largely be ignored by trout due to the lateness of the season. The hopper was to function as a strike indicator, as it would cast better and land more delicately than a thingamabobber. 

I began picking up browns in likely places, with an occasional rainbow mixed in. There were no thoughts of catching non-target species in this creek. I have fished here many times over the years, and only trout had found my flies.   

  

I came to a particularly fishy-looking spot and laid a roll cast under a tree that had fallen across the creek. Immediately a small bird swooped down and grabbed the hopper, hooking itself before I could react. I looked more like a kite flyer than fisherman as I stripped in line while the small bird wildly tried to fly away.

As I brought the bird to hand and gently grasped it, I felt a light touch on my left shoulder. I half - turned my head to see another bird perched there observing my hapless catch with great interest. 

I quickly removed the barbless hook from its beak, and cradled held the little bird for a few moments until I felt it relax a bit. Then I opened my hand, and it flew away. The other bird remained on my shoulder through the entire process, then flew off to join its paroled mate. It was a special moment and the highlight of the day for me. I doubt I will ever forget that encounter.

I am as good a birdwatcher as I am an entomologist, which is to say I am not very good at all. I love seeing wild birds, but identifying the species is often a challenge for me. Fortunately I took a good look at my catch, trying to memorize a few characteristics. I knew there was a field guide of Colorado birds waiting at the cabin. Upon returning from the creek, I looked up the little foam hopper-eating bird that had visited me that day. 

It was a Wilson's Warbler

photo credit https://www.allaboutbirds.org

Warblers were not my target species; one might even call them bycatch. I am not a birder, but what a tragedy it would be not to be curious about the flora and fauna I encounter when fishing. 

There are scores of birding field guides available, but I prefer not to carry them when fishing. I usually have a camera, so occasionally I snap a picture to identify the species online when I return home. I also glean identification tips from friends who are actual birders. I am learning more about the world around me, one bird at a time. 

When fish seem are uncooperative, these feathered companions can salvage your day. One must work pretty hard to be glum when watching birds, whether the species is known or not. Their songs lift my spirits, especially when I hear them through the window of my home office on a Zoom call. If you are like me, those songs have been a rescue.   

The following morning I returned to the creek, and narrowly missed catching another warbler. This time I was watching more closely, and pulled the hopper under before he could nab it. 

After all I have a reputation to uphold, "Warbler King" just doesn't have the same panache as "The Sucker King"

  


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