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Fishing is for the birds

September 1, 2010

I once hooked a shit puke. I was fishing a local harbor from the boat ramp, reeling in 20-inch stripers just for yuks. A blue and silver Acme Kastmaster seemed to be a good match for the peanut bunker schooling through the harbor, and I played around – stopping the retrieve to let it flutter like a wounded fish and reeling it in slow and smooth or skipping it like a popper across the surface. The schoolie stripers didn’t care, they liked it any way I served it up.

High tide was a couple of hours away, making for a nice depth of water and a good current to play the lure against. I thought of slipping a Bomber on to see if there might be something bigger in the water, but I was having fun catching those scrappy little schoolies on an eight-foot rod wearing 17-pound test. Goofy, but relaxing. Intermittent boat traffic raised the excitement level almost imperceptibly.

I tossed the Kastmaster across the channel and reeled it in with a little stop and start and something hit it, hard. Suddenly, line was screaming off the reel and I held on wondering what the hell I hooked. At first I thought I had stumbled on one of those fabled harbor keepers: 20-plus-pound mythical in-town catches. But my mind was snapped out of dreamland immediately; it just didn’t feel like a striped bass. It surged down and away with incredible speed and strength. Then it zigged one way and zagged another. It was like hanging on to a Flamenco dancer. I thought it might be a seal, but it wasn’t heavy enough. I felt a brief slackening of the line and started to reel, but it reacted and dove again. When it let up a little, I gave it a little hell and when it fought back I backed off.

We danced this way for an untold number of heart-pounding seconds. I was making progress. I had it halfway home when it busted off the lure. I thought I would never know what I had on, but a split second later, SPLASH! – a very confused looking cormorant burst out of the water. The bird flailed for a moment, shook its head a few times, looked around, dunked its head underwater and shuddered the water off its feathers before diving under. I saw it pop up near the opposite shore and paddle around, then it resumed its fishing. I discontinued mine, partly because it was time to go, and partly because I really didn’t want to hook another shit puke.

You might be wondering how these sleek, powerful fishing birds got such a disgusting name. In the words of a salty old timer, it’s because, “Yep, that’s what they do: they eat so many fish they just shit and puke.” Apparently, it is a pretty well-known term, amongst salty old timers, anyway. The first part of their name is a well-established phenomenon, requiring professional help in some cases. In Orleans they like to spend their nights roosting on the high-tension wires that drape over Cedar Pond, the terminus (or beginning, depending on how you see it) of the saltwater creek that is Rock Harbor. The great amount of their nitrogen-rich guano has, in the past, become an emergency situation rectified only by evening blasting of noisemaking blank shotgun shells. The second part of their name has been less publicized, but the same old timer told me, “Go down to the harbor and you can see ’em pukin’ all over.” I’ve never seen it, but I’ll take his word for it.

I have watched cormorants enough that I should have seen ’em pukin’. I stole a saury from one once during a Biblical blitz. It chased it up on the edge of the marsh and I snatched the fish away. I’ve observed them on pilings, spreading their big wings to dry in the sun. I’ve watched them fishing, amazed to see how long they can stay underwater. I’ve stood on the fuel dock and watched them maneuver underwater to nab a little fish, and I am in awe of their swimming skills.

Watching the sleek black birds fish brought back the memory of a book from my childhood. In The Story About Ping by Marjorie Flack, a little duck who lives on a boat in China’s Yangtze River gets separated from his flock and their home-base boat. In his adventures, he comes across a boat with big black birds who wear shiny rings on their necks and bring fish to their owner. Regardless of the role those birds may play in Flack’s moral, it seemed like an interesting idea to me: use the birds to catch the fish.

Using cormorants to catch fish involves putting something around the base of their long necks to trap the fish they catch before the prey gets to their bellies. In Ping, the birds sport silver rings, but more frequently the neck is constrained by string or twine wrapped around and tied tight. I never considered how the bird is cajoled into returning to the “fisherman.” Are they trained from a young age, do they come when called? It turns out the birds are tied with more line, this time around a leg, and when they’ve gulped down a certain amount of fish , the fisherman simply pulls them in and regurgitates them by hand, if regurgitation is a verb that can be used to describe making someone (or something) else puke. Their reward is a bit of fish at the end of the excursion.

I suppose no one has done this here because no one eats bait fish here (well, except for a few of us.) Cormorants can’t catch tuna, stripers, bluefish or flounder – not in their legal sizes, anyway. They can catch silversides, snapper blues, peanut bunker, smelt, half-beaks, sauries, eels and chubs, just to name a few. But then again, so can my eel pots, seines and minnow traps. I think I’ll skip training cormorants to catch fish, and avoid the ensuing outcry from anyone and everyone who might happen upon such a scene. I’ll bet the practice is illegal here, anyway, and if it isn’t it should be.

In the meanwhile, I’m happy I’m not fishing in deeper waters where hooking a humpback is a hazard of the trade. I’ve had my share of seals on the line, and I hope I never hook a shark in the surf. And I’ll be happy to never again hook a cormorant.

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