I’ve always had a bit of fascination with any living thing I encounter during my time afield. Growing up fishing and exploring around Yellowstone might do that to a person. Or maybe I just have an innate interest in other living creatures. In Yellowstone’s wilderness, fishing comes with the legitimate chance of encountering creatures as diverse as chipmunks, marmots, bison, grizzly bears, black bears, wolves, elk, and pronghorn – just to name a few mammals. While not every angling setting offers up the chance of a grizzly encounter, every place I have fished does have its own unique ecosystem to enjoy. And in my experience, every fishing spot is also home to at least a few species of birds.
I have memories of birds while fishing going way back into my childhood, but thinking back on it now, there was a moment in my life where I recognized that I was truly fascinated with the feathered friends I encountered while angling. It was in May 2004 on the Rio Malleo in Argentina. Looking up from the river at a set of towering rock spires, I caught my first glimpse of an Andean condor riding the thermals. Even soaring hundreds of feet overhead I could see the telltale white collar, and I could tell that the thing was absolutely huge! It made me want to learn more about it. On that same trip I also saw my first crested caracara, chimango caracara, and an eagle even more robust than the golden eagles in Montana. All of these birds were similar to birds from back home, but not really. I was enthralled.
Fast forward a decade +/- and I found myself becoming more and more interested in the birds I was seeing during my time on the water. I was enjoying these unique creatures (the last living dinosaurs, in fact), and having fun learning more about them. Birding was enhancing my everyday routine as well as my angling adventures.
The legendary Bud Lilly often spoke of “The Total Experience”, when it came to finding joy through fishing. It’s not only catching fish that draws us to angling, it’s the love of the fish and the rivers. Enjoying our natural surroundings and unique geology, experiencing the local birds and wildlife, participating in unique cultures, and doing it all in chosen solitude or in the company of friends and loved ones, is what completes the angling experience and keeps our passion strong.
Birding has now become a favorite part of my own “Total Experience”. I’ve accumulated a small stack of bird books, and gotten pretty handy using the web to do more research. I’ve learned some of the key ways to identify similar species that I come across often, and even started to learn a few of the “songs” they sing.
What I’ve also found is that I now equate certain bird species with specific angling locations and situations, the same way I have done with insect hatches for many years. I’ll always equate streamer fishing in Argentina with those giant Andean condors soaring on the ever present Patagonia winds. Similarly, I equate winter fishing on my local home water, the Missouri River, with the flocks of bufflehead and common goldeneye that spend the chilly months diving for insects in the calm flats. I also think of the resident bald eagles that are always happy to make a meal of one of the aforementioned waterfowl.
When I’m fishing any one of the small brushy creeks around SW Montana in the late spring, I’m always entertained by the migratory songbirds that return each year to nest in the riparian areas and feast on emerging insects. Not even a bumbling angler stops them from singing. The holy grail of bird sightings in that time and place is a male western tanager in full breeding plumage. If you ever are lucky enough to see one, you’ll remember him for sure.
In the early summer on some of my favorite lakes, I enjoy seeing the blackbirds – both the red winged and, especially, the yellow headed varieties. Again, the males are the show stoppers, full of color set off by the contrast with their predominantly black bodies. They nest in the emergent wetland vegetation along the lake margins. What I really hope to see are small groups of yellow headed blackbirds patrolling the beaches right along the water’s edge. That almost surely means that the damsel nymphs are migrating ashore to hatch, and that I need to get my fly choice sorted and the line in the water.
A swooping frigate bird makes me think of baja, the dorado, tuna, or roosterfish that might be pushing the bait up the the surface, the salt air as the boat flies foward to investigate, and the margaritas we’ll have to celebrate another great day on the sea.
And, I’ll always equate an osprey nest on top of a telephone pole with a section of the Madison River where I spent so many summers camping and fishing with my family during my childhood. That bird always caught a few whitefish from the riffle behind camp while we were hoping for a trout to rise to our dry flies.
I could go on, the more I scour my memory banks, but I will end it here. Like the title said, fishing is, at least for me, for the birds as well as the fish. Thanks, as always, for reading. Your feedback is always enjoyable, and I hope that there are others out there who enjoy my words but remain unheard.
Take Care and Fish On,
PS – If you are looking to get started in birding (while fishing or otherwise) a good place to start is here…