For the Birds

Photo by Gary Bulla

by Scott Sadil

Leeson again.  On birds, from The Habit of Rivers.  Not surprising, he says, “that so many fly fishermen develop a strong and abiding fascination with birds—watching and identifying them, learning their habits and season, tying flies with their plumage.”

And his admonition: “A fisherman does well to heed the creatures that fly.”

Nothing profound here.  If you fish the sea, you’ve spent your life scanning the horizon for birds—pelicans or terns or gulls, even the booby or magnificent frigate bird—wheeling and diving or merely searching, as you are, for sign of bait, or for some other clue of where to cast the fly.

Belted Kingfisher, photo by Brian O’Keefe

I’ve also watched a little blue heron, or reddish egret, I wasn’t sure which, dangling upside down from the limb of a mangrove in an estero inside Baja’s Magdalena Bay, the inverted bird spearing tiny baitfish in a move that would earn the admiration of any trapeze artist and suggest, to this angler, at least, that a fly there swimming just so could grab the attention of a broomtail grouper or dog snapper that might also be attending these spirited acrobatics.

And trout anglers in camp keep one eye peeled for the first show of swallows above the river, sign that the evening or afternoon hatch is sure to begin soon.  Of late, as well, on my home river, we’ve been running into rafts of gulls, often gathered below a hundred yards of chattering, oxygenated riffle, the birds lazily plucking bugs from the surface, in no way resembling their behavior, at sea, around baitfish and feeding fish, yet a sure sign of something going on.

As Leeson writes, “For the fisherman, birds still enact their ancient role of augury”—an allusion, I suppose, to signs that Creon failed to heed when he had Antigone sent, without food, to her tragic cave.

Common Tern, photo by Gary Bulla

Yet Leeson, being Leeson, doesn’t stop there, going on to explore the notion that the angler’s fascination with birds mirrors the fascination with fish, that swimming and flight take place in those two mysterious media into which we can only gaze.  “Above and below the plane of the earth they (birds and fish) hint at the geometric thinness of terrestrial existence and the attractions of depth and altitude.”