Monday, December 2, 2013

The Eagle and the Bull Trout: In Inadvertently Killing one Threatened Species, I had Fed Another

On a long solo trek through the wilds of northern Montana, I spent a rainy night camped under several large, protective spruce trees on the northwest side of a large lake where the shore is surrounded by dense willows and swamp, and fell asleep listening to the eerie, lonely cries of loons.

Awakened by the heat of the sun warming my tent, I hung everything out to dry and, on a whim, decided to push through the willows, wade through the swamp where the grass was chest high and the mud several feet deep in spots, to check out where a stream empties into the lake. Sitting on a log on a gravel bar at the inlet, an apparently anxious bald eagle screeched at me from her nest 40 yards or so away, and I could hear her eaglets chirping away. I found a large, fresh pile of grizzly shit full of thimbleberry seeds on the gravel near the willows, and watched several large cutthroats in the deep water near the end of the gravel bar, occasionally darting out into the current, or up to the surface, to snatch up whatever nymphs, mayflies, gnats or other morsels the river carried out to them. I went back to my tent, put together my four-piece rod, attached the spinning reel, grabbed my box of lures, and returned.

The fish were only interested in insects, it seemed, and mostly ignored my spinners. It was one of those times I would have had more luck catching dinner with a fly rod, drifting imitation mayflies or nymphs. But I was hungry, and those fish looked appetizing, so best make do with what I had. I took off my clothes, waded out up to my chest, and cast a heavy silver Blue Fox Vibrax out as far as I could and let it sink, with the hopes a fat trout may lay out there somewhere wanting to eat something more substantial than a bug. I retrieved the spinner slowly, holding my rod up high, varying the speeds so the lure might drop and rise and flutter a bit, looking like a wounded minnow. Then it stopped, and I quickly pulled the rod back to set the hook, hooking into something, but nothing moved.

Damn, I thought, I must have snagged a log or rock.

With only a handful of lures in my box, I have a personal policy that when I snag bottom, and exhaust all other means of freeing it, I put the rod down, dive in, follow the line and retrieve the spinner, no matter how deep or cold. It had clouded up again, and I was chilly, and I didn’t want to swim. But I didn’t have to. What I thought was a log began to move, stripping line from my reel and my rod doubled over. This fish was big. There’s a strange adrenaline high to fighting a fish (more for the fish, I suppose, since it’s the only one actually fighting for its life) and you become singly, intensely focused on the moment – which is partly why fishing is so popular, and why big fish usually make for better tales. It’s even more exhilarating to hook into a big fish while naked, in the midst of wild country, where there’s the highly unlikeable but fun-to-think about chance a grizzly might charge out of the willows and make a meal of me before I was able to eat whatever was on the other end of my line.

I’d put up a bit of a fight, I suppose, flap around in the shallow water as the bear drug me up onto the gravel, suffering perhaps as much pain as I was causing this fish, and the griz would gut me, eat me and brag to his buddies, holding his paws out as wide as he could, “He was this big!”

No one would believe him.

When I finally worked the fish to where he was flapping around in the shallow water, he was indeed big, 20” or more, and a bull trout. My excitement turned to guilt. It’s illegal to kill and eat bull trout, and illegal to intentionally catch them; they are listed and protected under federal law as a threatened under the Endangered Species Act. If you catch one, you need to release it. More conscientious anglers, or those fishing for fun not food, uses barbless, single hooks to cause less damage and ensure the fish survive; my treble hooks are barbed. I don’t want to treat fish like yoyos, for my personal amusement; I want to eat them. I reached into the water, held the tired fish, carefully removed the hooks, then held him lightly with both hands, his face into the current, until he gained back enough oxygen, strength and energy to give a push or two with his big tail and swim away on his own. But he didn’t go far. He floated to the surface, where the current started taking back out into the lake, flapped around a bit, went under, then back to the surface again, then down, then back up, several more times until finally he floated belly up dead. By then he was a good 50 yards or so out to where I could barely see him.

I had killed a threatened species! What else to do but hide the evidence by running it through my digestive system? I dove in and swam, a modified freestyle stroke, keeping my head up above water like when I was a lifeguard so as to not lose sight of the victim. About half way, as cold as the water was, I began wondering if I would soon be belly up myself, with the fish, and I thought of the irony that if my body were found people would think killed myself, as I had departed on this lengthy adventure in a bad state of mind.

I should write a letter, I thought, a sort of non-suicide note, and leave it in my tent: “I did not kill myself. I died, as friends always suspected I would, from my own bullheaded stupidity. Please submit my story for a Darwin Award.”

When I was about five yards or so from the dead fish, I felt a sudden rush of wind above my head and everything darkened around me. Wings, giant wings, and talons, sharp talons, right above my head, close enough to touch, moving fast, impressive, intimidating, a rare sight generally reserved for the last few seconds in the lives of unfortunate rabbits, grouse, ducks and other small prey. The eagle rushed past and crashed into the water just ahead of me, the spray from the splash hitting my face. She sunk her talons into the fish and began flapping her wings, up and down a few times, flapping harder, having difficulty getting off the water with such a heavy load, but she finally did it, gained ever more momentum, lifted from the lake, fish secure in her grip, and I watched her circle around and deliver what was going to be my supper to her fledglings in the nest by the gravel bar.

In inadvertently killing one threatened species I had fed another; and so it was noodles yet again for me. I barely made it back to shore, drained of energy and chilled to near hypothermia. I put on my clothes, hurried back to the tent, and climbed into my sleeping bag. When warmth returned, I laughed out loud, and random thoughts danced through my head. Like this:

Sometimes I will shake willows along lakes and streams and watch trout eat the bugs that fall of the branches. When a grizzly walks through the brush, alongside lakes and creeks, does he unwittingly knock bugs into the water that feed the trout he may eventually eat? Or help fatten up some bull trout for eaglets?


  1. It's very good David, really.

    Dave Colavito

  2. Hey Davey... great story, but as always the devil is in the details, my friend! 1.) It is likely you were in the South Fork of the Flathead, bull trout are legal there. If in the Bitterroot or other drainage, mea culpa, you are correct.2.) Bald Eagles are recovered and have been removed from the T&E list in the last 10 years, so no endangered species there! LOL Loved the story anyway.

    1. Hey Larry. Thanks. Yes, indeed, the devil is in the details. No, I was not in the South Fork of the Flathead, and this event happened before Bald Eagles were removed from "Threatened" status in 2007. I strive for honesty and accuracy. Glad you liked the story.