Leave Fishing to the "Pros"

July 17, 2010

Leave Fishihng to the "Pros"

A belated Father’s Day present from my son: a fishing pole!

And why not? He needs someone else to paddle the canoe and feed mosquitoes while he casts a black rubber “Sluggo” or a “Hula popper” to the edge of a bed of water lilies and purple pickerel weed flowers in the froggy shallows. Midsummer, after-work forays to a local pond in search of smallmouths are his favorite rite of summers spent home from college.

Fishing requires patience…. and more patience. Ask the “professionals” who do it for a living. Consider those birds particularly adapted to a fish-eating lifestyle: eagles, fish hawks, wading birds or diving ducks. Lakes, rivers and estuaries provide habitat for skilled anglers including ospreys, eagles and herons whose very lives depend on finding and catching fish year-round.

Summer provides special challenges when water levels fall and temperatures rise. Fish migrate downstream to dark depths of lakes, leaving shallow upland rivers entirely to seek deep, cool pools lower in the watersheds.

Before rains arrived this week, I noted drought-baked lawns and a dramatic drop in stream water levels. The cool, tannin-brown brooks renowned as local trout streams in spring and fall are now tame and quiet by comparison. Brooks shaded by conifers – pine, hemlock, spruce and fir – remain cool enough to sustain coldwater fish like brook trout during summers of ample rainfall. This month, streams dropped to a mere trickle between exposed mossy boulders normally hidden amid whitewater or ice the rest of the year.

Warm water contains less dissolved oxygen. The warm water fish - bass, perch, pickerel or hornpout – can tolerate higher water temperatures and lower dissolved oxygen of shallow lakes and ponds. By mid-summer, trout are hard to find.

In spring 2005, NHF&G Fisheries Biologist, Diane Timmins surgically-inserted tiny radio transmitters into the bellies of wild brook trout living in the Swift Diamond and Dead Diamond Rivers to track seasonal trout travels. Contrary to conventional wisdom that brook trout occupy small home ranges of less than five miles, the research revealed one tagged male “brookie” dubbed “fish #26” traveled more than fifty miles before eventually returning to its home pool one year later.

Biologists cite a range of environmental conditions that trigger trout travel. Summer water temperatures are a key limiting factor forcing fish migrations. Sustained water temperatures above 72 degrees can’t sustain brook trout.

Back when I was in college, I volunteered as a summer wildlife intern with the NH Endangered Species Program on the upper Androscoggin, lower Magalloway and Lake Umbagog. I spent hundreds of hours observing NH’s only breeding osprey pairs to document their breeding productivity. Their success depends on weather, sharing egg incubation and brooding of vulnerable nestlings and the relative frequency of fish deliveries to nests.

Early morning and late evening hours when waters go placid yielded abundant fish deliveries to hungry, fuzzy nestlings cradled in huge stick nests built in tall pines. Mid-day sun glare, winds or rainy conditions made for difficult fishing when foraging ospreys were unable to see beneath the water’s surface.

Ospreys and herons instinctively locate fish by changing hours, tides and seasons. Sharp eyes, beaks and talons are the tools of their trade. Herons wade in shallows amidst lilies, logs and rocks and freeze like statues before stabbing fish or frogs. Ospreys hunt from lakeside limbs extending out over the water. In flight, ospreys hover, fold wings to stoop, plunge and then rise from the water while flapping wings and simultaneously turning talons to carry struggling fish headfirst in an aerodynamic fashion. It’s an incredible and unforgettable spectacle.

During idle hours, males perched hidden from hungry females stuck back at the nest incubating eggs or brooding vulnerable chicks. The sight of a fishless male winging past a nest would illicit vocal criticism from larger females with nestling bellies to fill. On several occasions, a weary male osprey would finally catch a fish after hours of failed attempts and then be forced to surrender his prize in mid-air under aerial assault from an opportunistic and aggressive bald eagle.

Scavenging eagles are infamous for pirating meals from others. Perhaps that is why Ben Franklin preferred the noble wild turkey for the iconic symbol of our nation?