MEMPHIS, Tenn. — When the pros from the Walmart FLW Tour on Pickwick Lake visited Tennessee for a week last July, you could have had an interesting debate about who was the best fisherman on the water.
A case could have been made for Arkansas legend Larry Nixon or former Bassmaster Classic winner Jay Yelas.
Perennial nice guy Mark Rose of Marion, Ark., certainly made a good case for himself when he won the event and took home the $125,000 first-place payday.
But as talented as those guys are, the best fishermen on the lake that week were the great blue herons wading slowly, patiently and majestically around the shadows.
They’re the best fishermen on any lake, any week.
“Great blue herons are built for catching fish,” said Dan Scheiman, bird conservation director for Audubon Arkansas. “They’re actually built for catching anything that swims by in shallow water. But certainly, they are fantastic fishermen.”
Opinions are mixed about the general appearance of great blue herons. Some say they’re so ugly they’re pretty; others consider them majestic and beautiful.
Their color scheme is all over the scale, with bluish-gray feathers on their bellies, bodies and wings, patches of black on their shoulders and slate-gray feathers on their backs. They have long, thick yellow beaks.
At 4 feet tall with a massive wingspan of more than 6 feet, they are the largest heron species in North America. They have long, stilt-like legs and S-shaped necks that allow them to swallow fish that are often more than a foot long.
With an average weight of only 5 pounds, their appearance contradicts common sense. But it isn’t their appearance that makes them so fascinating. It’s their intelligence, adaptability and their amazing aptitude for catching anything that swims in shallow water.
“I think their adaptability is one of the things that makes them so special,” Scheiman said. “They have a varied diet that allows them to live in a variety of habitats -- even habitats that have been modified by humans. You find them everywhere. They’re on lakes, rivers and streams. They’re in bottomland and hardwood forests. They’re in fresh water and salt water.”
Dick Preston, the curator for the Memphis Chapter of the Tennessee Ornithological Society, has witnessed the voracious appetites of great blue herons firsthand.
“I’ve seen them take down some really big fish,” Preston said. “The coolest thing I’ve seen one eat was a gray squirrel at Reelfoot Lake. It walked around with just the tail sticking out of the corner of its mouth. Took a long time to choke it down the hatch.”
Great blue herons overcome their incredible stature by standing perfectly still for long periods of time in ankle-deep water along the shorelines.
With patience few human anglers will ever possess, they wait for an unsuspecting fish to swim beneath their skinny legs and stab it with a quick strike from their spear-like bills that some bird experts refer to as the “death blow.”
As Scheiman suggested, the notorious fish eaters will eat whatever they can snare -- invertebrates, amphibians, reptiles, small birds, insects and even small mammals. Sometimes their eyes are bigger than their stomachs, causing them to choke to death on prey that won’t fit down their throats.
Besides the fishing method they’re famous for -- standing still and waiting for something to come along -- great blue herons sometimes use another fishing technique that would make some of the above-mentioned professional anglers jealous.
They cup their wings on the surface of deeper water and float with the current. Then they extend their heads beneath the water as if “trolling” for a bite.
In still shallow waters, great blue herons may actually rouse their prey by flicking a wingtip rapidly along the surface. They may also stir up the water with their feet when the fishing gets a little slow.
It’s that crafty adaptability and survivability that causes some people to take great blue herons for granted. Because their populations are so healthy, they don’t receive much press and sometimes go unnoticed by all but the die-hard bird lovers of the world.
“I’ve always felt like we should learn to appreciate all the birds of the world for their unique adaptations,” Scheiman said. “They all have them. But when you talk specifically about great blue herons, they really do have some great ones.”
Here are some facts about great blue herons:
- When preparing a spot for their eggs, the male gathers hundreds of sticks and the female fashions them into a platform nest.
- Eggs are incubated for 25 to 30 days by both parents.
- The North American great blue heron population suffered during the early 20th century. But they’re off-limits to hunters now and thriving year-round all over North America.
- Notorious fish eaters, they often congregate at fish hatcheries and commercial catfish ponds, causing headaches for the owners.
- With massive wingspans of more than 6 feet, they can fly at speeds of more than 20 mph.
- Blinded by the reflection of sunlight, herons usually have greater success foraging on overcast days.
- Lacking the oil glands that are so prominent in other types of water birds, herons grow special patches of “powder-down” feathers. These feathers crumble into a powder that the birds comb into their remaining coats for insulation and waterproofing.
- Because herons nest in large colonies that exist for decades, their droppings can sometimes literally kill the trees where they are nesting.
Source: Information was obtained from whatbird.com, audubon.org, nationalgeographic.com and the online site “Migratory Birds of the Great Lakes.”