Without fail, I “catch” a bird every year. It’s an inevitability if you spend any amount of time fishing. All of my bird catches are pretty pedestrian—seagulls and cormorants—but a friend of mine has caught some more exotic species including a blue heron and a Canada goose.
Most bird-catching incidents happen when the line tangles around a bird as it flies past, but sometimes, birds like gulls or gannets will eat a bait or lure and get hooked somewhere in the beak.
Hooking birds is really no big deal—for you or the bird—if you approach the situation the right way. The absolute wrong way was demonstrated by my mom when I was five years old and dealing with my first hooked seagull.
The acrobatic bird, no doubt used to catching airborne food thrown by boardwalk-goers, intercepted a hooked mullet my dad was casting to the bluefish feeding in the Ocean City surf. The bird ate the mullet and remained in the air, squawking loudly, obviously unhappy with its current situation. For reasons unknown to me then and now, my dad handed me the rod and said, “Be right back.” I suppose he was getting pliers or a towel or something to help unhook the gull, but as I stood there, holding onto the rod, tethered to an honest-to-goodness angry bird, I did what any five year old who was worried his eyes were about to be pecked out would do—I started crying. Seeing this, out of left field comes Eileen Fee, wielding a fillet knife like a Samurai, cutting the line in one heroic swing.
Faced for the first time with the full weight of the mullet rig, the gull plummeted into the surf. I remember watching the bird struggle to get its head above water, flapping its wings, kicking its legs, but it never did get another gulp of air. The seagull died a horrific death in front of a crowd of onlookers and we hurriedly left the beach.
Since then, I’m happy to say there have been no more casualties in my hooked-bird encounters. The hook removal process is very easy if the first thing you do upon “landing” the bird, is cover its head and eyes with a rag or sweatshirt. With their eyes covered, birds will be much calmer, almost docile. Plus they won’t see you coming at them, so they won’t snap or peck at you. Get a secure grip around their neck or beak and untangle them or remove the hook.
I filled my 2012 bird-hooking quota last Sunday with a spirited double-crested cormorant. The fishing was dead and I had zoned out, as I considered where I’d grab breakfast after leaving the beach. I didn’t see the dense flock of southbound cormorants bearing down on my position when I sent the popper flying once again. The plug managed to thread the needle through birds, and I sighed in relief, when, just as it was about to hit the water, the lure was wrenched skyward. The line had tangled in the wing of an unlucky cormorant, and as it tried to continue south.
I tossed my hooded sweatshirt over the bird. I unclipped the plug, untangled the line and jumped back as I removed the sweatshirt, lest the cormorant lash out at its tormentor. The bird sat on the beach for a moment before awkwardly taking off and following its brethren south.