The big redear sunfish was one that on a previous trip
I might have caught and released. Even if I hadn't caught
it before, the thought crossed my mind that its 9-inch
length was achieved with my assistance: for the last two
years I've increased its available insect food supply by
releasing all redears while removing many of their
None of that mattered now to this keeper-size redear; he
was wiggling helplessly, his entire body held above the
water by a great blue heron that was very deliberately
walking onto an exposed mudflat near the lake's feeder
creek. Obviously, the heron was taking great care not
to lose this meal. The bird's instinctive concern was
unnecessary; the redear it had just attacked was doomed,
neatly harpooned by a rapier beak that had entered the
fish's body one inch aft of a gill cover, entered at such
velocity that half the beak was protruding from the fish's
Laying the redear on the mudflat, the heron disengaged its
beak with a wiggle, stood upright to examine its catch then
suddenly drew back its head and stabbed the fish again, the
coup de grace provoked by a slight movement the fish made,
a death spasm and nothing more.
When we look at a great blue heron as one stands frozen along
a stream bank or lake shore, it's tempting to see nothing but
a long-legged, snake-necked, slow-flying bird that utters
guttural croaking complaints if forced to flight. In truth
these birds are superlative predators, fish hunters of the
first magnitude whose efficiency is easily on a par with
better-known fish killers like the bald eagle and osprey.
And if this weren't enough to command our respect, great
blue herons possess the ability and temperament to maim
and kill humans, and they have a history of doing exactly
that. I am one of the lucky outdoorsmen who learned this
fact the easy way after very nearly learning it the hard way.
About ten years ago, early one morning I launched my solo
canoe on the Delaware River at Perry, KS with the idea of
taking the Delaware one mile downstream to its confluence
with the Kansas River, then paddling the Kansas 12 more
miles down to Lawrence. I was alone. This is a daytrip
I've done hundreds of times and I never get bored with it.
How can you get bored while slowly and quietly paddling a
major prairie stream where so many things in nature are
happening all around you?
I'd gone no more than 100 yards down the Delaware when back
in the deep shadows along the steep right bank my eyes
detected movement. A great blue heron was hobbling along
the water's edge. As I moved closer I could see that both
its legs and one wing were tangled in a length of discarded
monofilament fishing line. It was a pitiful sight, watching
the bird's panicked effort to escape. The heron seemed to
know it had been spotted and was in peril.
But it wasn't in peril from me; I was determined to free it.
Steering right, I brought my canoe as close to the right bank
as I could in an effort to cut off the bird's escape route
and force it to stop, after which I would reach out and grab
it, or hop out and try to climb the steep bank and then grab
the bird. If I succeeded in grabbing it, I would pull my
rescue knife off my PFD and cut the line.
I have nothing but blind luck to thank for the fact that the
heron, although hobbled, was mobile enough to keep just ahead
of me, barely out of my reach. After a few minutes of
paralleling its movement down the river bank I grudgingly quit
the pursuit and with a feeling of shame at my failure to free
the bird I proceeded downriver, leaving the animal to suffer
its fate. Thoughts of how it would die (coyote attack,
starvation) haunted me for days.
Weeks after this trip while visiting one afternoon with Lee
Collard, one of my canoeing buddies, I began relating this
encounter. Lee froze, giving me the kind of look one might
give the unscathed sole survivor of a jet airliner crash.
Lee, I knew, had at one time held a part-time job at a
Lawrence-based wildlife rescue center.
"Do you have any idea how lucky you are?" Lee asked.
Well, yes, many times in my life I've been lucky. "What do
you mean, "lucky"?" I asked him, "About the heron, you mean?
He got away from me. How am I lucky; the bird sure wasn't."
Lee took a deep breath and began telling me about a girl he'd
known, a Kansas girl who not long before had moved to south
Florida to work for a wildlife rescue company there. Not
long after starting she'd been left alone to run the office
one day, given orders to do nothing but answer and record
incoming calls while her co-workers went out for lunch. If
a rescue call came in she was to record the information and
NOT respond by herself; the company had a strict policy against
After lunch her co-workers returned and found a handwritten
note left by the girl. A rescue call had come in, a report
of a wounded great blue heron in a nearby marsh. Compelled
by her caring nature, she had left to rescue the heron
single-handedly. Her returning co-workers were alarmed and
frightened to discover that the protective helmet with a Lexan
face shield, plus the leather neck guard, were still in the
office. The girl had left in quite a hurry.
They found her in the swamp. Actually they found the heron
first, dead from its wound. Then they found the girl. She
was lying dead about 20 feet away from the heron. Later, the
coroner would have no need to theorize or investigate the cause
of death. The chain of events and the weapon that was used
were obvious enough.
She had gone to the scene and found the wounded heron, which
at that time was still alive. She'd bent down to pick it up,
and may have actually succeeded in grabbing it. The panicked
bird had then drawn back its long neck and lashed out in a flash
of movement too fast to avoid. The heron's long, sharp beak
stabbed into her neck and punctured her carotid artery with
the lethal efficiency of a flint-tipped Indian lance. At the
strike she released the bird, staggered away a short distance
and bled to death virtually on the spot.
"All the wading bird species - the herons, the egrets, bitterns
and such - they are all extremely dangerous animals to handle,"
Lee told me. "It was a tragedy that she hadn't worked around
these birds enough times, or whatever the reason was that she
decided the risk of rescuing a blue heron wasn't dangerous
enough that she violated company policy about "team rescue"
and the use of protective gear. A visored helmet and leather
neck guard, those items are mandatory equipment for doing that
kind of work. I'm sure she knew that but maybe she didn't take
it seriously enough, or maybe she just was in a big hurry to
help the bird. But now she's dead."
"You," Lee went on, looking at me, "are one lucky paddler. If
you'd succeeded in grabbing that heron, he'd have pulled his
head back like he was shying away, trying to avoid you? But
if your face came into range he'd have begun stabbing at your
eyes, your nose or mouth, or your neck, and he'd have kept
stabbing until you let him go. It's their nature to use their
long, sharp beaks as self-defense weapons, and their stabs are
incredibly powerful and accurate. As close as you got to that
bird you are very, very lucky to be here."
As the heron on the mudflat in front of me disengaged its beak
from the follow-up strike, I watched as it struggled to pick up
and position the hefty panfish before attempting to swallow it
"No way, buddy," I whispered. "You were too good a fisherman
this time. That redear is too big; you'll never get it down.
Why couldn't you have killed a little one and left that big
one for me to catch?"
A minute later to my astonishment, the redear disappeared
into the heron's mouth then began a slow, bulge-inducing
peristaltic descent through the bird's long, skinny neck.
The heron dipped its head and began taking ten or fifteen
polite sips of water from the lake to wash down its huge
meal. And then with that handsome keeper-size redear
sunfish...sprang into the air and flew away down the lake
arm and a few moments later was out of sight.
Buzzing through the air the whole time this drama was unfolding
were hundreds - no, thousands - of dragonflies. I've never seen
so many dragonflies at one time at this lake so I guessed there'd
recently been a big hatch. Perhaps the hatch was still happening
right now this very minute and the hunt for dragonfly nymphs
emerging in the mudflat shallows is what lured that big redear
into the heron's kill zone.
Mudflats like the one this heron used as a killing floor,
mudflats and lake shores and river banks and marshes and
swamps, these are places where opportunity calls to many
creatures, including us humans. Opportunities call, and
unexpected dangers lurk. I know for about ten years now
I've been more mindful about not discarding cut pieces of
fishing line. It has to do with more than just good manners
or good sportsmanship, or not littering the environment.
Many other predators, killers every one of us, will be coming
right behind me to fish the places I did. ~ Joe Hyde
From Douglas County, Kansas, Joe is a former municipal and
federal police officer. In addition to fishing, he hunts
upland birds and waterfowl, and for the last 15 years
has pursued the sport of solo canoeing. On the nearby
Kansas River he has now logged nearly 5,000 river miles
while doing some 400 wilderness style canoe camping
trips. A musician/singer/songwriter as well, Joe's
'day job' is with the U.S. General Services Adminstration.
Joe at one time was a freelance photojournalist who wrote the
Sunday Outdoors column for his city newspaper. Outdoor
sports, writing and music have never earned him any money,
but remain priceless activities essential to surviving the