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Mountain Home Magazine

My Spirit Animal

Apr 01, 2024 09:00AM ● By Kevin McJunkin

One of the rewards of fishing remote mountain trout streams is the wildlife you see. I frequently run across great blue herons, even on relatively small headwater streams where you wouldn’t expect to find them.

In certain Native American cultures, a “spirit animal” refers to an animal which helps guide or protect a person on a journey and whose characteristics that person shares or admires. Obviously, I like to fish, as does the heron, and although I don’t need to fish in order to survive, I wouldn’t want to live without fishing. Great blue herons are cool-looking, in a prehistoric kind of way, like pterosaurs from Jurassic Park. I admire, but do not necessarily emulate, the patience of the heron as he stands perfectly still, sometimes for hours, waiting for his prey to swim within reach before striking.

Many fishermen despise the heron as “trout killers.” Yes, he will wreak havoc on an unprotected trout hatchery raceway where there is no cover for the trout. But I don’t begrudge him his meals on the stream, in part because I know he is probably more likely to catch a small chub or sucker in the shallows than a wary wild trout. Plus, he will spear a fish-eating water snake, given the opportunity. Even his trout predation is part of the natural cycle that ensures survival of the fittest.

Nevertheless, it is annoying to walk several miles into a remote trout stream, enjoy excellent trout fishing for a time, only for the fish to stop striking for no readily apparent reason. You know from experience that you are probably behind another fisherman, a circumstance you tried to avoid with the long hike. Sure enough, you round the bend and spot, way off in the distance, the lengthy six-foot wings of a great blue heron as he flaps slowly away, low over the stream, spooking every trout down into his hidey-hole, before settling somewhere out of sight to start fishing again. The fish remain hidden for an indeterminate amount of time, definitely longer than I am willing to wait, and even when they do venture out their guard is up.

So, you work your way up the now-barren stream, only to catch another glimpse, if you’re lucky (their hearing is also very acute), of the great bird flying away yet again, further up the stream. Sometimes I’ve come across their fresh, four-pronged tracks on streamside rocks, still dripping, as the only sign that there is a heron ahead of me. You have to go way around the big bird to get to undisturbed water, which often entails a lengthy and strenuous bushwhack.

I don’t think herons are happy to see me on the stream, either. They are naturally cautious, and have learned to be suspicious of humans carrying a long stick in their hand, which makes it all the more remarkable how often I see them.

One time on Larry’s Creek (a tributary of the West Branch of the Susquehanna in Lycoming County), above the Water Company (enjoyed by many anglers for decades but now unfortunately closed to fishing, like many of our favorite haunts), I clambered out of the steep gorge to bypass a heron—no easy task, especially while carrying a long fly rod. I walked for ten minutes along a logging road before deciding that I must have passed him. I scrabbled down the steep hillside and made my way along the top of a high stream bank, looking for a place to get back on the stream. The unseen heron came rushing out, loudly croaking, from an undercut, nearly causing me to soil my britches. He flew ponderously up the mountain, away from the stream. After composing myself, I was glad to have driven him off. The fishing instantly picked up and was good for a while, until I saw the heron again in front of me. He must have circled back. I decided to quit fishing and let him have the stream to himself.

I remember fishing the upper reaches of the lovely Little Hoosic River in southeastern New York. I was taking a break, sitting on a big log that lay across the stream, watching cedar waxwings flit about catching mayflies. I glanced upstream and spotted a pair of great blues gliding side by side down the stream channel, coming right at me. I sat still as an owl. My earth tone fishing gear must have blended in, because they didn’t detect me until they were within twenty feet, slamming on the brakes, finally hovering in mid-air a rod length away. I looked into their steely yellow eyes and could feel the breeze and hear the flapping of their cupped wings, before they slowly pivoted and fled back up the stream.

That image will be in my mind’s eye forever. Whenever I want to be on a trout stream, all I have to do is close my eyes and recall that encounter. Yes, the great blue heron is my spirit animal.

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