Fishing for Loons

When my boyfriend (now my husband) Brian and I first started dating, I made sure to bring him up to the Maine North Woods to see how he liked it. Staying with in-laws is always a little nerve-wracking, so I couldn’t abandon him completely to my father while Mom and I went traipsing through the woods looking for birds. Given how much he was willing to spend his work vacations up in Maine with my family, he was already approaching saint status when I added birding to the list.

Brian wanted to fly-fish more than anything, literally more than anything, so on our last evening on Kennebago Lake I headed out onto the water with him in my family’s dark green Rangeley boat. Low clouds hung over the mountains, reflecting slate gray on the waves below. Rain threatened but was not falling, blocking most of the sunset’s colors.

fishing, maine, birding

We heard other fishermen and women chatting in their boats, the wind blowing through our fishing lines, and the long, lonely calls of the Common Loon. The lake is completely catch and release, and its pristine waters attract anglers from across the country. I generally feel guilty even hooking a fish, so the gentle part of me appreciates the release part of the rules.

Loon are perhaps the most iconic birds of Maine. They are large, black and white, with bright red eyes and long black bills. They inhabit freshwater lakes and large ponds during the summer, raising fuzzy gray chicks that sound exactly like kittens when they first hatch. Unlike most other birds, their bones are heavy. That’s good for diving for fish and other prey, but not so good for flying, kind of a hallmark activity for most migrating species (loons head to the oceans during the winter). They need up to a half mile of open water to take off, running, running, running along the surface of the water until they finally gain enough speed to lift off. It’s almost comical, considering how easy it is for most other birds. Not so comical for the loons though, when they accidentally land on highways or tiny ponds with no way to become airborne again.

common loon, fishing, maine, birding

Fly-fishing is an intense, intellectual activity. Brian chose a small fly for me, comprised of feathers, string, and a little bit of glue. He painstakingly tied the fly to the end of my almost invisible line, attempting to match the size, color, and shape of the insects hatching from underneath the water and emerging on the surface. All to fool a fish with a brain a smaller than a pea.

I cast the fly delicately out, almost making it hover before it fell to the water below. My dad is a Maine fishing guide, with a love of fishing that rivals or even surpasses what I feel for birding, so needless to say I learned to cast quite young.

At some level I knew the loons were around us, the same way I was aware of the other fishing boats on the water, but I was so focused on my little dry fly that I didn’t notice them quietly approaching.

I caught my first fish without incident. The trout – around ten inches long –  hit the fly with a splash, unsuccessfully pulling against my line as I quickly reeled it in. These trout are beautiful, with speckled bellies against green backs. Better yet, I caught a fish before Brian caught one, proving my rumored fly-fisherwoman prowess. Wildlife win.

As we slipped the fish back under the water I really should have noticed that the loons had circled ever closer. We forget sometimes, at least I do, that birds are hunters. But I was typically oblivious, and I cast out again and again looking to land my next big catch. As I back-cast with the wind, I gasped in delight as another fish took my feathered hook under the waves.

Brian suddenly pointed, “Watch out, here comes the loon!”

I had forgotten a story I’d heard, a very, very important story.

Stay tuned for my encounter with the loon in my next blog!


Erika Zambello

About Erika Zambello

Erika Zambello is a writer, birder, and photographer, born and raised in Maine. She has a bachelor’s degree in Government and Anthropology from Cornell University, and a master’s degree in Environmental Management from Duke University, specializing in ecosystem science and conservation. Her love of the outdoors was inspired by her childhood in Maine, and she returned for her National Geographic Young Explorer grant in 2015-2016.