THE FISHERMAN: Homage to a Fallen Warrior

By Vincent Pagliaroli

June in January is rare in northwestern Pennsylvania. Anxious to shake the winter doldrums, fishermen often enthusiastically embrace any thaw, even if it only remotely approaches a bearable outside temperature.

Audubon Curlew

In fact, I was anxious to get out and on the river for that first clumsy attempt to see if everything still worked, body-wise and tackle-wise. However, extreme caution was in order because the waters measured a frigid 34 degrees.

Ready to leave home, I had dressed with layers of poly-this and thermal-that to be worn under my waders. Add in a much-too-heavy fishing vest, not to mention my added insulation from the holidays. My bloated appearance and sluggish ability to move reminded me of a Pillsbury doughboy/Michelin tireman hybrid.

"You look ridiculous," my girlfriend scolded as she gave me a parting kiss. My six-weight rod and sink-tip line were set up to toss Clouser minnows. Was this not great or what!?!

Gizzard shad, dead and dying, set nature's banquet table for just about every variety of animal life in or near the river. Experience had taught me that if I could jig and swim a streamer close to the trout holding in the eddies and current seams, I'd likely hook some fish. It would be an added bonus if I could snare a walleye. My spin fisherman friends had been catching nice walleye during high water, but with the current lower water levels, they hadn't fared as well.

Stumbling around on the slick river rocks, I took most of the morning getting used to fishing again. Also, the icy waters made it difficult to get my wading legs back, not to mention simultaneously attempting to hone the fine skill of casting a weighted streamer without hitting myself in the back of the head (or significantly worse ... somewhere lower!). Observing the brittle, barren trees cast against the clear blue sky, feeling the warmth of the sun and listening to the trickling of the water caused my spirits to soar. It was just so fantastic "stealing" such a perfect day in the middle of the winter!

I caught and released three browns, but I lost a very heavy non-trout ... you know, one of those "I don't know what it was, but it felt really, really big" fish. My legs were going numb. The time had come to get out of the icy water and start moving around so as to get my circulation going again; something important to do before the chills set in. Awkwardly walking up the river bank, I began to see my home water: a long, swift riffle spilling into a slow glide and then a deep hole.

With my house not too far away, this is where I'd grown to love to fish, and not just for trout. The river is inhabited by good variety: all the pan fish, plus walleye, muskie, northern pike, small and large mouth bass, suckers, carp, silver cats, white bass and stripers. At one time or another, I've had the pleasure of meeting and greeting each one of these species on the other end of a line. I just can't seem to hold on to a striper long enough to get anything more than an LDR (lost during recovery) ... but, that's a story for another day.

During countless hours over many years on the river, I have come to view nature as both kind and brutally unforgiving. Whitetail deer, turkey, osprey, bald eagles, gulls, ducks and geese are both the hunters and the hunted. Personally, over a five day period, I observed a brood of mallards diminished from seven to three. In amazement, also, I've seen ducklings struggle and then disappear under the water making me wonder, "Just how big ARE the fish in this river!?!"

Audubon Curlew

Through it all, nothing has impressed me as much as the winged, solo-working fishermen who, for as long as I can remember, have staked claim to my home water: the blue heron. That they are referred to as "great" is no accident. Stealthily, they stalk their fish and intermittently stab the surface of the water with lightening quickness. Sometimes immersing their entire body in the water during the chase of their prey, they are the technical masters of the art of fishing.

On occasion, I've encroached upon the aquatic territory of these undisputed angling champs. Their deafening squawking and complaining is usually followed by at least one close fly-over before perching on a nearby limb. Unhappy with my presence, observing me as I have so often observed them, they must think of me as a pitiful excuse for a human fish catcher. On a couple of rare instances, while jealously watching me reel in a fish, they harangued and harassed me by swooping down over my line -- just a final, unfriendly reminder that the fish are theirs ... not mine.

In utter disbelief, I once witnessed a great blue heron attack an osprey over its recently caught fish. Relinquishing its kill immediately, the osprey shrieked as it flew away. Then, after rapidly devouring the osprey's food, the great one staked irrevocable claim to its new prime stalking grounds.

My mind wandered back to the river. I hadn't walked and fished this stretch since last September. Up and down, back and forth, I scanned the banks for any changes caused by the winter water.

Finished for the day, I traversed down an old railroad bed as it snaked through the woods eventually returning to the water. A favorite landmark of mine, a big old maple tree with its bent trunk hugging the shore, came into view. Traditionally, this is where I liked to sit and study the river with its herons aplenty.

Just steps before I got to the maple, something up in a nearby tree caught me eye. It was the frozen form of a dead great blue heron, its head caught in the crook of a limb, its bill slightly open. Feathers lying flat, as if someone had placed it there the large bird's body hung straight down nine or ten feet off the ground. Its body was not distorted. There were no feathers lying around. With its clear, big yellow eyes, the heron showed no sign of a struggle.

My elite fisherman colleague and friend was dead. With a deep sense of loss and remorse, I pondered how it had happened. Had the normally plentiful shad declined? Did high water flood a favorite fishing spot? Was it simply too cold for the aging angler? One way or another, he appeared to have died on his perch, fell and, on the way down, became lodged between a fork in the branches.

Even in death, I marveled at the heron's beauty. I touched its beak with my rod tip and paid my last respects while thinking, "Never will I be able to fish so well ... never will I be able to accomplish any endeavor to such an elite level of intensity, precision and effectiveness as you." My feelings were a confusing, enigmatic mixture of admiration, regret and envy.

With humility welling up inside me, I thanked God for the privilege of sharing this moment of rare observation and deeper understanding. Then, with a tear in my eye, I slowly and mournfully trudged along to my usual maple tree trunk seat and sat down ... to watch the river.

Vincent Pagliaroli has been painting American wildlife, as well as carving decoys, for over twenty-five years. He studied art at Edinboro College. His decoy designs and patterns are original, and all of his work is done in the tradition of the masters using no power tools. His studio, known as Durable Decoys, is found in Sharpsville, Pennsylvania.