Muskie Angler misses fish, catches eagle
American symbol rescued in northern Wisconsin incident.

By Don Jordan


AMNICON LAKE, Wis. There it was, right there in my arms, white feathered head and tail with black torso--the American bird,the great predatory avian, an American bald eagle.

It's not every day you get a chance to hold a bald eagle.

That's what I was thinking as the bird turned its head to look at me through emotionless, yellow eyes. The eyes didn't reveal a thing, but I could feel its heart pounding.

After all, it had a huge muskie lure, called a Suick, stuck to one of its feet.

"I had just made a cast and was looking around, day-dreaming," said Bill Buss of Appleton, Wis. "I heard this splash and thought I had a strike, but when I turned to look for the lure, I saw an eagle flying away with it. I don't know where he came from. He must have been sitting up in a tree along the bank somewhere, but I sure didn't see him."

A probable tragedy was in the making. An eagle carrying a foot-long muskie lure with three large treble hooks cannot long endure. But things don't always go the wrong way, and Buss started off on the right track.

 
"I just left the bail of my reel open and let it take out line. The line got tangled in some weeds, and it pulled the eagle down right on the bank," continued Buss.

At that point, the 33-year-old cable television worker laid his rod and reel on a nearby swimming platform. Then he headed straight to the dock. Buss was vacationing at a relative's cottage next to mine. Since I'd sent him across the bay on his Sunday morning muskie hunt and had a telephone, he came knocking on my door for help.

Buss told his story and pointed out the bird across the lake. With field glasses it was easy to see the eagle's bright, white head popping up on the far shoreline as it struggled with the lure and line. It had landed on the edge of the lake at a spot surrounded by a floating matt of vegetation.

I called state conservation warden Joe Davidowski in Superior who contacted bird rehabilitator Scott Nielsen. Nielsen lives on nearby Dowling lake, about a mile distant from Lake Amnicon, as an eagle flies in Douglas County. Nielsen is a bald eagle expert and author of a book on eagles.

Within 30 minutes, he was aboard Buss's pontoon boat with his eagle "box" and long, thick falconry gloves. I took my canoe and approached the ground-bound bird from another direction, circled the floating bog and nosed the canoe into the springy mass of vegetation about 20 yards from the eagle.

Nielsen had a more difficult route. He had to wade through 50 yards of bog and muck. As a result, I got the first close look at our quarry.

It wasn't as big as I expected, and it was strangely calm. It was exhausted from its struggle. A wing flap or two was all the resistance the grounded eagle could muster.

 
When Nielsen finally oozed from the bog, he had no trouble grabbing the bird's legs and gathering in its wings. It reared its head with open beak for a second, but made no attempt to strike. And, once it was tucked under in his arms, the big bird acted like it had been handled by humans since birth. We knew otherwise, though, because this was an unbanded, "wild" eagle, not a bird from some state eagle hacking program.

"I was surprised it was so docile," said Nielsen as I paddled him across the lake. "Adult eagles are often very hard to handle." Our bird was exhausted, for the time being.

 
He held its torso under his right arm and never gave up his grip on its long, razor-sharp talons. They were an odd-looking cargo. There was this short, bald human with incredibly pale skin, covered from head to toe in drying muck, sitting in the bow seat with a mature, alert bald eagle folded under his protective human wing. They sat together, sirene, facing me.

The eagle never uttered a sound but stared at me as we crossed the lake. If you never get a chance to look a wild eagle in the eye at close range, know that an eagle's stare defines all that is wild and unknowable. It is not the familiar stare of a mammal--no friendly, mamalian eye or facial non-verbal clues, no familiar fur. The eagle's eyes never change, they're just there, gazing and yellow. This was no pet parrot.

The big muskie lure hung from one talon. A barb from one of the three large treble hooks had penetrated the eagle's skin just above the claw.

"It was a good place in that there isn't much there (in the bird's foot) to get hurt. There wasn't any bleeding which lessens the chance of any infection. These birds get worse injuries on their feet all the time in feeding and hunting," explained Nielsen.

Ashore, conservation warden Joe Davidowski and his wife met us along with unlucky muskie angler Buss. Nielsen stuffed the eagle into his darkened transport box to let it rest and calm. Within 30 minutes, he was passing the eagle to me. The idea was for me to hold it while he clipped the hook. The eagle had other ideas.

As Nielsen let go, the eagle turned and looked at me as I held it's body in my right arm, wings tucked to its side. I had a firm grip on its legs, but there was nothing between my face and the eagle's fearsome beak. It opened its beak and reared back its head, just as it had done when Nielsen first approached it. It was fiestier now though.

Whap!

I was looking at it when it struck, faster than I could react. It hit me just below the lip. I felt the blood streaming but felt lucky it hadn't managed to get a hold on me. Only the lower half of its beak hit me. The fearsome, hooked upper beak missed.

 
Eagles use their sharp, powerful beaks to rip flesh from their prey. It could have ripped my face open. I handed the bird to Davidowski who wasn't smiling when he took it. As I bled, the warden took the bird, carefully avoiding a head-on approach to its beak, and Nielsen clipped the hook with wire cutters. The only blood in sight dribbled from my wound, flowed into my chin whiskers and dripped to my shirt. The eagle required no further attention.

Nielsen hoisted it skyward and tossed it into the wind. The big wings opened and the eagle glided over my head. After a few weak flaps, it reached a shoreline tree and landed to rest. Because this eagle was small--about a four-foot wing span--Nielsen guessed the bird was a male. Males are the smaller of the sexes among eagles and lots of other avian predators. And, since it had mistaken the muskie lure for a fish, he also guessed the bird was a young one, about four years old and probably wearing its adult, nuptial feathers for the first time.

"This proves that birds get caught in fishing tackle. Fishermen have to be aware of that and that using light line is the worst thing you can do. I use 50-lb. test for bluegill fishing, because I know it won't break and end up killing a bird," said Nielsen.

In this case, the bird was saved because Buss' line did not break. It brought the bird to ground where we were able to remove the hook. Had the line broken, chances are we wouldn't have recovered the eagle, and it would have starved to death, unable to hunt with the lure stuck to its feet.

"This is the first time in my 30 years as a warden that I've seen something like this, but it was a case where everybody involved did the right thing," said warden Davidowski later.

 
The next day, I saw two eagles hunting over the lake, and I know the smaller one was our "fishing" eagle, soaring high and hunting over Lake Amnicon because of its missing tail feather. It made me feel good to see it there.

Angler Buss, on his way home, held the lure, minus one hook, and said: "I don't know what I'm going to tell the guy I borrowed this lure from--that I caught an eagle? Nobody back home is ever going to believe me."

-30-

 

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