The leisurely morning was the head fake for what was to come. My daydreaming thought of, "Wow that must have been a big one!", after hearing the splash, was the sucker punch.
I was up early fishing off the dock of our house rental that backed onto the Palmetto Dune lagoon in South Carolina's Hilton Head. The pine stained waters lazily drifted by as I sipped my coffee and watched the sun's progress from the horizon. Nothing seemed to be going on fish wise. Usually, at least the mullets would provide a little entertainment by leaping out of the water fairly regularly, but not so this am. Even the ospreys who perched high in the trees on our property didn't seem to really be into it today. A few passing glides and then back to their haunts.
I exchanged fishing rod for flip flops and headed down to the ocean with my wife, Jan, for a low tide beach walk. The packed sand of low tide is great for walking or biking the long wide shorelines of Hilton Head. There is always something to spot in the water and something to look for in the sand, and the early morning means comfortable going as the sun isn't too hot yet. We weren't alone in this idea. Today the Pink Ribbon people were having their walk/run event and there were pretty good numbers of participants from all over the U.S. smiling and chugging along the course.
Two hours later and we were back at the house but so was the vacation company's cleaning crew so we all had to get out of their way. The three sisters headed for the pool and their husbands headed for the dock. Given the quiet morning and the now high sun we weren't in any sort of overly unrealistically optimistic mood but then again we weren't about to pass up on another chance to go fishing.
While Sam and Bryon put on cut bait (cut up chunks of dead fish), I decided to use a technique that was popular amongst the guides in the area. Put a freshly captured lively local fish on your hook as bait and let the food chain follow. Simple enough, but I didn't have a net to cast for the bait fish so I first had to go fishing so that I could go fishing. Having had to play this game on other trips, I had brought along my ultralight fishing rod and reel that had originally been purchased to enjoy fishing for grayling in the far Canadian north. Light line, a very small hook and a guppy shaped and sized piece of raw turkey bacon soon produced a palm sized pin fish. The fish was then placed a few feet below a bobber and cast out to go on tour and attract Mr Big.
The trouble with this kind of fishing is that on a warm sunny day, the sun glinting off the water, the bobber, and your beer can, you can fall into a rather meditative state. Conversation had slowed and relaxation had set in. For a while I intensely tracked the touring bait fish. First it went straight out, then upriver to the support walls on the other side, then back in front of me for awhile before deciding to travel downriver to the next dock on our side. By this point/pint I had taken my eye off the ball /bobber and kept looking straight ahead as I thought, "Wow that must have been a big one!" after I'd heard a huge downstream splash. A few second later my rod slashed down violently, the line screamed and I bolted to my feet, fully engaged, shouting, "Fish on!" as I turned downriver.
An osprey eagle emerged from the water with my bait fish in its talons. It took off upriver at about 20 feet in the air. "Hey that's my fish!" I yelled as I pulled back on the line. It wouldn't let go and I was left feeling like I was flying a kite in a wind storm. To add to my dilemma I now gave myself a dark thought. "What if it can't let go because it's hooked?" Oh no, that would be REALLY bad.
I couldn't just cut the line because that would leave a hook in the bird and the bird would probably die of infection. So that would mean reeling in and removing the hook from one very pissed off fish eagle. That's right - an osprey is a fish eagle, as in a large brown and grey fish eating raptor that sits 24 inches tall and has a wing span of over 70 inches. This thing is built to hunt and kill. It has formidable feet. Its toes, which are of equal length, grasp their prey two toes in front and two behind, with round talons that have backward facing scales so that slippery fish have no chance of escaping. That black hooked beak is sharp enough to tear through the toughest of fish skin. I had visions of me learning a new definition of finger food if my unprotected hands got too close to this fellow.
The osprey landed on my side of the lagoon on the top of the retaining wall about 60 feet upriver. It had managed to wrap the line around a light fixture that was affixed to the retaining wall. So for now, the line, the fish, and the raptor weren't going anywhere. We were separated as well, by a row of some sort of bushes that travelled the property line and extended out over the retaining wall. I knew that the neighbouring house had been left vacant for a good deal of time so I clambered through the untrimmed bushes and prepared to meet my fate.
At about 30 feet away I started going over my plan. I had my shirt and the small towel that we were using to clean up after baiting fish, so I had something to wrap the raptor in. I had pliers for the hook, Sam had my fishing rod, and Bryon, who is a vet, was there in case either the bird or myself needed medical attention. I slowed my pace but got another 10 feet closer before I had to stop to wipe the sweat that had suddenly started to appear and run into my eyes. This really wasn't such a great plan, this was going to suck.
Smaller steps brought me to within 15 feet of a pair of piercing yellow eyes, when suddenly the osprey just spread its wings and flew off. No struggling, no disentangling, just a graceful and powerful lift off. The beggar hadn't been hooked, he was just being stubborn.
From then on I abandoned the live bait under a bobber method and every time I caught a small fish I tossed it down in the direction of where the osprey was perched. I figured I owed it one.