I was fly-fishing on the banks of a gorgeous little trout stream in Montana, listening to the bright warble of the colorful western tanager, when I spotted a wily cutthroat trout, holding at the edge of a crystal-clear pool.
Then, to my horror, I caught one.
I mean, I caught a western tanager. I mean, I caught a bird on a dry fly.
I should back up a moment and explain this tanager situation. My wife Carol and I had decided to social-distance on a remote trout stream in western Montana. We had retreated to this idyllic spot numerous times, but when we arrived in mid-June something was different. For one thing, the temperature was 45 degrees. For another, the whole place was lousy with western tanagers.
Make no mistake, we considered that a good thing, if not a fantastic thing. Western tanagers are, hands-down, the most colorful birds that we have in the Mountain West. You know how birdwatchers get all excited about gorgeous cardinals, or bluebirds, or yellow warblers? Well, those birds are colorful, all right, but they lack diversity. They are mainly one color. The western tanager has triple the colors, with a bright red head, which melts into orange around the neck and throat, and then turns into a bright canary-yellow on its breast and body. Throw in some black and white wings and you have a flying kaleidoscope.
Western tanagers are so spectacular that they won the coveted role of cover bird on my old copy of Roger Tory Peterson’s “A Field Guide to Western Birds.” How do you get to be the cover bird of the birdwatcher’s bible? The same way you get to be the cover model of Vogue or Esquire. You possess the best plumage.
So Carol and I were enthralled by this surfeit of western tanagers. I have seen western tanagers on trout streams before, but in our many trips to this particular spot, we had never seen even one.
That evening, we couldn’t walk 10 yards without seeing a red-orange-yellow missile streaking across our path and then posing amiably on a willow branch. These birds are not exactly an everyday sight, but it turns out they are not shy in the least. They will hold still quite graciously if you walk up to take their portrait.
This lack of basic bird shyness is what struck me the next morning while I was fishing that stream. As I was standing on a rock, casting into a promising pool, I looked down and there was a western tanager sitting right next to the rock, about a yard away.
The bird was looking up at me with big eyes and a friendly expression, like a Disney animated bird buddy. I could almost imagine him saying in a kind of cartoon voice, “Hi. Don’t mind me. Just watchin’.” I remember thinking, “Wow, that’s special, fly-fishing with my own personal western tanager.”
I made another cast and looked down again. The goofy little bird had hopped up on the rock and was sitting 3 inches from my wading boot, looking up at me with big eyes.
“I wish I had my camera with me,” I said to myself. “That would make an amazing photo. That bright little bird, next to my drab-green boot.” I did not have a camera or a cellphone with me, because I make a point not to when I fish. I tend to fall into the water.
So, I was lamenting this lost opportunity when I reeled in my Orange Stimulator dry fly and felt a little tug on my line.
I looked down and saw, to my horror, that my little tanager buddy was holding my Orange Stimulator clamped in his cute little beak.
Fortunately, he was holding this Orange Stimulator sideways, so the bird was not hooked. I gave a little yank and the fly popped right out of the tanager’s beak. The bird looked a little miffed that I had taken away his dinner, but – he should trust me on this – this was a far better outcome for him.
If that bird had been truly hooked, this story would have turned ugly. I would have panicked while I tried to figure out the safest way to extract a hook from a bird’s mouth. I suspect there is no safe way at all, but I actually have no idea, having never hooked a bird.
Once, I was convinced I had hooked a duck, when my fly floated around a blind bend and I felt a giant tug and heard a raucous thrashing sound in the reeds. But it turned out I had actually hooked a large brown trout. (It should give you some idea of my skills as a fly-fisher that I was actually convinced, for at least 30 seconds, that hooking a mallard was more plausible than hooking a large trout.)
Anyway, the fly popped right out of the tanager’s beak, and that should have been the end of the story. But not with this stubborn little songbird. He came fluttering up around me, trying to catch my Orange Stimulator again, and again, and again. I clamped that fly in my hand and I finally had to sprint 20 yards away from the stream in order to finally rid myself of my little pal.
By the way, that’s farther than I have sprinted in 20 years.
The next day, the weather warmed 15 degrees and all of those dozens of tanagers, including my friend, simply vanished. They had all flown up into the high forests, as we discovered when we hiked into the mountains and saw a few cavorting in the pine and spruce. The important thing was, they were safely out of the Orange Stimulator zone.
When I told this story to my most-experienced fly-fishing friend, he raised the possibility that I was the first and only fly-fisher to catch a tanager on a dry fly. Sure, I’d like to think so. But I have a feeling that this has probably happened before and will happen again.
I’ll tell you one thing. If I ever see a western tanager sitting next to my boot, looking at me in bright expectation, I will keep that fly out of harm’s way. Also, I will have my camera with me, waterproof or not. A tanager should be caught only in a photo.
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