Tom Venesky: Herons have unique place in wildlife

By Tom Venesky - [email protected]
Tom Venesky -

There are a lot of things I enjoy about bass fishing on a farm pond during the summer.

Busting bass out of the lily pads tops the list, of course, but there is much more to the experience of farm pond fishing.

When you fish a farm pond, you’re immersing yourself in another world. It’s a place ruled by fish and frogs, snakes and turtles.

And herons.

I’ve always admired the great blue herons that I encounter on the farm ponds. While stalking the water’s edge the large birds move with stealth and silence, and they hunt with incredible patience waiting for a frog or fish to come within range of their spear-like bill.

But when a heron takes to the air with a wingspan that can exceed 6 feet, they take on a prehistoric appearance with powerful wings that flap slowly and an outstretched neck that darkens the sky.

Many of my encounters with herons are similar to those with deer. When I bump into a buck in the woods or a blue heron on a pond, the reaction from either is to often stare and freeze before ultimately fleeing.

Yes, I always get a thrill when I spot a heron while fishing, but lately I’ve wondered are they a welcome sight to all or a serious problem to the fish we pursue?

A reader recently contacted me to share his thoughts about herons, and he doesn’t share the admiration of the bird.

Herons are impacting fish, he said, citing significant declines in panfish numbers in his pond.

He also mentioned a trout stream that, when it gets stocked, herons can be seen along the banks for days.

I’ve seen it, too.

On many occasions I startled a heron while fishing a trout stream. Sometimes the birds are so focused on snaring trout that they don’t notice me until I am just a few yards away, and they respond with a perturbed squawk and beating wings as they reach for the sky.

Great blue herons used to a problem at trout hatcheries, and their impact forced the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission to cover the facilities with protective netting to keep the birds out.

If herons were such a problem at trout hatcheries that netting had to be installed, I imagine they’re just as much of an issue on trout streams where the fish are fair game.

A heron on a farm pond seems like a natural place for the big birds, but I admit it is a little disappointing to find them on a stream feasting on the trout that I hope to catch.

Still, just because herons are advantageous predators and take advantage of stocked trout as a food source, does that mean we should despise them?

Conversely, while we manage other predatory species through hunting and trapping, should we do the same with predatory birds? Isn’t the balance of predator and prey a crucial component of wildlife management?

It’s a tough question since herons are federally protected and can’t be hunted.

But I still believe the impact of herons on fish is something that would make for an interesting study. If there is a significant problem, it’s something that could affect more than just stocked trout.

If herons are severely reducing trout numbers on a stocked stream, and anglers are catching fewer fish, perhaps they’ll become discouraged and be less likely to buy a fishing license the following year.

And if that happens, it means less money for all of the other species the PFBC manages.

Maybe that’s a stretch, but it’s a scenario that should be considered.

But as far as a solution, perhaps all we can do is continue to admire herons on a farm pond and hope for the best when we startle them on a trout stream.

Tom Venesky Tom Venesky

By Tom Venesky

[email protected]

Reach Tom Venesky at 570-991-6395 or on Twitter @TLTomVenesky

Reach Tom Venesky at 570-991-6395 or on Twitter @TLTomVenesky