Does anyone not love the lonesome wail of a loon? Earlier this summer, I was trout fishing a local pond over a Hex hatch. As we were coming off the pond after dark, the wail of a loon echoed across the mountainsides. It was the perfect ending to catching a few wild brook trout.
There is no question that loons are the personification of our backcountry wilderness, and that their striking black and white colors, accompanied by ruby-red eyes, depict nature’s beauty at its best.
Loons long ago endeared themselves to folks who live near or are active on the water. Their low numbers, resulting from lead poisoning, led to protective programs over the years, including the banning of lead fishing accessories.
Artificial nesting sites and signage warning of loon nesting areas are present on some ponds and lakes. Annual loon counts are now the norm in New England to keep a cautious eye on each state’s population.
The success of these programs since the 1980s is crystal clear. Maine’s population grew from an estimated 1,500 loons in 1983 to 3,000 in 2020. Vermont went from seven breeding pairs in 1983 to 100 in 2019, and loons were doing so well that they were removed from Vermont’s endangered list in 2005.
Credible sources say loons are now thriving and are considered to be a healthy and stable population. That’s good, although continued monitoring is needed to look for subtle changes that might be a precursor of problems to come.
In recent years, though, I have noticed an uptick in unfavorable comments citing negative effects resulting from the presence of loons. One concern is that the increase in loons may be reducing the numbers of certain fish, especially brook trout.
The other matter deals with (hold onto your kayak gunnels) the harassment of fly anglers on trout ponds. Really!
Loons have learned to grab hooked and released trout from fly anglers, and as a result, have become a real nuisance. Recalling many trout fishing excursions over the past three decades, I can’t remember it happening while fishing in Maine or New Hampshire, although it did once in Vermont.
Fly anglers, including me, are finding it bad enough to case their fly rods and leave the pond.
A New Hampshire fly fishing writer expressed his exasperation over a loon caper while he fished from a float tube on a small trout water. A loon approached as close as five feet, watching him cast. Upon hooking a fish, it was a race between the loon and the fisherman to see who got the trout.
He barely won the first heat, but the savvy loon waited close by, knowing that a second opportunity would come as soon as the trout was released. The fisherman faked a throw in one direction, causing the loon to dive, and then tossed the trout on the opposite side of his float tube.
Quoting Jeff Reardon, Maine brook trout project coordinator for Trout Unlimited: “I hear plenty of complaints about loons taking hooked or released trout, and I know some anglers will quit fishing as a result. I do this myself.”
Loons have learned that any splashing around watercraft often equates to a meal. Last spring, while fly fishing a mayfly hatch on Vermont’s Seyon Pond, we could not get a hooked trout (some 12 inches long) in fast enough before a loon grabbed it.
We had to move elsewhere, away from the best fishing, to try to escape the loons. In most instances, they would follow us.
Not only did we have to worry about hooked fish, but releasing trout was also a challenge. The loons would hang around our boat waiting for us to release trout, then grab them as they swam away, defeating the purpose of catch-and-release fishing.
Sometimes we distracted loons by splashing water on one side of the boat, then releasing the trout on the other — although you could never be certain the loon didn’t catch and swallow the fish underwater. In one instance, we splashed, attracting the loons in our direction, so an angler on another boat could land their fish!
Loons on this pond have harassed anglers to utter exasperation and, from what I’ve read, it has happened on plenty of Maine and New Hampshire ponds as well. One angler at a remote New Hampshire pond actually had a loon take a fish right out of his hands!
To fly fishers, it has become a huge deal on certain waters. This loon bedevilment can easily ruin a fishing experience, sometimes after some hard cash has been anted up to a sporting camp or a guide to fish in a particular place.
I know loons are just “doing their thing.” I get that. But there aren’t many reliable methods anglers can use to help avoid this loon badgering.
In the Midwest, some anglers use buoys to distract loons. The best results come from black buoys that are anchored at some distance away. That ploy is perfectly legal in Vermont, so it might be worth a try next spring, although I doubt it.
One fly angler told me he takes a few rocks with him and, just before he releases a trout, he dekes the loon by tossing a rock in one direction. The loon heads to that splash and dives. Then the angler quickly tosses the trout in the opposite direction.
If loon harassment occurs on a large enough body of water, moving to a new spot can work, but it’s the smaller brook trout ponds where anglers suffer.
A fly fishing friend who has witnessed this loon annoyance refers to a loon as a “good-looking cormorant.” I even heard a Mainer refer to loons as “nothing but a shag in disguise!”
Those characterizations may be a bit strong, but they are emblematic of the feelings of many incensed northern New England fly anglers. Even though I love to hear and see loons and their young, that sentiment fails epically when a loon grabs a trout at the end of my line.