Life lessons from a great blue heron

Nathan’s note: I wrote this story in early August of 2018. Originally, I didn’t have a place to host it. Looking back, it made sense to me to share it with all of you here.

Tonight, I found myself in need of some serious decompression. So I decided to unwind with a trip to one of favorite stretches of river in my hometown.

I had it all planned out. There was no messing around. I packed my best flies, my $30 Fleet Farm fly rod and was going straight to my best spots. It’s been a tough week, but nothing that a couple hours of catching fish wouldn’t cure.

An unexpected line of showers and thunderstorms almost upended my plans. But after a brief drizzle, the rain let up. We dodged the worst of it and I decided to get in my truck and go. I needed this.

As I entered the murky water, I noticed a beautiful great blue heron quietly stalking a small island near the opposite shoreline. She was holed up in a shallow area between the island’s tall grass and the smooth, rocky shoreline that was worn away from years of punishment from the Sheboygan River. I figured if she wasn’t going to let a little rain ruin her fishing, I shouldn’t either.

My presence drew her attention, she calmly yet confidently held her ground as I slowly walked up river toward a few of my proven hot spots. To be honest, once I started fishing, I forgot about the bird. The spot she staked out never really produced fish for me in the past and wasn’t impeding on my plans for the evening. No sense causing trouble where there isn’t any.

But as my honey holes failed to yield results, my mind began to wander and I glanced to my left. There she was, in the same spot,  gobbling down a fish. She gave one big head shake to force her catch down her lengthy gullet.

I eyed her up for the next few minutes as she advanced from pocket to pocket of slack water, taking lengthy strides as she navigated the rocky bottom more gracefully than my chubby frame could ever dream of. Her motions went undetected by the smallmouth bass and chubs she pulled from the pools, seemingly at will.

Then the thought occurred to me. I fish for fun. She fishes to live. Perhaps I should be paying attention.

She eventually had her fill and vacated the island buffet. I slowly made my way over to the spot to see if the old girl was kind enough to leave any fish for me.

My first cast yielded an aggressive bite, but the fish didn’t stick. My next float saw the water explode around my fly, a black nymph, one of my favorites. I set the hook and was locked in battle with an acrobatic smallie. Without saying a word, the heron had put me on fish in a matter of minutes.

Herein lies the first lesson: Every person (or for that matter, living thing) you’ll ever encounter possesses a skill that keeps them alive, whether it be physically, mentally or spiritually. It’s to our advantage to identify that skill as quickly as possible so we can learn from it.

As my wrestling match with the fish continued to play out over the five yards of line I had remaining, I looked up and noticed I had company. It was the heron, who heard the commotion and quickly made her way back up river. She stood a comfortable distance away and observed the bout as it came to a conclusion.

Shortly after I released the fish, I realized the bird had taken up a perch on a nearby rock, no more than 30 feet away. She continued observing my every move. Over the next half hour, she watched me pull out a few more fish, carefully scrutinizing every detail.

I almost chuckled at her attentiveness. Not even an hour ago, this bird nearly cleaned out the spot I was currently standing in. Clearly, there was nothing I was going to teach her about the art of fishing. Yet there she sat, ever curious as she humbled herself to the role of student. Which leads me to the second lesson: Don’t let past success keep you from trying to learn. You never know when you’ll pick up something new, so don’t deny yourself the opportunity.

As dusk set in, the wise old gal got back to business. Each of us continued to catch fish until we went our separate ways.

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