Monday, May 13, 2013

The Golden Goose

An Ode to Cormorants
Why fish where these winged gluttons reside? 
It's all about the tarpon!

The Golden Goose
If you've ever fished the mangrove edge for bonefish, permit or tarpon, you have no doubt run across a rather odd winged creature that blurs the line between a duck and a fish. Looking like a cross between Daffy Duck and Groucho Marks, cormorants swim superbly enabling them to easily chase down fish underwater. But perch them on a branch and the price they have paid for their underwater abilities will eventually be revealed. For when a perching cormorant is spooked, their propensities for being aerially challenged soon become evident. Jonathan Seagull they are not... more like Jonathan Freefall.

When a skiff enters a rookery, cormorants flush from the mangrove bushes and desperately try to achieve something akin to flight. Depending on the weight of the partially digested fish payload they carry, cormorants either drop sickeningly to the water surface where they flap wings in a vain effort to get airborne or, if they have a few less fish in the tank, drop to furiously beat wings and slap the water with webbed feet before gaining enough speed to reach lift-off. Launch a cast into the path of a panicked cormorant and you’re looking for a bird’s nest of a different color. Fly line intersecting cormorant always means trouble.

Cormorants that have eaten way too many sardines automatically abandon any attempt at flight and upon impact with the water, immediately dive taking their distended bellies with them. Reemerging many yards away, cormorants can look surprising like a rolling tarpon... especially to an angler all drugged up on adrenaline and tarpon dreams.

So why fish where these silly, overloaded, winged gluttons reside? It’s all about the tarpon. When you eat like a cormorant, which is a lot... you poop like a cormorant... which again, is a lot. This potent concoction falls from the cormorant’s precarious perch and enters an aquatic food chain that begins only a few feet below. Bacteria grows easily in this enriched, let’s call it fertilized, water. Soon, plankton count their lucky stars while feeding on the heaven sent bounty brewing in this bacterial bouillabaisse. Small invertebrates gorge on these plankton and protozoan feed on the plankton and so it goes on and on up the line. Shrimp, crabs and sardines bless father cormorant before gorging on the millions of minute krill or the collected organic detritus they leave behind. At the top of this food chain are the tarpon. They come for the bounty the cormorant droppings eventually provide and with the tarpon, come the anglers. It's simple math; more cormorants mean an enhanced broth and a richer soup means more food for the tarpon’s prey. To put it another way, more guano creates more food and more food means more tarpon. An elegant, if not a bit disgusting, system.

I have heard it said by some that cormorants need to be killed because they eat baby tarpon. Perhaps we shouldn’t be so judgmental about cormorants. Perhaps we should be glad these ancient avians do their digesting where they do. Perhaps we should be glad they haven’t better mastered the air. Perhaps we should be pleased they only use flight to get to the fishing grounds and then trundle home again headed straight for the mangroves. Perhaps those that damn cormorants haven’t learned the most basic rule of fishing... Do not mess with Mother Nature! Let her be! She has things pretty well worked out and her devices usually work to the benefit of the angler. Mess with her and you just may be killing the goose that laid the golden egg. Although in this case, it may not be a goose, but a cormorant and it may not be an egg, but a pile of… OK, OK, you get the picture. So let’s all bless the cormorants. The tarpon undoubtedly do!

This piece was originally published in a feature on winter tarpon fishing on the Yucatan Peninsula in the November/December 2006 issue of Fly Fishing in Salt Waters. 


  1. Ssshhhh, don't mention looking for the white, skeleton trees...

  2. no kidding Doug, those trees are gross.. but you often find tarpon around them!

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