Managing Unwelcome Hook-Ups
The ‘Hook-up’! – it’s what fishing is all about. The first few seconds after the strike when the adrenaline surges in anticipation of the pending battle - that “Woooh - what am I into here….?” feeling. However, not all ‘hook-ups’ are so welcome. Cam Speedy, (hunter, fisho, wildlife biologist) looks at ways to reduce the risk of seabird hook-ups, and how to manage a bird if one ends up on your line….
Hooking a seabird - depending on the outcome - can put a bit of a dampener on an otherwise enjoyable day’s fishing. For the bird, the outcome of such an encounter can be a matter of life and death. But there are a number of things you can do to reduce the chances of a seabird hook-up, and there is certainly a ‘right-way’ to get a bird off your line and back over the side of the boat in a condition that will maximise its chances of survival.
Fishing is one of our favourite pastimes. The waters off northern New Zealand offer rich fishing opportunities to our most populous regions. Those same waters also team with birdlife – New Zealand is the seabird capital of the world with more species of gulls, shags, gannets, petrels, shearwaters, albatrosses, penguins and terns than any other country.
One of the risks when so many keen fishos are thrown by culture and geography into the same place as so many birds, is that of accidentally hooking a bird while fishing. Studies have shown that even though this isn’t a common occurrence, it can potentially affect some of our rarer species. This is simply because their numbers are already so low that the loss of just a few breeding adults – many of which can take four to seven years to mature - can be significant.
It can be a bit of a nightmare for the angler too! Most seabirds have some fearsome weaponry at the business end and many are surprisingly large. It’s an intimidating experience to have one on board, even for people who have a history of handling wildlife. To quote Graeme Sinclair from ‘Gone Fishin’, who once hooked an albatross down south off Solander Island:
“ Albatross wrestling ain’t much fun – they’ve got a ten foot wing-span to clobber you with – and they use it!”.
Trying to avoid the hook-up in the first place is a great place to start. Like many birds, seabirds are pretty smart critters. They learn quick that there’s often a free feed out back of a fishing boat. Managing the expectation of a free feed then, is key to discouraging them.
Burleying up a storm to attract fish is common place as part of our modern fishing techniques. Thing is, a seabird bill is perfect for grabbing and holding whole fish or pieces of fish, but absolutely useless for eating ‘seafood chowder’. The finer you can make your burley, the less reason for the birds to be at your boat. Attaching your burley bomb down your anchor warp a bit - below the diving range of seabirds (at least 4 or 5 metres) - will also reduce their free-feed ‘expectations’.
Managing your baited hooks is a critical part of the process, too. If you are using sinkers, get them over the side and down as quickly as you can. Again, on the retrieve, once the bait is near the surface, get your baits up and into the boat without delay. And that manky old bait that needs to be changed? Don’t throw it over the side - put it into the burley bin and turn into ‘seafood chowder’. Every bit of food you provide to the birds is another reason for them to stay with you – increasing the risk of an un-welcome hook-up. The more birds you attract, the more noise they make and the worse the problem is likely to get. Try not to give them any reason to be there in the first place.
Stray-lining large unweighted or lightly weighted baits into the burley trail is perhaps the hardest challenge for fishers when birds have congregated out back of the boat. This can make for some very frustrating fishing. Interestingly though, birds don’t seem to be as interested in soft baits as the real thing. This is something that has become apparent both in the commercial and recreational fishing sectors in recent years. Perhaps their acute eyesight tells them they aren’t legit? Whatever the reason, this creates an opportunity for fishers to exploit if bird congregations make bait fishing impossible. Soft baits will often beat the bait stealers!
Even with the best of intentions to avoid seabird hook-ups, occasionally they will and do occur. What you do can make a huge difference to the outcome of such a situation – for the bird, for you and for others on-board.
Try to get the bird into the boat as quickly as possible before it gets too stressed and exhausted. Subdue it with a large towel or blanket. Like most wildlife, covering its eyes will help calm the bird – if it can’t see the commotion, it will settle far more quickly. This also has the benefit of disarming its weaponry. Seabird bills are razor sharp, so be cautious of the business end at all times.
Fold the wings up into the body to secure the bird, head away from you – a bit like holding a rugby ball, but with your thumbs over the top and fingers underneath, firmly holding the folded wings against the bird’s body with the palms of your hands. Once it can’t flap its wings, it will be far easier to handle.
Keeping the eyes covered, a second person can then expose the bill area to determine how and where the bird is hooked. Cut away any line, nylon traces, sinkers, other hooks etc, from around the bird. If the hook is in the bill, crimp the barb using a pair of pliers or forceps and remove the hook – as you would to release an unwanted or undersized fish. If the hook has been swallowed, the chances of survival are greatly reduced. While some hooks might rust and eventually work their way out, starvation is often the outcome for birds that have swallowed baited hooks. Regardless cut the line as close as possible to the point of entry.
If you don't like the bird's chance of survival, placing the bird in a quiet, cool, dark part of the boat – still securely wrapped in towel or blanket - and getting it to the Department of Conservation (free of charge, no questions asked – just ring 0800 DOCHOTLINE – 0800 362 468) - for veterinary care is the best way to ensure the bird’s survival.
The whole process of securing and assisting a hooked seabird can be quite traumatic for you and for the bird. It is not an easy situation, so all you can do is have the bird’s best interest at heart and give it go – no-one will criticise you for doing your best.
The Ocean is a resource that is hugely important to New Zealanders, culturally, spiritually and nutritionally. We share that ecosystem with a huge variety of seabirds. Our reward is that they show us where the fish are, and we are inspired by their grace and beauty as they keep us company out on those vast expanses of water. Yes, a hooked seabird is an unwelcome (though fortunately, uncommon) part of fishing. But if we ever find ourselves in the position where we have to deal with such a situation, if we can show them a bit of respect and empathy, then at least we’ve done our bit. It’s the kiwi thing to do….