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State bird drives fall anglers 'looney'

Loons begin to migrate toward south and eastern coastal waters at the end of September. Those that hesitate in the process often feed aggressively in our local waters, sometimes accidentally taking an anglers offering. (Sarah Smith/Enterprise)

Minnesota's state bird, the loon, is beautiful, majestic, and sometimes annoying to anglers once fall arrives.

Yes, the bird that we admire, with its solid bones that allow it to dive but make it difficult to fly, legs positioned too close to its rear so it can't effectively walk on land and haunting call that reminds us all of warm summer days, sometimes becomes a pest once the leaves start to fall.

Yet in the loons' defense, it's not their fault.

You see, adult loons, come September, lose their handsome feathers and turn to mottled gray and white, similar to the beginning stages of adulthood for young of the year birds.

About the same time, loons begin their migration south, to Atlantic border waters.

However, a few stragglers remain in our northern waters a little longer than their migrating counterparts. Whether juvenile or adult, they all look like young birds with their gray plumage. And for some reason, they become more aggressive and less discerning when it comes to feeding habits.

Anglers often talk of fall loons that chase baits up to the boat, ignoring the presence of the vessel, line, or hook attached to live or artificial baits.

Just last week a friend informed me that, while fishing for muskies, he had a loon chase his artificial lure through two full figure eights. For readers unfamiliar with the figure eight, it's a procedure where the angler retrieves a lure close to the boat, but submerges the rod tip into the water, 4-12 inches deep, and makes an oval shape or figure eight with the rod tip to tempt a following muskie to strike.

Unfortunately, during this time of year, loons will sometimes follow a bait as well.

Although muskie lures usually don't hook loons, walleye, pike and bass anglers realize the effectiveness of a live minnow during the fall season, which happens to be common loon's favorite fare.

A few falls ago my boat had an altercation with a loon. I was guiding three gentlemen who were looking for some walleye on Big Sand Lake. Our success was minimal, so we switched spots and switched techniques.

As soon as one angler's fledgling minnow hit the bottom in our new location, he proclaimed that he had a bite. "I knew we had to make a change to catch walleye," he said. As he tightened the line, a loon emerged, feisty as could be.

We battled the bird for several minutes, hoping to free the hook from its beak. But alas, the line broke, close to the hook. We felt terrible about the situation, but could not assist the loon.

However, the bird must have recovered quickly, because the next weekend it happened again, different clients, but the same lake, same spot, same course of events.

If you do happen to hook a loon, call the Park Rapids DNR Wildlife Office (732-8452) only if the bird is unable to dive or swim.

And you might want to start using nightcrawlers instead of minnows!