An Ode to Cormorants

Why fish where these winged gluttons reside? It's all about the tarpon.

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A web exclusive from the _Fly Fishing in Salt Waters feature "The Tarpon Coast."_

One of the unique areas we fished on Mexico's Tarpon Coast was a cormorant rookery located north of the village. Cormorants are winged creatures blurring the line between a duck and a fish. Cormorants swim superbly, enabling them to easily chase fish underwater, but perch them on a branch and their weaknesses will eventually be revealed.

When a skiff enters a rookery, birds flush from the mangrove bushes and desperately try to achieve something like flight. Depending on the partially digested fish payload they carry, cormorants either drop sickeningly to the water's surface where they flap their wings in a vain effort to get airborne or, if they have a few less fish in the tank, drop only slightly less sickeningly to furiously beat their wings and slap the water with webbed feet before they gain enough speed to reach liftoff.

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. After eating way too many sardines, the birds automatically abandon any attempt at flight and, upon impact, dive their distended bodies almost immediately. Reemerging briefly many yards away, cormorants can look surprisingly like a rolling tarpon, especially to an angler all hopped-up on adrenaline and tarpon dreams.

So why even 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, entering the food chain only a few feet below. Bacteria then grow in this enriched, (let's call it fertilized) water. Soon the plankton count their lucky stars while feeding on this heaven-sent bounty. Small invertebrates and protozoans gorge on the plankton, and on and on it goes 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 provide and, with the tarpon, come the anglers. It is simple math: more cormorants mean more food for the tarpon's prey. More guano creates more food and more food means more tarpon. An elegant, if not a bit disgusting, system.

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, straight for the mangroves.

I have heard it said by some guides in Mexico that they kill cormorants because they eat baby tarpon. Gentlemen ? haven't you learned by now that it is best not to 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.

For Scott "Digger" Sever's feature on winter tarpon fishing along the Yucatan, pick up a November/December 2006 issue of Fly Fishing in Salt Waters.