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  • Writer's picturePatrick Durkin

Loons Keep Anglers Company When Fishing Northwoods Lakes

Updated: Jul 10, 2023

You’d think a creature as regal as the common loon would have the instincts and intelligence to follow boats other than mine when seeking easy meals of dead baitfish or something I throw back.


First, I lack the skills to catch lots of fish. Second, I’m not inclined to throw anything back. Then again, whether loons flank my boat like pilot fish on sharks or bob astern like seagulls in a ship’s wake, they eventually realize their error. One minute they’re so close I see the reds of their eyes, but then they dive into the depths and resurface so distant I only see their silhouettes.


Or maybe I’m misinterpreting the loons’ intent when they paddle over, pull into formation beside a trolling board, and hang around 20 minutes before losing interest. Rather than assume loons follow fishing boats much as pigeons patrol park benches, I asked environmental educator Terry Daulton her opinion. Daulton, a biologist and artist, worked in Ashland as Northland College’s LoonWatch coordinator from 1989-1997. She also studied loons from 1998-2004 for the US Geological Survey and Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.


Like any good biologist, Daulton doesn’t presume to know the “why” of another creature’s behavior. She responded: “I don’t have a definitive answer, but you’re probably right. Fishermen with lures have caught loons that went for the ‘minnow,’ and it’s possible that loons on some lakes are being ‘tamed’ by people who give them handouts. Of course, that can come to a bad end for the bird. It’s also possible you’re fishing in a hotspot, and the loons are taking advantage of fish you might be luring in.”


Most of my close encounters with loons occur while row-trolling for muskies on Northwoods lakes. My closest encounters, however, came years ago when cleaning fish on a cabin’s pier in northwestern Ontario. The resort’s operator built a fish-cleaning table at the pier’s end, and a lone loon swam over whenever someone stepped out with a fillet knife and fish bucket.


Other fishermen, however, pursue the loons’ company rather than await their visits. Longtime muskie row-troller Kevin Wallenfang said he often sees loon activity around his boat because he heads their way when hearing or seeing them.


“When you’re far offshore in open water, you pay attention to loons and other waterbirds,” Wallenfang said. “They’re often on a food source, and there’s something bigger down below, maybe walleyes or muskies, pushing bait fish toward the surface.”


And even if loons don’t lead to strikes, they often deliver memories. “I’ve had loons swim around my rowboat with chicks riding on their back, or darting back and forth around me and swimming under my boat,” Wallenfang said. “You never know what you’ll see out there. About five years ago I saw two groups of loons, each group with six loons, while row-trolling Star Lake in Vilas County. The two groups swam toward each other and came together in one big mess of loons, almost like a wolf pack. They comingled for a while, and then split again into two groups.”


Even though Wallenfang is a wildlife biologist, not a loon expert, he too avoids firm conclusions. “I assume the same loons reunited into the same two groups, but I had no way to tell,” he said. “I’ve since been told they were probably immature, non-nesters, but why they formed one large group and then split up again is just one of those mysteries.”


Still other anglers see little benefit in chasing loons. Ross Hagemeister, a guide in the Otter Tail Lakes region of west-central Minnesota, thinks loons can temporarily shut down walleye hotspots. In a 2015 blog, Hagemeister wrote:


“If a loon approaches your fishing spot while you’re having good luck, your fish will scatter and quit biting. What to do? Move a short distance, preferably away from the loon. When loons spook walleyes, the fish tend to move deeper and hug the bottom. Walleye marks or signals you easily saw on your fish locator suddenly vanish, but walleyes might still be there. Keep fishing and hopefully the walleyes will resume biting. Often, though, the only solution is to move to a new loon-free spot and try again.”


Hagemeister thinks loons spook walleyes less easily in autumn, but that they really aren’t targeting walleyes in either season. “They’re probably chasing minnows, the same minnows the walleyes are eating, right past the walleyes,” he wrote. “Sometimes I think loons may chase minnows for the chase’s sake, just to play.”


And, much as Daulton suggested, Hagemeister thinks fishermen unintentionally lure loons into close encounters. “Nearby loons are often attracted to colorful lures and weights,” Hagemeister wrote. “Loons notice the lures and follow them to the bottom. Either way, loons are large and walleyes scatter. Maybe they confuse the loon for a large predator like a muskie or northern pike. It’s a large shape zipping through their neighborhood, so they instinctively move, just to be safe. … When I see a loon approaching, I know the fishing in that spot might be nearly over.”


Further, if you like to toss marker buoys to pinpoint a catch or potential hotspots, Hagemeister suggests retrieving them if loons approach. He said small buoys, especially those colored black, readily attract loons. “A buoy will decoy loons to your location,” he wrote. “When I see loons approaching a good fishing area, I hurry to my marker and pull it in. The loons will often drift away and feed elsewhere. At least they won’t be feeding in the school I marked.”


Average anglers like me, of course, don’t take such precautions. Instead, we count ourselves lucky.


As intrusions go, we’d rather wonder about the motives of loons for a few minutes than curse the indifference of jet-skiers long after they’re gone.

A loon prepares to fall into formation with a trolling board that’s pulling a muskie bait.

— Patrick Durkin photos

A common loon feeds on a crayfish it plucked from a lake’s rocky bottom 20 feet below.

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