Tom Ross: Where eagles dare |

Tom Ross: Where eagles dare

Raptors learn to do the San Juan Shuffle and other tall tales

One Utah fishing guide insists that bald eagles are learning hunting tactics from anglers along the Green River below Flaming Gorge Reservoir.
Tom Ross

I have collected dramatic evidence within the past two days that eagles are far more intelligent than previously thought. Not only can bald eagles learn dance moves from human beings, I am told, but golden eagles also can speak out loud.

I met Carl “Boomer” Stout on Sunday at Green River Outfitters in the hamlet of Dutch John, Utah. Boomer sold us a few trout flies and dispensed some wisdom, and we swapped some stories. We told him an old tale about standing in the Green River and watching brown trout deliberately bump their noses against our legs. We assumed the bold trout in the Green were aggressively picking small aquatic insects off our waders. But Boomer set us straight.

The fish were trying to get us to dance, he insisted.

That’s when he told us about the eagle that learned to do the San Juan Shuffle.

It might be a good idea if I took a few sentences right here to set the stage.

First, this is not another one of my fishing stories, so don’t even think about turning the page. This is a story about brainy raptors.

Now, for the San Juan Shuffle. Many years ago, wading anglers fishing in the San Juan River of northern New Mexico observed that fish frequently lined up directly downstream from them. It didn’t take long for people to figure out that as anglers shifted their weight from one foot to another, or took a few steps to find better footing, they were dislodging aquatic insects from the gravel. In effect, by shuffling their feet on the river bottom, the anglers were ringing the dinner bell for the trout.

This phenomenon created an opportunity for anglers willing to take shortcuts.

Deliberately performing the San Juan Shuffle is prohibited on the popular stretch of the Green River below Flaming Gorge Reservoir. It’s cheating. But the dance still goes on when anglers inadvertently dislodge mayfly nymphs and scuds from the bottom of the river.

Boomer swears that eagles have learned to hunt for trout just below anglers doing the dance. He’s seen the behavior firsthand.

Now, it’s a fact that eagles have keen eyesight, so it’s no stretch to believe they dive on seafood dinners holding just downstream from anglers.

However, Boomer takes it a step further. In the most sincere voice you have ever heard, he insists that the bald eagles on the Green have learned to take matters into their own talons when there are no fishermen present to do the San Juan Shuffle. He swears that he and a well-respected wildlife biologist have watched eagles land in shallow water and use their wicked claws to stir up the gravel. Then, lifting into the air on giant wings, they wait for the fish to set the table and then dive on their prey.

Don’t believe it? How about this story?

Legendary North Routt hunting guide Ray Heid strolled into the newspaper’s front office at noon Monday and told me about the time, almost 17 years ago, when he was guiding the attorney general of Florida on a hunting trip near Juniper Springs in Moffat County. They watched a full-grown golden eagle dive-bomb a small deer and strike it hard. The deer staggered but managed to dart beneath a juniper tree. The eagle dived again, and the startled deer scampered to the next tree, a scenario that repeated itself several times until the deer finally found a secure refuge under a low-hanging tree.

Frustrated, the eagle pulled out of a steep dive, and as it soared away, Heid and his client heard the eagle mutter: “I almost got that big damn rabbit.”

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