“I think something is eating the fish,” I mentioned to my husband.
“You know, I was wondering about that.” Jim mused. “Last few times I checked on them there didn’t seem to be nearly as many and I haven’t been able to spot that one with the white belly for a few days now either.
Rescue animals don’t generally include fish but earlier that year we had fallen victim to another visionary plan by my brother-in-law Tim, a local contractor with an uncanny ability to arrange things. Invariably one of his clients would want something like an old claw foot bathtub for a farmhouse remodel and he’d know of someone else who was desperate to get rid of theirs. His excitement was infectious and regardless of the time and energy he spent on these endeavors would perpetually describe their outcomes as “really pretty neat”.
“Hey Jim, I know someone who needs to get rid of some fish because they are taking out their pond next month as part of a garden renovation and I also know somebody else who can keep the koi until we build a pond,” Tim said one evening sipping on a hot brandy out of one of our old coffee cups and walking out into the garden. “You’d still need to do something with the goldfish but they should be okay in the lower trough for a few months.”
We’d heard this tone in his voice before and felt a little like fish on a line ourselves before the heavy tug of a hook sunk in.
“We could build it right about….here,” he continued, raising his arm in a sweeping arch across the hillside at the end of our garden.
“Okay,” we said dreamily visualizing a serene koi pond below a tumbling waterfall.
Not long after, we dumped the forty or so rescue goldfish rather unceremoniously into the cattle trough located along our property line about a quarter mile from our house. The fish to water ratio may have been a bit high though they seemed happily companionable forming a symbiotic relationship with the cows that came to the trough to quench their thirst. As the cows slurped up water, the ball faucet opened releasing fresh spring water back to the trough and the little goldfish, dining blissfully on their preferred diet of mosquito larvae, provided bovine relief from the annoying and sometimes dangerous insects.
The mystery behind the declining goldfish population was solved on another evening when Jim was heading home. Glancing toward the trough he saw a large, hungry looking Great Blue Heron standing on the lip of the trough, motionlessly waiting for another unsuspecting victim to venture out into the open. In that instant the bird jabbed its long pointed bill downward into the trough and when the wet head emerged, with a flip and a twist the wriggling orange body in its mouth disappeared.
Jim launched himself from the pickup truck and with arms waiving and hollering loudly, catapulted down the hill toward the trough. The nearly four foot tall heron, feigning no notice of the disturbance, waited motionless until the last possible moment, and with a nonchalant little leap off its narrow perch, unfurled its magnificent blue grey wings, pulled at the air twice and lifted itself straight up over the trough, disappearing into the evening dusk.
Our Great Blue, not easily deterred, continued to visit the trough on a regular basis and we continued to try to think of ways of keeping our shrinking school of fish safe. We planted re-bar fence posts around the trough and then wound fishing line back and forth between them all along the length and width of the tough. When Great Blue was found once again standing on the lip of the trough a few evenings later, two more layers of fishing line were added to the increasingly complex geometric weave above the trough, but to no avail.
Jim ran at the interloper standing over the trough one last time a few evenings later but much to the surprise of both of them, Great Blue didn’t lift off as it had done so many other times but instead got caught up in the web.
“Kwaaark, KWAAARK!” Its indignation was clear.
Jim, who isn’t anything if not always prepared, trotted down to the trough with a smirk.
“Hey big fella, not so smart now are you?” And remaining mindful of the very large, snapping yellow beak quickly and deftly wrapped Great Blue up in the oversized dog blanket he kept in the back of the truck.
“Good grief,” Jim gagged. “Your breath….it’s awful! Quit breathing on me!” The foul and lingering fishy stench emanating from the bird’s gullet was revolting.
After tossing the bird-in-a-blanket into the back of the pickup, quickly slamming the tailgate and securing the canopy top, Jim drove to another family ranch closer to the beach. It is very rugged there with meadows and spruce groves, a stream and a clear view of the beach below; a veritable dream come true for any heron. Jim didn’t have long to wait before Great Blue jumped out of the now open pickup bed and after briefly preening the light gray wispy plumes at the base of his long neck and along his back, flew off.
Settling back into the driver’s seat and feeling particularly smart and “one-with-nature”, Jim headed home. It was almost dark by the time he returned and with one fleeting glimpse at the trough had to accept complete defeat. There, standing above the trough, as motionless and patient as ever was Great Blue. Completely undaunted, it returned faster than Jim could even drive back.
Only the smart fish survived Great Blue’s assault and they were transplanted with the koi in the new pond some months later. Since then, their little band has alternately flourished and declined from subsequent tangles with raccoon, bear and even a bald eagle. We do our best to keep them safe but Mother Nature, never sentimental, has provided all living things with a will to survive which can sometimes mean fish for dinner.