The Owl Whisperer

What happens when an owl tangos with a fishing line?

Michelle Armstrong
Michelle Armstrong fights to reel in an owl.

It was the dawning of a beautiful day — Day 1 of the third stop of the 2008 Women's Bassmaster Tour — and I was on Tennessee's Old Hickory Lake. We had just arrived at our first spot of the day. The steamy fog was settling in patches just above the surface of the water. In practice I had found the morning topwater bite to be fantastic, so my obvious plan was to keep my topwater rod glued to my hand.

I had a few short strikes right away. No worries though, I knew what the potential of this area held. I cast my bait next to the bank and let the rings fade. Twitch, twitch, pause ... twitch, twitch, pause. I kept an alert eye on the lure, but I was suddenly distracted by something approaching fast from the upper right side of my peripheral vision.

Before my brain could digest what was happening, an owl swooped down and grabbed my bait. As it ascended back from where it came, he hooked himself, and it was as though I was flying a kite on the end of my rod and reel.

My co-angler was yelling, "What are you gonna do? What are you gonna do?"

"There isn't a thing in the pro manual that tells me how I'm supposed to handle this one," was all I could tell her.

The owl swooped back down and landed in the water. He was terrified ... so was I. I needed a moment to collect my thoughts.

I knew I couldn't cut the line, that was a great lure — just kidding, I knew the owl would get twisted around the line, become stuck in a tree and die a horrible death. As that thought entered my mind, off he went again. His wing span appeared to me to be about 12 feet, but in reality it was more like four feet. As I flew the owl like a kite again, a small sparrow began to attack the poor trapped owl. The sparrow dove at the owls head about five times before the owl headed for the water again. I tried to reel him closer, but he kept flying off, each time being attacked by the sparrow.

Finally, I was able to reel him close to the boat and swing him in. That's when I realized that only one of his claws was hooked. That's also when he really began to panic and kick his legs, hooking his other claw in the process. In a few moments, he managed to get all six hooks embedded in his claws.

My co-angler got a glove for my left hand and handed me my pliers. I could see the horror in the owl's eyes. I tried to place my hand over the owls face but he wanted no part of that. He pecked fiercely at me and pushed his claws outward toward me as much as he could.

I removed my sunglasses (probably a very bad idea in retrospect) and said to him very softly, "Look dude, either let me help you or you're going to have a big problem." Then I placed my hand on his chest and started working on the first three hooks. It was the first good look I had at his talons. And since I'm a manicurist, this scared me. They were really long and sharp.

The first set of hooks came out fairly easily. The second three, however, took a little more force and time, but they came out all the same. Luckily, there was no blood, and he never even flinched. I backed up slowly and said to the owl, "You're free."

He just laid there and stared at me, not moving a muscle. So I said, "Dude, get off my boat so we can go fishing," and just like that, he stood up, spread his beautiful wings and flew back to the tree he came from.

On the second day of the tournament, as I left the weigh-in stage, a young boy asked me to sign his autograph book. As I was signing it, he told me he had heard about me catching the owl the day before. He looked at me with great big eyes and asked, "Will you put under your name 'the owl whisperer,' so I'll remember who you are?"

Though my topwater bite never paid off, and it was not a great tournament for me, this experience made up for it. I hope to remember that moment forever and savor all of the wondrous moments that only we anglers get to experience.

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