So You Hooked
a Pelican.
Now What?

by Doug Stamm

IT CAN HAPPEN to anybody fishing along Florida’s coast. You could be a seasoned charter captain or a first time visitor fishing on spring break. One second you’re fishing and the next second, out of nowhere, you find a flapping pelican on the end of your line.

It happens many times a day in Florida and thousands of times a year, especially in the spring when many inexperienced anglers come to Florida. Pelicans are used to humans and have learned there are numerous food advantages of hanging around fishermen. Fishermen leave bait on the dock or throw excess bait on the water, sometimes anglers toss small fish to them as a gift and there are always pelicans waiting for a handout at a cleaning station. As enjoyable as this may be to both angler and pelican, the pelican is blissfully unaware of the deadly consequences of looking to us for food.

Most pelicans are hooked on public fishing piers where sometimes hundreds of lines are in the water at one time and hundreds of pelicans are observing every opportunity to grab an easy meal. Anglers pulling up caught fish to the pier can find several pelicans diving on the fish before the angler can reel it all the way up to the deck. Some pelicans are so tame they’ll just wait on the pier next to a fisherman seen to catch fish and wait for the next fish to get reeled in and plopped on the pier. Then it’s a race to see who gets the fish.

Piers are also the most likely place pelicans will get hooked by accident when they fly into lures and lines being cast off the pier or they’ll accidently fly into fishing lines they can’t see and catch themselves in the process.

Anglers in boats are just as vulnerable to a surprise pelican event. Pulling in a fish is a sure way to get the attention of a circling pelican flying overhead. You may not notice it above, but it’s keeping close tabs on you. The moment you let a small fish hang on your line too long, you can have a pelican dive on your fish, mouth agape, and literally crash into your catch.

And beware when casting live bait or cut bait. There may not be a pelican in front of you, but look behind you before you cast. Pelicans love to grab your bait on the back cast.

If you do hook a pelican, what do you do?

First thing, don’t panic and most important, DO NOT cut the line. A sky fight may ensue before a pelican lands on the water, but cutting the line is the first reaction of inexperienced anglers and the most deadly consequence for the pelican. The pelican will fly away and leave the scene seemingly unaffected by the hook or lure after cutting or breaking the line. But when it lands in the mangroves or a dock post to roost, the trailing line can get tangled and trap the pelican to its landing spot. There it will die a slow death of starvation and thirst, unable to free itself from your fishing line.

Since most pelicans are hooked around large public piers, most piers have large nets placed strategically up and down the pier to be used for catching hooked pelicans. Most pelicans land in the water after being hooked, and it’s sometimes a difficult but necessary task to slowly reel in a flapping bird until it’s alongside the pier. Once there, pull it into the net and pull the net onto the pier. If no net is available, pull the pelican down the pier and onto the shore. And don’t worry if people think you’re hurting the pelican. If they think that or say something to you, they don’t understand what you’re doing, and you can remind them you’re saving its life.

On the shore or on the pier, cover the pelican’s head with a shirt or towel to calm it, and grab the middle of the pelican’s beak through the shirt or towel. Their beak can be formidable so it’s important to grab the beak first no matter what. Once you have a hold of the beak with one hand, it’s easy to keep your grip, and the pelican is essentially harmless. Use your other arm to wrap around the pelican’s back to secure the flapping wings and once done, a pelican is subdued.

If you’re on a public fishing pier there will probably be lots of help, often including pier regulars, dock masters and municipal staff trained to humanely handle hooked pelicans. If you’re by yourself, get a hold of the pelican’s beak and use the same arm to hold the pelican down. Your other hand is then free to use pliers.

Most anglers carry pliers or nearby anglers are likely to have one. Remove the line from the hook first, and then see if it’s possible to see the barb end of the hook, often possible in a mouth hooked pelican. If so, cut off the barb or pinch the barb closed. The hook will then easily come out. Pelicans hooked in the feathered wings or body rarely offer the opportunity to cut the barb so grab the hook close to the body and try to pull the hook out. If it’s not possible, cut off as much hook as possible. If no pliers is available, use a pocket or fillet knife to at least remove all the fishing line.

Now you can remove the shirt or towel, let go of the beak, and the pelican will gladly take off, usually unscathed by the ordeal. Most pelicans recuperate fine if handled properly.

The best way to avoid hooking a pelican in the first place is to be observant and to keep in mind pelicans are watching your every move. And don’t feed pelicans. It only attracts more birds and more aggressive birds.

Sooner or later, hooking a pelican happens to most of us that fish the coast in Florida. It sometimes can’t be avoided. When it’s your turn, do the pelican a favor and reel it in and let it go. To most of us pelicans are an enjoyable and graceful part of the seaside environment we share, and we owe it to these intriguing birds to keep it that way. •

May-June 2014

First thing, don’t panic.
Most important,
do not cut the line.
Since most pelicans
are hooked around
large public piers,
most piers have
large nets
placed strategically
up and down the pier
to be used for catching
hooked pelicans.