The White Pelican

Guest Blogger: Mike Cline, Bozeman, Montana

Growing up in Southern California in the 1950s and 1960s, I must admit I was a bit of a birder. Although I’d seen a few Brown Pelicans along SoCal beaches, a White Pelican sighting eluded me for many years. At the time, pelican populations were in decline due for the most part to pesticides, pollution and habitat loss. I remember my first White Pelican sighting during a winter trip to the Salton Sea. Hugh flocks of these large birds were scattered along the shoreline. The White Pelican is indeed a large bird having the second longest wingspan of any North American bird – up to 10 feet and can attain weights up to 30 lbs. The White Pelican is indeed a distinctive bird and difficult to miss when you find them—white body, wings, large yellow bill, legs and feet. In flight the distinctive black wing tips can’t be missed. White Pelicans are widespread throughout the West during northern migration and concentrated along the west and southern coasts in Winter. Unfortunately, though for anglers is the White Pelican’s year round appetite.

The average White Pelican consumes four pounds of fish daily. Throughout their range, the most common of prey are suckers, juvenile carp, shiners, chub, juvenile catfish and occasionally crustaceans like crayfish. But trout do not escape their attention, especially in waters where trout are the predominant fish species. This was not lost on fishery managers in Yellowstone National Park in the early 1920s. A colony of breeding White Pelicans inhabited the Molly Islands on Yellowstone Lake and were notorious for feeding on spawning Cutthroat Trout in the lake’s tributaries. Pelican Creek which flows into the lake along the north shore got its name for the proliferation of White Pelicans that frequented the stream during cutthroat spawning. In the 1920s, park officials had very liberal kill-on-site predator policies to protect “beneficial” park wildlife. Pelicans were included in the list of species considered predators along with wolves, coyotes, mink, otter and others. For several summers in the 1920s, park rangers visited the Molly Islands during the summer nesting season and destroyed nests and eggs for the benefit of the cutthroat. These anti-predator policies were eliminated in the 1930s as emerging ecological science was demonstrating the “beneficial” nature of predator-prey relationships in healthy ecosystems.

Fast forward to the 21st century, White Pelican populations through protections and conservation measures have never been healthier. They are a protected species under the U.S. Migratory Bird Treaty Act Protected Species. Here in SW Montana, White Pelicans in large numbers are a common sight along major river systems. The photo above is just one of several flocks that routinely frequent Ennis lake and the channels section of the Madison River. One can only imagine what four pounds of fish per day looks like for these fellows. An interesting thing happened during the 1988 summer fires in Yellowstone. The smoke in the park got so bad that the breeding flocks of Pelicans on the Molly Islands moved south into the Idaho Snake River country where they took up permanent residence because of the abundance of Yellowstone Cutthroat in the Snake River system. Where once the White Pelican was an infrequent migrant on its way to Yellowstone Lake, it is now an annual summer resident with generations of birds that have never seen the lake to the North. As early as 2009, the Idaho Fish and Game Department started proposing extraordinary measures—hazing breeding grounds, destroying nest and eggs and hunting pelicans to reduce numbers and protect cutthroat populations. These efforts to control the White Pelican population continue today. Many anglers support these measures. As expected, there is significant opposition to these measures but at least one website is publishing White Pelican recipes.

I’ll leave it to science to decide whether the White Pelican is friend or foe for the trout angler. Where I fish, there seems to be no shortage of both trout and White Pelicans. They are indeed an impressive bird. But at four pounds of fish per day per bird something is bound to give if their number keep growing.

On a whim, I tied a “White Pelican” fly. I’ll never fish it and it won’t fly but thought I might try and replicate the yellow feet and bill along with a white body and black tipped wings.

One thought on “The White Pelican

  1. Michael Vorhis

    There are about three (maybe more?) large impressive white pelicans who live and fish the slow water just downstream of the famous Hat Creek spring creek’s Powerhouse 2 riffle in northern California. The biggest is affectionately referred to as “George” by local anglers. They’ll swim practically right up to the concentric rings made by your cast…although they seem to need no assistance in catching fish the old-fashioned way.

    They also seem to enjoy a measure of respect from another airborn predator–several eagle nests adorn the tops of pine trees in that same stretch of water. I have seen eagles swoop down, skim the water’s surface with their talon knuckles, and fly away with a trout I’d be proud to catch, and do so right between the swimming pelicans…but never touch the large white birds themselves. I suspect chickens or ducks wouldn’t be avoided by these large eagles, but the pelicans–though they are rival predators–are given sufficient berth.

    I have stood, completely ignoring my line and fly, just to gaze in awe at both these majestic birds in turn, noting the differences in their skills and approach, but also noting their seemingly equal success.

    Ad we’re all there for the trout. : )

    – Mike

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