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Eagle photographers launch fish for the perfect picture

Photographers launch fish into the Mississippi River to try to attract eagles, but some say baiting the birds could have negative impacts.

One of the most popular spots to look at and photograph eagles in the Quad Cities Area is Lock and Dam 14 near LeClaire, Iowa. Photographers flock to the platform near the dam to get a shot of the eagles in action and some have created a way to make sure they get the perfect shot, by launching fish into the Mississippi.

They come from all over – photographers with camouflage coats and cameras, lenses as big as their face. Flying through the sky and landing on the trees, eagles are the reason these photographers flock to the platform near Lock and Dam 14.

Each aim, each look, each click of the camera captures a frame-worthy shot; but there is one shot that many here want to get.

“When you get the claws just ready to grab the fish, that’s a cool shot,” said Linda Elenbaas.

But it’s a moment that is “challenging to get,” she said, even with an 800 millimeter lens.

“I’ve had a few, a few, not here,” said Elenbaas.

Some throw fish into the water, but that doesn’t always go far enough from shore.

“I can only throw the fish out maybe 20 feet,” said Ken Kester of Clinton, Iowa.

So what’s an eagle photographer to do?  Build a fish launcher.

The launchers are essentially a catapult that send the fish into the Mississippi River.

“The eagles will readily go for fish that we put out in the river,” said Larry Tibbet of Holland, Michigan.

“It’s got a tilting mechanism on it that I can aim the fish actually wherever I want,” said Tibbet.

Kester and Tibbet help the photographers get the eagles right where they want them.

“I do get pictures without it, but I get a lot better pictures by doing it ’cause they’ll come closer,” said Kester.

“The eagles, it lets them take the fish out of the river right in a spot where I can focus real well with the camera,” said Tibbet.

Jeff Harrison, a conservation officer with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, says there’s nothing illegal about what the photographers are doing.

“They just need to make sure that they obtain the fish from this area.  They can’t bring any live fish into the state,” said Harrison.

“The people we’ve seen down here photographing the eagles are from other states, whether New York, Wyoming, Michigan, Minnesota, wherever.  We just want to make sure that they do not bring fish with them when they come down here, when they’re throwing fish out for bait to capture the shot,” he added.

According to the Iowa Fishing Regulations 2013 handbook, you cannot stock or introduce any live fish, except for hooked bait, which includes but is not limited to minnows, green sunfish, orange-spotted sunfish, dead gizzard shad, frogs, crayfish, salamanders and mussels, into public waters without the permission of the director of the DNR. Unauthorized stocking leads to the introduction of undesirable fish species such as gizzard shad, yellow bass, common carp and Asian Carp.

The regulations state, when these species are stocked, they cause ecological and economic harm by displacing beneficial native plants and animals, and destroying the quality of the fishery resource. A person cannot possess live gizzard shad at any lake. This does not apply to privately owned ponds and lakes.

“You can only buy fish from a licensed commercial fisherman or commercial dealer,” said Harrison.

“As a biologist, I would kind of lean towards not favoring it,” said Kelly McKay, who has been researching bald eagles for around 30 years.

McKay says on one hand, by launching fish into the water, the eagles are getting food, but on the other, the eagles could start associating people with food.

“You’re literally going to be habituating these birds to associate groups of people standing around with food and that can only have in the end negative impacts to the birds,” said McKay.

Specifically, he says, for the younger birds.

“There is going to start to be this negative impact, because you are going to have increased competition as you get these birds concentrating where they know these guys are going to be providing fish for them and that’s going to have a negative impact on the young birds,” said McKay.

So what does he say photographers should do?

“I don’t begrudge anybody getting pictures and that but, you know, work for it. Instead of luring the birds in and sort of creating a staged situation, you know, go out and work for the photographs and try to do it naturally because you’re going to have a much less negative impact on the birds,” said McKay.

“I might have some shots myself that were due to baiting but I would actually sit down here on the ground instead of up on the row, so that hopefully the shots that I got weren’t relying on baiting,” said Rich, who has photographed eagles for five years and never agreed with baiting.

“It’s the danger that can happen to the eagles themselves,” he said.

Rich says it raises questions about the ethics behind the photographs taken with the help of the fish launcher.

“I’ve been known to sit for four hours, waiting for a shot, and I think that makes a better photographer. If you have to do that, and if you have to learn the patterns of what you’re photographing…you can better shots of them instead of baiting,” he said.

It was much easier to find photographers who say it’s okay to use the fish launchers.

“I give them a meal, and they give me a picture, hopefully,” said Kester.

Many here argue that the eagles are still in their natural environment.

“They’re still, taking the fish out of the water like they would in the wild,” said Tibbet.

“Nobody’s going to deny that, yeah, they would eat those fish naturally.  My argument would be, you’re right, they do feed them naturally, so get your photographs as they’re feeding on them naturally,” said McKay.

“It might be cheating a little bit, but it’d be a long afternoon, if we waited for them just to fish on their own,” said Tibbet.

“I think, you know, in the end, it’s not going to be a good thing for the birds,” said McKay.

“It’s more satisfying when you can say, ‘Yeah, I took that shot and I did not bait that bird,’” said Rich.

See and share bald eagle photos – click here.

4 comments

  • Thom

    When I was in Sitka Alaska the fish cleaning places would dump all the fish guts in the water, and the Bald Eagles knew when it was a free meal. Several hundred came every time they dumped.

  • Wynona

    Eh, I guess it’s a cool shot. But the bird is catching a dead, frozen fish. Can’t be the same feelng as watching an eagle hunting a live fish. And feeding wildlife like that gives the birds a false sense of over abundance of food. I guess if it’s legal. Then to each his own.

  • Chelle

    If these photographers don’t like to have to wait to get their “money shot” naturally, then, don’t do it at all. What they’re doing is wrong, period!!! It’s always stupid humans who mess up everything when it comes to animals and/or wildlife, because they can never leave well enough alone. Leave them alone, let them feed naturally, and if you get a picture in the process, then so be it. If not, too bad! You’ll get one another day. I’m not one for more of the government regulating everything we do, but in this case, I think the DNR should step in and stop this now before it escalates!!

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