A Fishy Story: The bald-faced truth behind those eagle photos

Nov 30, 18 • 5enses, FeatureComments Off on A Fishy Story: The bald-faced truth behind those eagle photos

Photo by Dale O’Dell.

By Dale O’Dell

[Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in “Photographic Memories,” 2009, by Dale O’Dell.]

When you see pictures in books and magazines of bald eagles I’ll bet you’re pretty impressed. I used to be — until I saw how they were done. If you know where to go, and who to see, photographing eagles is a piece of cake. Not all pictures of bald eagles are shot this way, but a lot of them are.

This fish-flinging adventure occurred the second time I’d gone to Alaska to photograph eagles. I’m not going to give away all of the secrets; you’ll have to do your own research if you too want to photograph these majestic and sometimes goofy birds. There’s a town on the southern coast of Alaska (is that vague enough?) where bald eagles congregate in the winter. The eagles range all over the place but gather in one specific spot, out near the beach, where a certain woman feeds them. Although, technically, it’s illegal to feed wild animals, this woman is credited with nearly single-handedly saving the southern Alaskan bald eagle population, so the Fish and Wildlife guys just look the other way when it comes to her feeding activities. She lives across the road from a fish packing plant. Every day during the winter months, when many eagles might starve because there are too few animals to sustain their hunting, she feeds them fish from the fish plant. The salmon she feeds them are the heads and parts that get freezer burned, i.e. the parts deemed unfit for human consumption.

To get those exciting, close-up pictures of eagles, you’ve got to locate this lady, slip her some cash, and she’ll let you onto her property while she pitches fish bits over the fence to the hundreds of eagles that fly in for a free meal. Many, many famous wildlife photographers have been to her place to photograph bald eagles. If you examine a number of wildlife books with photos of eagles, you might notice the driftwood the birds are perched on is the same from book to book — seriously, check it out. While I’ve been there, I’ve had my head brushed by eagle wings as they dove for fish-bits. I’ve also been shat on, and I’ll tell, you eagle shit is hideous. I’ve also heard a phrase uttered, by the eagle woman, that I hope to never hear again. She was unloading the day’s eagle food from the back of her truck when she called out to me and said, “Hey Dale, gimme a hand with these fish guts, willya.” Oh man, I hope I never hear those words again. I also found it somewhat disconcerting to witness the symbol of America munching on a breakfast of fish heads and entrails. Yuck!

Aside from Bill (his real name), the other photographer I was traveling with, and myself, there were two other photographers on location at the eagle woman’s place. To protect the innocent (or guilty) I won’t use their real names. Both were amateurs. One was an old guy named Bruce, and the other was a younger guy by the name of Tom. I’d met Bruce there a few years earlier; apparently a photo shoot at the eagle woman’s place is an annual event for him. I suspect he was a retired doctor or something, because he had the most expensive and up-to-date equipment and no clue how to use it. A typical hardware hound. I believe Tom told me he was an engineer or something to that effect. He shot weddings on weekends (urgh!) and was into photographing wildlife when time allowed.

The four of us had been shooting for a couple of days, and I was nailing some really nice shots of the eagles. I mean you couldn’t take a bad picture — it was that easy. After a few days, everyone was feeling that they’d gotten some great shots. We had photos of the eagles flying, landing, taking off, sitting, eating, fighting, shitting, you name it. But what else could we do except keep taking more shots like we already had? Then Tom came up with a good idea. The eagle activity had died down a bit (I guess they were full) and we were standing around, trying to keep our hands and feet warm (the air temperature was just below freezing) when Tom said, “Why don’t we get some fish and go across the bay and throw the fish out in the water. The eagles will swoop in, grab the fish, and we can get some cool shots that will look like they’re hunting.”

It was a damn good idea. Bill and I looked at each other with a look that said, Why didn’t we think of that? Jeez, a freaking wedding photographer came up with that one! Bruce was definitely not into it. He was afraid that if the eagle woman found out what we were doing she’d get pissed off and we’d be banned forever from her property. He had a point; the eagle woman did think of each and every eagle in the area as her personal pets, and she wouldn’t have liked it at all. After more discussion Tom, Bill, and I decided it was too good an opportunity to pass up. (Bruce declined.) The three of us swore him to secrecy, packed up our gear, and headed across the road to the fish packing plant to get some fish.

I’ll tell you right now that Alaskans are a tough bunch. You’ve got to be pretty rugged to live in a harsh environment like Alaska and do things like commercial fishing for a living. The three of us were dressed like Alaskans — I mean, it is cold, so you dress appropriately — but, despite our attire, it was obvious that we were city boys. We weren’t exactly posers, but it was pretty obvious that we were resident aliens of sorts. The guys at the fish packing plant looked us up and down and made faces when we asked if we could buy some not-for-human-consumption fishies. In my career as a photographer, to get a certain shot, I’ve had to explain a lot of weird stuff to a lot of people with quizzical looks on their faces. This was another one of those times.

You see, we’re photographers, and we need to get some pictures of bald eagles fishing. So we’d like to buy some fish, not for us, you know, for the birds. We need to toss some fish out in the water so the eagles will pick them up. We don’t need good fish. We don’t want anything that would ultimately end up on an overpriced menu in Denver — you know, just some nasty fish that you’re going to throw out anyway.”

The three of us took turns explaining this in different ways until we finally got through to the guy at the fish packing plant. At first, he looked at us as if we were three assholes with some hairball idea, but when he finally figured out we were legit it even seemed like a good idea to him.

Oh yeah, I see, yeah, sure,” he finally decided. “All the whole fish have been shipped out already but you can have all of this you can carry off, for free.” Then he led us to a huge plastic container filled with the most heinous-smelling fish heads, guts, and entrails you’ve ever seen. Tom, Bill, and I had a brief conference by the fish guts container.

That’ll get the eagles’ attention,” we agreed. “But you know, in the actual wilds, where eagles hunt, they pull whole fish out of the water, not guts and heads.” It wouldn’t work with just fish heads and guts. No, it needed to look natural, and eagles tear up the fish after they snag them out of the water. We thanked the guy for his free heads-and-guts offer but explained that we really needed whole fish.

You need bait,” he said.

Yeah, bait, that’s what we need,” was our three-part-harmony reply. “Got any bait?”

We don’t have any bait here, but I’ll tell ya where you can get some.” The fish guy gave us directions to a bait shop in town. Bill and I hopped into our rented four-wheel drive SUV and took off down the snow and ice covered road with Tom following, mostly sideways, in his rental car. After sliding around the back streets of I’m-not-telling-you-where, Alaska, we found the bait shop. Again, we recounted our fish quest to the hearty woman at the counter. This was the second telling of the tale, and we were beginning to sound like the Fish Brothers on a Mission from God. The bait counter woman just looked at us like we were three city idiots with no clue whatsoever. Then, just like the fish packing guy, her eyes lit up in comprehension when she finally got it and she sent us off to talk to another guy in the back. (Why is it that whenever you’re off on some goofy snipe hunt it’s always some guy in the back who can get the job done?)

So, we marched off to the back of the bait shop and told our tale one more time, to one more guy. This guy understood, requiring only one recitation of our fish-bait needs. “Got just whatcha need, fellas, ‘cept it’s back out on the dock in the deep-freeze.” He paused for a moment and then added, “It’s five bucks and change for a fifty pound box-o’-bait.” Gee, did we have the budget for this? We produced a whopping two bucks each and paid up. Fifty pounds of fish for five bucks; it was the cheapest thing I’d bought during my whole Alaskan trip. “Follow me,” the bait guy said as we jumped in our cars and followed him, sliding around corners at breakneck speed all the way back to within about fifty feet of where we’d started at the fish-packing plant. He led us into a refrigerated warehouse (ironic since it was below freezing outside) where he brought out a fifty pound box of fish. He handed me the box, which was one solid object.

Hey, shouldn’t there be loose fish in here?” I asked, shaking the box.

Oh, the fish are frozen,” bait guy answered. “Ya want me to bust ’em up for ya?” He took that box from me, lifted it up over his head and slammed it down hard on the concrete floor. The box bounced about five feet up in the air. We opened the box and the ice wasn’t so much as chipped. It seemed as if the fish were frozen at absolute zero. We each took turns beating the shit out of that box and we succeeded fairly well at destroying the cardboard, but the ice remained solid as a glacier — with our precious fish locked inside. After too much time spent in futile ice-breaking attempts, we just took our box and decided we’d figure out how to free those fish down at the beach.

Tom loaded the fish in the trunk of his rental car. (Bill and I didn’t want to travel with nasty bait fish in our SUV, even if they were frozen solid.) At the beach, we unloaded our mangled cardboard box containing a fifty-pound ice cube plus bait, grabbed our cameras, and headed down to the water.

Now what?” Bill asked. We looked around and saw a row of wooden stump-like things, like the supports of a sawed-off pier or something. (I’m sure there’s a name for those things, but not being a water or fish person, I have no idea what they’re really called).

I noticed a mean-looking piece of rebar projecting from the top of one of those pier-things and had a brainstorm. “Gimme the damn box,” I said as I picked it up and slammed it down on that pointy piece of rebar. POW! Instantly, ice and fish shrapnel flew in all directions. “Yippee!” we all yelled. We’d finally defeated that goddamn block of ice.

We gathered up all our smaller chunks of ice and fish and set about freeing each little fishy individually with our knives. (You do carry a Swiss Army knife in your camera bag, don’t you?) After a while we had a good pile of (mostly) intact little fishes. Time to shoot some pictures!

The bald eagles, knowing a free meal when they see one, had gathered nearby to watch us three idiots chip fish from a block of ice, and were definitely ready for their frozen meals. One catch, though: Who was going to pitch the fish? We decided to take turns so everyone could get a chance to photograph. Tom threw first. It didn’t take too many throws before it became painfully obvious that he threw like a girl. No distance. He was barely hitting the water. The eagles weren’t exactly swooping down majestically from the sky with talons extended either. No, they just walked down the beach, picked up the fish, and then flew off to eat. Bill threw next. He was better, and he even managed a few triple skips of fish into the water, but he still wasn’t getting the distance. The shots we did get had the beach in the foreground, and it wasn’t working.

Give me a fish,” I demanded. I figured if I could get enough distance on my fish toss I could still get my camera up to my eye in time to shoot before the eagles grabbed the fish out of the water. I never played Little League baseball, but I was really winging those fish out there, really getting a nice arc. Plenty of time to throw, bring up my camera, pan the eagle and squeeze off a few good shots with the motordrive on high-speed. In fact, I was lofting those fish up there so high that some of the smarter eagles were intercepting them mid-air. I switched to a side-arm pitch and made some nice level throws and got more good shots. I was the Nolan Ryan of fish flinging! Then we ran out of pre-chipped fish, and had to go back and bust some more free of the ice.

When we returned to our fish stash, it was being raided by a flock of eagles. Those eagles were stealing our fish … for those eagles. “Get outta here!” we all yelled and shooed the eagles away. The eagles weren’t afraid of us, and we had to constantly shoo them away while we chipped more fish from the ice. We went back to the beach and began again. I was really getting some good shots and began thinking about finding a market for this stuff. It was that good. I also began having another thought: What’s that awful smell? That smell, of course, was raw fish. Although it was cold, it was a sunny day and the sun was melting the ice. Our bait was getting ripe, and since I was now the official fish relief pitcher, my right glove was getting stinky. I’d pitch a fish and then return my hand to the camera’s controls. Now my camera was getting smelly. Urgh, I reeked of dead fish. The smell had penetrated my glove, was transferred to my camera, and you know where your camera goes? Right next to your nose. Oh well, it was worth it considering the great pictures I got.

Near the end of the Great Alaskan Fish Toss, Tom came over between Bill and I and whispered, “Don’t look back, but Bruce is behind us and he’s shooting pictures!”

Son of a bitch,” Bill grunted. “Let’s bust his ass.” We turned around and, sure enough, there was old Brucie on top of the embankment where we’d parked our cars, shooting behind us with a long telephoto lens. “Hey Bruce!” Bill yelled, “C’mon down and join us!” Under his breath he added, “Ya wuss.”

Hi, I’m, uh, doin’ fine, ha, ha,” came the sheepish reply from the wuss on the hill.

What a wuss,” Tom said.

Yeah,” Bill agreed, “He’s too scared to come with us and then shows up shooting over our shoulders.”

Well, at least we called him on it, now he won’t go talking to the eagle woman,” Tom said.

I think he owes us two bucks for his share of the fish,” I added.

We had a good laugh at Bruce’s expense, tossed out our last few fish and called it a day. We each had pockets full of exposed film.

Bill and I were sharing a cabin, and the first thing I did when we got back was to wash my fish-smelling gloves and clean the fish scent off of my camera. Cleaning the camera was no problem, but I had to throw those gloves away. Later, after cameras were cleaned, film was sorted and a few victory beers were drunk, I called home. My wife, Bernadette, ran the studio, and one thing she does each and every day is check the stock photo requests that come in via email and fax.

You didn’t happen to get any pictures of eagles fishing, did you?” she asked. “I got a request today from a wildlife book publisher looking for a shot of an eagle with its wings back, talons forward, pulling a fish out of the water.”

I got that shot!” Now, I wasn’t sure if I really did have that exact shot, but given the circumstances I just had to say I did. I’d better have gotten it! “Email them, and tell them you’ve got a photographer who’ll be home from Alaska in a few days and they can have that shot as soon as the film is processed.” It just doesn’t happen like this too often; this was too good to be true. Once back at home, the eagle-fishing film was processed first and, sure enough, I’d gotten the shot. Actually, I’d gotten that shot a couple of times; it was a good shoot!

The fish-flinging adventure ends like this: I got the shot, sold the shot, and got a check. Not bad. Not bad, at all. The money earned from publication covered the cost of the fish ($1.70), a new pair of gloves (minus the hideous fish smell), and a nice for-human-consumption salmon dinner.

So, the next time you see one of those majestic shots of a bald eagle flying just above the water with a fish in its talons, be impressed, but not too impressed. There’s a chance that the photographer may have waited days to get the shot. There’s also a chance that, just out of frame, there are a couple of idiots with fish-smelling gloves, waiting to pitch another fish out into the water.

*****

See more of Dale O’Dell’s photography and digital art at DalePhoto.Com.

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