Eat or be eaten

The cold fire in a predator’s eye is always unnerving
chicken
Photo: Thibaud Furst / cc2.0

Gut-hooked bass are nearly always dead bass, but this one was just barely gut hooked. Thankfully, I’d pressed the barb down on the #2 Wooly Bugger—actually, a fly of my own creation that I’d christened the Beasty Bugger thanks to its trademark, outlandishly big hackles—and it looked like I could slip its point out of that tender lining easily. It was a decent bass, but with my hand in its mouth I couldn’t see what I was doing. It was all by feel. And after feeling the hook what I felt next was that bass trying to suck me into its gut—trying to to eat me—index finger first.

In a momentary flight of terror, I reflexively jerked my hand out of the 14-inch spot’s mouth.

“What the hell?”

I dunked the spotted bass into the creek’s gentle currents while regaining my composure. Something trying to eat me, no matter how small that something is, is cause for losing composure. I did not like it.

Reaching back into the fish’s mouth with thoughts of Jonah’s fate swishing through my brain, I was careful not to get my fingers back into its gullet and with a quick movement the hook was loose. Before setting it free, I looked deep into the bass’ pupils. Its eye swiveled onto mine and the blackness locked onto my soul. It was unnerving, but it wasn’t the first time I’d watched the cold fires burn in a minuscule predator’s eye while feeling more than a little unsure about my place in the food chain.

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Bullfrogs were the first creatures to make me feel edible, like potential prey, if only they could figure out where to start. Maybe it was the unblinking eyes. It might have been the impossibly wide mouth. But it was most likely because I’d watched bullfrogs try to eat birds, other bullfrogs and even a small rabbit. Literally anything they could fit into their jaws was on the menu. I wasn’t concerned when catching bullfrogs, they seemed to know their place when I was chasing them. But after the capture, when they went limp and I held them head high looking straight on at their primordial faces, the calm gluttonous eyes bored through mine. The frog was trying to think of a way to fit me into its maw, trying to find an angle. And it sure felt like the tables could turn.

I’ve recently added another seemingly benign critter to the list of animals I think would eat me if they could: Chickens.

Our closed-in garage doubles as my office and storage shed with only a thin wall as separation. The storage section holds hunting stuff, fishing stuff, old deer antlers, magazines, and memories stored in plastic tubs, along with sacks of bird seed and chicken feed. With cooler weather in place and plenty of food available, it was no surprise that mice moved in. I heard them scurry and scrape inside the skinny wall, and I witnessed their mess after chewing through the chicken feed sack. So I unenthusiastically decided to set a trap.

I've used the standard noggin'-smashin' mouse traps many times, but I decided to buy a small live trap when I saw it for less than five bucks at Atwoods. The genteel nature of the live trap, as opposed to the barbaric violence of a snap trap, was appealing. But when you catch the mouse you've got to do something with the mouse, and it's best to give no quarter when it comes to mice. Though I never checked uniform numbers, I'm fairly certain that any house mouse I've treated with mercy in the past has misinterpreted my act of kindness as an invitation to visit again. Next morning, when I found the little gray being hopping back and forth within the wire mesh, I knew what I needed to do but wasn’t sure if I would to do it.

As I stood there in the frigid dawn breaking on our backyard, shaking the poor mouse out of the trap and literally not knowing what my next move would be—let it go and risk it getting back in the house or kill it quickly—our chickens spied the commotion. The oldest hen, named Becky (she just looks like a Becky), arrived on the scene in a waddling gallop just as the mouse hits the grass. The decision was out of my hands.

I've been around chickens my whole life. I've watched them eat little snakes, giant centipedes, lizards, and insects of all forms. But I was not prepared for Becky to channel a T-Rex in the cold light of morning.

There was no hesitation.The mouse never had a chance. I've watched a few predator/prey interactions, and this was easily one of the most efficient. The hen pounced, then three or four whacks on the ground followed by a volley of pecks and the mouse was done. Becky quickly picked the tiny carcass apart in pink morsels and down her throat it went. Lots of calories for a cold day. And since the mouse was fattened on chicken feed it could be viewed as a savagely poetic death. But mostly it was just savage.

When Becky finished with the mouse, she strolled into the frosty grass next to me, stretched her neck into the sun beams and beat her wings three times. She peered high and cocked her head with a tilt that fixed her saurian gaze dead into my eyes. Chickens are descended from dinosaurs. Hell, they are dinosaurs. I’ve often wondered if somewhere deep in their hollow bones they feel that old dominance. I’ve wondered if the blood of toothy ancestors pumping through their plump, feathered bodies enables them to instinctively know this heritage. After that morning’s terrible event, after Becky focused on me—her crop freshly stuffed with mammal—I have no doubt.

They know it.

So now I put chickens in the same category as bullfrogs and bass. In their eat-or-be-eaten world, when they look into my eyes, I know they're sizing me up. They're eyeballin' me with a subtle predatory malevolence. And wishing I was smaller.

Comments

Though well written, I find this article removed from the interest in which I came here for—fly fishing. It quite honestly makes no sense to me; but maybe, just maybe, it's the whiskey.

Hey Aaron -- Hatch Magazine has always been referred to as a magazine for "fly fishing, etc." Articles on general outdoorsmanship, hiking, hunting and other loosely related topics are somewhat common around these parts. We hope mixing it up is a good thing. That said, there's no shortage of fly fishing content to dig into.

I've never trusted chickens. And after reading this story, I probably never will. They're wolves in feathers. Wow.

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