Man Turns Flock Into Friends

He calls them pets, but they are wild birds who are wild about a Bay Area bait shop.

By Joe Rosato Jr.
|  Tuesday, Jun 7, 2011  |  Updated 9:07 AM PDT
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Man Turns Flock Into Friends

Joe Rosato Jr.

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It doesn’t take much imagination to figure out why bait shop owner Keith Fraser has a lot of feathered friends.

As he made his way across the dock of his Loch Lomond store in San Rafael, a particularly galling Great Blue Heron nicknamed “Nasty” closely monitored his steps. Fraser lifted a hatch in the deck and dipped in a net, pulling out a handful of squirming silvery fish. He dumped them into a bucket and offered it up to Nasty, who wasted no time in plunging his beak into the fishy feast.

"Ever since we’ve been here, which is 40 years," said Fraser, "We’ve had a number of, what we refer to as, pet wild birds."

In the four decades Fraser has run his shop, he’s become a favorite of the water birds who count on his friendship -- or rather more likely -- his ready supply of live fish.  He’s witnessed generations of birds become regular visitors of his tiny fishing supply shop, which resembles a small blue box plunked down in the middle of the docks.

A small white heron he named Pee Wee, perched on the bait shop’s sign.  Fraser summoned him inside the store, to the front counter for a fish snack. 

"He kind of treats this place like a cafeteria," Fraser said.

Pictures of Fraser’s "friends" are plastered across the shop in the Loch Lomond Marina. “This is Nasty Senior,” he said, pointing to a photo of a blue heron. Turns out, it was the father of the blue heron dining bucket-side nearby. "We lost him last year," said Fraser lowering his booming voice.
   
Fraser told the story of how two years ago, Nasty Senior swallowed bait with a fish hook. A team of vets tried to save him, but he died following surgery. “This shop was sort of a morgue for a month or so after that,” said Fraser. A sign outside the shop now warns fishermen about removing hooks from bait.

"I’ve watched this ‘bird show’ every day for 40 years," he said. "And I never get tired of it."

Fraser may be a friend to the birds, but he’s also a consummate fisherman. Even with the plethora of bird photos, there is plenty of space in the shop devoted to fish stories. He has a particular fondness for sturgeon fishing, which is enjoying a population boom thanks to this spring’s late rains.

Fraser said one local angler caught a sturgeon he estimated to be 12 feet in length, and nearly a thousand pounds. There is a picture to back-up the boast. “It was 12 foot –five,” said Fraser, “ which is by far the biggest one we have ever heard of.”

California Fish and Game allows fishermen to catch only three sturgeons a season – and only one per day. Fraser takes that policy a step-further in his own fishing outings. "We have a rule on my boat," he said. "We never take more than one on a particular day."

Fraser offers a piece of advice to aspiring fishermen hoping to land a coveted sturgeon. He suggests paying devout attention to the tip of the waiting fishing pole.

"If you’re reading the morning stock quotations or looking at some honey in a boat nearby you, you might as well be fishing in your bathtub," he said.

Although Fraser may preach an agenda of catch-and-release, it isn’t well-heeded by his current guest. “Nasty” the blue heron is aggressively chasing off a white heron named Emma, who is hoping to dine in the bucket of fish.

Fraser watched the dust-up with an amused expression. ”You can see why his name is Nasty,” he said.

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