The Fascination With Pelicans

Footprints in the Sand


A wonderful bird is the pelican
His bill can hold more than his belican
He can take in his beak
Food enough for a week
But I’m damned if I see how the helican

-Dixon Lanier Merritt 1913

Footprints-in-the-Sand-Rob-ModysWhat on earth is the fascination with using the name pelican in Southwest Florida? Everywhere I go from Cape Coral all the way down to south Naples there are neighborhoods using that bird as an identifier. Here are just a few… Pelican Preserve, Pelican Bay, Pelican Marsh, Pelican Sound and Pelican Landing. There’s also a neighborhood in the Cape called Pelican, and then there are the bars and restaurants, not to mention the roads, parkways, boulevards and circles. I just don’t get it. We have hundreds of bird species, but the pelican wins hands down!

And in my opinion it’s not even close to being the most attractive bird.

I know I’m going to take some grief for that so I’ll temper this with an observation. They look great in flight, especially when in a formation flying low over the water’s edge along our beaches. They are also fun to watch while diving for food, but when sitting on a dock they look goofy. They are even funnier looking when they walk. I’m pretty sure Steven Spielberg must have mimicked that walk when he created E.T.

This pelican thing goes way back and way beyond the naming of neighborhoods and resorts. When I was growing up in Clearwater there was a restaurant on the beach called The Pelican. It was a special place for our family when grandparents from New Jersey visited. It was considerably fancier than our normal hangout, the Oyster House, and required much better manners. White tablecloths, cotton napkins and silverware with a bit of weight were the noticeable upgrade. There were also kids cocktails. Remember Shirley Temples?

Brown Pelican.

I will say this…as a fisherman I have a professional fondness for the pelican. They will show an angler where the bait and fish are if you know how to ‘read’ them.

It’s important to pay attention to the way they react shortly after diving into the water for baitfish. If they raise their head up immediately after hitting the water and swallow, that’s the sign they’ve caught bigger bait or even a small mullet. On the other hand if they keep their head down and their beak in the water, they’ve captured very small bait. The reason for the change is before swallowing they’ll squeeze the water out of the pouch so as not to lose any of the prey they’ve worked so hard to catch. If you are an angler throwing a cast net for your bait, this information supplied by the pelican is very important. Big bait catches big fish.

Pelicans are also fantastic fish finders, especially along the beaches. If they are diving at the water’s edge then you can almost be assured that there are game fish nearby. The constant diving disturbs and scatters the bait and that makes it much easier for the bigger fish to feed. I never ever drive a boat past diving pelicans.

For those of you lucky enough to be here in the winter you must keep an eye out for the much larger American white pelican. With their 9-foot wingspan they are one of the largest birds in North America. They migrate south in the winter from mid-Canada, Montana and the Dakotas and arrive here in southwest Florida in October or November. The flocks are amazing to watch in flight as they soar across the sky. Because of the black edges along the wings it often looks like a kaleidoscope as they move in circles. Even the most hardcore angler will stop what they’re doing to watch.

Perhaps someone should name a future neighborhood White Pelican Marsh.


Footprints-in-the-Sand-Rob-ModysCaptain Rob Modys is a lifetime Florida outdoorsman and retired spin & fly fishing guide. He is past president and board chairman of the Florida Outdoor Writers Association and serves on the board of the Florida Guides Association.