An eagle drops down on the Skagit River to feed. (Mike Benbow)

An eagle drops down on the Skagit River to feed. (Mike Benbow)

Take a magical eagle tour on the Skagit River this winter

Boat fleets take camera buffs on the river for photo sessions with America’s symbol.

ROCKPORT — When Wayne Ackerlund started guiding for steelhead back in 1995, it didn’t take him long to notice that a lot of the boats on the Skagit River weren’t catering to anglers.

They were focusing on bird watchers, who float the rivers each fall and winter to watch the many bald eagles who gather along the Skagit, Sauk and Nooksack rivers to feed off good runs of chum salmon.

“Wherever the fish are, they’re going to go,” Ackerlund said.

Salmon runs have declined in recent years as the numbers of eagles have increased. And Ackerlund has built a decent business through word of mouth among those who like to take professional-style photos of the eagles.

The birds start gathering for the salmon runs in November and stay into February.

Back in the 1990s, eagle populations were still down because of heavy use of the pesticide DDT, which made their eggs very fragile. As a result, DDT was banned and wildlife officials worked to ensure eagle nests got special priority.

Raptor numbers have since recovered, and eagles are no longer endangered in the Northwest.

“Some years, the Nooksack has had 800 to 900 birds, if there is a good salmon run,” Ackerlund noted.

The growing numbers of birds prompted Ackerlund to add eagle photography trips to his business some 16 years ago. Starting out with drift boats, he added some custom boats with heaters to make the guests more comfortable. He also added a jet sled to the boats so that he could go find the eagles and not just have to float down a section of the river.

Photographer Bob Lloyd of Camano Island has been going on eagle trips for the past four years. He said he is pleased with the results.

“He really has a knack for getting close to the eagles without scaring them off,” Lloyd said of Ackerlund.

Ackerlund said the eagles can be spooked by quick actions like rowing, but they don’t seem to be bothered by the jet sled.

“You need to give the birds room,” Ackerlund said. “They don’t like seeing the oar tips move quickly, but they don’t seem to mind the noise of the sled.”

Ackerlund, of Mount Vernon, meets tourists at Rockport to go searching for eagles along the Skagit.

The trips last three, four or six hours and are designed for groups of 3-20. He typically looks for feeding eagles and tries to get as close as possible to them. It’s not uncommon for several birds to feed on the same carcass.

In November, you might see 40 to 80 birds on a three-hour tour. During the peak of migration in December and January, numbers can top 200 eagles. Then in February, sightings hover in the 20 to 40 range.

Ackerlund said he enjoys the time he spends on the water.

Last year, he said, photographers often captured photos of a golden eagle that spent the winter feeding along the Skagit River — not a very common sight. “It was pretty unique,” he said.

He added customers also enjoyed photographing a great blue heron that frequently squabbled over salmon carcasses with the eagles.

“It was always fighting for fish.”

Tips:

— Expect rain and dress accordingly.

— Trips take about a half day, so bring lunch or snacks and a thermos of hot drinks.

— Don’t forget your camera — and your telephoto lens, if you’re a serious photographer.

If you go

Wayne Ackerlund leads Skagit River Eagle Tours from November through February. Reservations are required. Meet at Howard Miller Steelhead Park, 52921 Rockport Park Road, Rockport. Call 888-675-2448 or go to www.skagitriverfishingguide.com for more information.

This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Wayne Ackerlund’s name.

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