Humans have always looked at birds with awe and some form of deep longing. Our language is full of words and phrases relating to their miracle of flight. How wonderful it must be to be as free as a bird-soaring above us land-bound captives with a bird’s eye view of the world below. With our technological advances in the century just past we have achieved some forms of flight emulating as closely as we can the freedom from gravity that birds enjoy. But oh to soar and swoop like an eagle must be a feeling of immortality.
Since I have occasionally been accused of being a dreamer, (most fisherman are whether they admit it or not) I spend considerable time, in between actually catching a fish or two, observing wildlife in whatever location I find myself. Birds and fish go together like fish and chips, the two are inexorably connected and it is a good thing for fisherman. Birds that fish are doing it for a living and if they don’t catch some they go hungry. There might be a lesson here. I might try going fishing hungry—it might improve my catch rate. I wouldn’t last long though—my wife has taught me that one of the best things about going fishing is that it improves your appetite.
Anyway, human fisherman can learn a lot from bird fisherman. Fishing birds like gulls and terns feed primarily on bait fish. In Texas bait fish usually means either threadfin or gizzard shad. These small fishes, usually 3-5 inches in length, are also the primary food source for most of our targeted game fish. Largemouth bass, white bass, hybrid bass, striped bass and crappie all feed heavily on these prolific spawners. Shad tend to group together in huge schools as a protective devise during most of the year and this behavior can lead to some very exciting fishing opportunities for anglers who know how to take advantage of it.
How do birds fit into this scheme? Fishing birds are always on the lookout for an opportunity to feast on these tasty little baitfish. I guess they are tasty. I have never eaten one but gamefish must think they are because when in a feeding mode they will round up a school of shad and drive them up against a barrier. It could be a shoreline or an underwater island or it could just be the surface of the water. What results can be a feeding frenzy.
Enter the birds. From their aerial perch, gulls and terns are able to see this activity developing below them. They have instinctive knowledge somehow of where this occurs and when. Whatever signal triggers gamefish to start herding schools of shad, the birds are the first to know and arrive quickly on the scene. Fisherman can quickly locate schools of feeding fish by watching their behavior. It is not uncommon to be peacefully fishing along and suddenly see hundreds of birds wheeling and screeching like a white tornado. This amplifies as more shad are driven to the surface by the predators below hungrily slashing at their hapless prey. When this occurs, gulls and terns dive-bomb into the water trying to pick up the spoils from the battle going on beneath them. I have seen this behavior of birds and fish many times and have learned a few things about how to capitalize on it. Most of the time, the marauding predators push the shad into the prevailing wind. This makes it easier for the birds to participate but I have no idea if this is just a coincidence or some sort of symbiosis between species.
Not all of the birds hit the water at the same time. There seems to be some hierarchy and a vortex of diving occurs at the head of the onslaught below. Even though the activity is frenzied the fish and the birds are easily spooked by overeager fishermen who unthinkingly roar into the middle of the melee.
The key to catching fish during this exciting event is to get upwind of the circling circus and let it come to you. Use lures that mimic the size of the bait and hang on. After the school passes, use your trolling motor to try and stay with them as long as possible. I offer as proof the following example of how productive and exciting this type of angling is.
In early January my 11-year old daughter caught an 8-pound hybrid striper during one of the scenarios just described and my wife and son each hooked and landed respectable 5-pound fish. It was exciting for awhile to say the least trying to keep everyone from panicking and on task.
People who study such things say bird watching is one of the most popular outdoor activities in America these days. It certainly is one of my favorite things to do with a twist of course. Fishing with the birds—an interlocked aerial and aquatic ballet that leaves you breathless.