If you fish virtually any of the southeastern impoundments, you’ll notice the birds have returned for the winter. Seagulls and loons are getting fat on the abundance of bait available right now, and they will typically stay around for another month or so. For us anglers, the birds give us a lot of insight on where to fish. They can also be quite deceiving as well.
First let’s examine seagulls. While seagulls can dive a foot or two in the water, they aren’t built for long, submerged foraging dives like loons and gannets. Instead, they rely on gamefish to corral the bait into tight wads and push them toward the surface. Once the buffet is skittering on the top, the seagulls can easily swoop down and pick a treat right off the table. So if you see seagulls whirling and skimming the surface, you know there’s bait in the area, and there are gamefish directly beneath the bait.
On the other hand, loons can do their own foraging. You may see a loon drop below the waves, and pop up one hundred, or more, feet away. Loons also work in groups, like gamefish, to herd the bait into large pods so they can gorge themselves a lot easier. Because loons are ‘hunters’, where seagulls are ‘opportunists’, sighting loons actively working and feeding may not always indicate the presence of gamefish in the area. Also seeing seagulls whirling over a group of loons doesn’t necessarily mean there’s gamefish in the area. The seagulls may simply be benefiting from the efforts of the loons instead of fish.
If you see a raft of seagulls lounging on the surface…and sometimes there will literally be hundreds floating together…that’s a good place to mark on your Simrad chartplotter. They are there for a reason. There’s probably bait in the area, but it’s scattered for the moment, and they are waiting for a herd of gamefish to bring them to the surface. I don’t usually spend a lot of time fishing around floating birds, but I’ll keep my binoculars handy and keep an eye on them. You’ll get a sense of what’s in the area pretty quickly, and can monitor several flocks at the same time. When a flock gets active, you can maneuver to the vicinity.
A couple words of caution. Don’t, I mean don’t, blast over to the middle of an actively feeding flock of gulls. You’ll usually wind up causing the bait…and the fish…to scatter and go deep. Instead, motor within a few hundred feet, and ease toward them on your trolling motor. You can also get a sense of which direction the birds, bait and fish are moving. Then plot an intercept course to have the fish come to you. This gives you time to put your own bait spread out, and wait for the bite. Casting topwater plugs, like MirroLure Top Dogs, Zara Spooks and Chug Bugs will draw explosive strikes. Casting rigs like the Project-X X-Rig will get you multiple hook-ups. And planer boards and umbrella rigs are an excellent way to put your baits in the strike zone too, although these take longer to deploy.
A lot of ‘bird-fishing’ is Run-And-Gun fishing. Find a flock, get within casting distance, make a few casts and move on. This kind of action, while exciting, typically lasts just a few minutes at each location. So be ready, with both live baits and casting lures.
This kind of technique is visual, it’s fun and will test your skill for long-distance and accurate casts. But the reward of having everyone on the boat hooked to a monster is worth the effort.
I’ll see you on the water!
Tight lines and calm seas.
Capt. Cefus McRae – Nuts & Bolts of Fishing