The family and I recently enjoyed a weekend getaway to the beach. Our hotel room overlooked the beach, and I found myself enjoying downtime on the balcony looking out over the ocean. While most would be content to just watch the waves crash onshore as the sun rose or set, I was focused on a more obscure scene. Looking out past the surf and into the open sea, I could make out some noticeable disturbance in the water. It looked like just a little irregularity amongst the calm, rolling waves.
And then, I saw a flash of white, followed by another and another. This caught my angling eye immediately, as I realized that what I had been watching was a large ball of baitfish moving across the surface of the ocean. But they really got my attention when they were ambushed by some sort of predatory fish. If I had a rod that could have cast half a mile into the ocean from my hotel balcony, I just might have tried it.
Predators had corralled the bait into a tighter ball and were blasting the baitfish against the surface. Almost immediately, I saw seagulls diving into the same spot where I had seen the fish schooling just seconds before. This reminded me of a pattern that works in freshwater, too.
Seagulls often appear on Lake Martin in the cooler months, along with other birds associated more with the ocean, like pelicans. Loons, cormorants and smaller grebes appear in good numbers, as well. I have always assumed that, even though there are resident populations of sea-faring birds on the Gulf Coast year round, there are also some that must move south for the winter. Perhaps they come down from the northern U.S., as many of the fisheries freeze over, leaving fewer opportunities for feeding.
Whatever the case, the fish-eating birds can be a great indicator for schools of bait and, more importantly, the predatory fish that are actively feeding. It seems like some of the birds show up around October, and by November and December, there are numerous groups scattered up and down the lake. For someone into birding, it would be an interesting trip around the lake to see just how many species of birds were present on Lake Martin during the fall and winter.
For an angler, the more important question is how can the birds help us catch more fish? First and foremost, the birds can see much better than we can from their vantage point. It’s amazing to watch a bird hover 50 feet above the surface; and then, dive into open water to come up with a small baitfish. More than once, I’ve seen an eagle catch large fish – like a giant gizzard shad or an unwitting bass. Birds like seagulls work together in much the same fashion as does a school of fish. They fly over large areas, making large circles as individuals while staying in close proximity to the group. When one of the birds spots an opportunity like a group of bait, the other birds see the activity and join in.
The key to knowing just how the birds can help is to know what’s going on beneath the surface of the water. Balls of baitfish move about in the lake constantly, and fish – like stripers, white bass and bass – cruise, looking for opportunities just like the phenomenon I witnessed from my hotel room balcony at the beach. Schools of predatory fish work to corral the balls of bait to the surface, essentially using the surface of the water as a wall against which to pin the bait for feeding.
The birds flying overhead with their keen eyes can see as the bait gets pushed closer to the surface, and they begin to circle tighter. When the fish attack the baitfish at the surface, it also presents an opportunity for the birds to feed. In a sense, the birds are using the fish to make it easier to access the bait. And, I assume that, as the birds crash down on the bait at the surface, some of the small morsels run right into the open mouths of the fish.
With all of the great electronics we have today on our boats, nature still offers an occasional efficient alternative. The birds constantly cruise overhead and cover way more water with their eyes than we ever could. And in a much more stealthy fashion, as the white gulls are visible from long distances and could give away the location of a good group of fish from a mile or more away.
Oftentimes, it can be best to cruise slowly and watch the activity of the birds. When there’s not much activity, they will fly more spread out from each other, each bird hoping to be the one to spot a feeding opportunity. They also fly a little higher as they search, possibly trying to survey a larger area at a time. One of the keys to watch for is when the birds begin to swoop very close to the surface, even if it’s only one or two of them. This can be an indicator that something good is about to happen.
When an all-out feeding frenzy is taking place, an entire flock of birds will dive-bomb one spot. If you look closely, you could see the flashes of white water being thrown up as feeding fish school in the same spot. This is when the fish are most vulnerable to a variety of baits, as they feed on anything and everything that looks like a shad. It’s no surprise to catch a striper, a bass and a white bass out of the same school when this is taking place because they are all working together to get a meal.
Diving birds – like the loons, cormorants and grebes – are more subtle indicators but can be just as effective at giving away a good location. They paddle around on the surface, sticking their heads below the water as they look for fish. Since they are usually darker in color and travel in smaller groups of two or three, they can be a little more difficult to spot, but they could still lead anglers to prime fishing spots. They can be especially helpful when the fish are in deeper water and not necessarily pushing bait all the way to the surface.
When you see a couple of diving birds, loons or grebes, working in the same general area, it’s worth a look. Either cast through that location or use your electronics to survey for balls of baitfish and fish relating to structure and cover. Try a combination of bottom-bouncing baits and baits that can be fished in the middle of the water column. Spoons could be especially good in this situation, as the fish often will pass directly beneath the boat.
You may be surprised to find that the bulk of the fish are positioned on a spot that otherwise would have gone unnoticed were it not for the birds. Getting even just one fish to bite could ignite a deep-water feeding frenzy that might last for 30 minutes or more of action.
This fall and winter, plan to keep an eye out for the birds. After all, they are keeping an eye out for the same fish that you are.
Greg Vinson is a full-time professional angler on the Major League Fishing Bass Pro Tour. He lives in Wetumpka and grew up fishing on Lake Martin.