by George Poveromo

Take up birdwatching and put more fish in the boat.
George Poveromo


SWOOP-THERE IT IS: Seabirds and anglers often share one goal: finding the fish.
Photo: Scottkerrigan.com

Six miles out of Haulover Inlet in Miami Beach early one Sunday, we were resigned to making a 20-plus-mile trek to get into some dolphin. It was going to be a good day, if a long run. Ten minutes later, we realized just how good.

Between the bow and the horizon, I glimpsed a flash of white: gulls swooping and dipping to the water. Must be skipjacks, this close to shore. But the birds didn't move en masse as we neared them. Could it be dolphin?

Dolphin they were-one of the largest schools I can remember. We tangled with ten-pounders on spinning gear, icing a few and releasing some 30 fish. Birds can do that-take a day when you'll need all your wiles to scratch out a few fish and turn it into a "catching" day. Knowing how to read these soaring signposts will put you on more fish-and more exciting fishing-than you ever dare hope to see.

 

Tern It Up
Commonly referred to as "tuna chicks," sooty terns are a welcome sight on the offshore grounds. Captain Pete Rose lives by these birds when he's searching for yellowfin tuna off the Bahamas.

Right when a tuna blitz ends and the sooty terns retreat back into the sky, Rose sits patiently and watches them, even if he just capitalized on the blitz. If the birds remain high overhead, he'll stay put and keep his eyes open for the next push of tuna-if they're still around. But if they take off in one direction, he'll follow the birds, because they stay with the tuna.

 

Sooty Tern.
Illustration: Steve Sanford

When Rose is cruising for fish-and hasn't found a large flock of birds ready to swoop down on tuna-he watches for singles or pairs of terns and notes the direction they're flying. If they're all heading the same way, he'll track them. "They're an easy bird to follow," says Rose. "They can fly up to 30 miles per hour, so you may have to speed up to stay with them. I've followed them for many miles and not seen a fish. You run some more and then, suddenly, you see them all gathering in an area-and then the tuna pop up."

 

Islamorada skipper Brian Cone uses sooty terns to judge the size of dolphin he's following. When terns work northward, moving with the general flow of the Gulf Stream, that means the birds are on school fish. Southbound terns, heading into the prevailing current, likely mean larger dolphin that can pursue bait against the current better than schoolies.

 

Gull-Ability
Seagulls of all kinds-laughing, herring or Bonaparte's gulls-can lead astute anglers to a variety of gamefish. These birds usually hover and drop down right over a feeding blitz, picking off small fish and leftover particles and raising a ruckus. Use them to search for striped bass, cobia and dolphin, especially off South Florida and the Bahamas where deep water flows close to shore. Seagulls mean pods of bait, feeding gamefish and a cheering section when you get into them.
These birds only come down for one reason-food is readily available. When I'm looking for dolphin, sailfish or even marlin, I keep an eye out for single gulls or pairs that are flying low and dipping down along scattered weeds. Any seagull that is low to the water and acting excited is over bait and, probably, feeding fish, too.

 

Bill Payoff
When it comes to finding big kingfish, tourney angler Dave Workman, Jr., studies the pelicans. These coastal birds thrive when the menhaden migrate along the coast, as do the kings. When he's running his boat along the beach looking for big kings or to fill his well, Workman scans the horizon with binoculars for pelicans. He's interested in birds that dive-bomb on bait schools headfirst with such force that they go underwater. He'll watch for them to sit on the water, their heads tilted forward from the weight of a pouch full of bait. This tells him where the menhaden are, giving him the option of fishing around a bait school or gathering fresh baits.
When pelicans fly low and lightly "plop" into the water, then rest on the surface and tilt their heads back to swallow the food in their bill, Workman knows they're probably over small baits, like glass minnows. Watching the birds saves him fuel and time running to that school of bait.

 

Big Bird
For offshore anglers pursuing dolphin, marlin and tuna, the big-bait philosophy holds true. A diving frigate bird is arguably the closest thing to a sure bet, because these birds forage on flying fish, squid, mackerel and juvenile dolphin. Large baits mean big predators in the area.

 

Harry Vernon III specializes in catching big game off Miami and he attributes much of his success to keeping an eye on solitary frigate birds circling up high. To be fair, who doesn't? But Vernon has eyed them for years and gained practical knowledge.

 

Too many people think that fish are always directly beneath a circling frigate, according to Vernon. Sometimes they are, but he stresses that frigates have exceptionally keen eyesight and watch fish as far as a quarter-mile away. When they dive out of their circling pattern to feed, they can adjust the angle of attack in a split-second to nab bait escaping gamefish, often leaving the angler far from the action.

 

"We troll very large rings around a circling frigate," says Vernon. "By doing so, we'll cover a lot of water and increase our chance of presenting baits to any gamefish that may be in the frigate's sights." Another key: Stay with a frigate when it's low-the bird is obviously on something. Vernon recently reconfirmed this method while sailfishing.

 

"We were kite-fishing and saw two frigates circling, moving south," says Vernon. "They were staying over the same depth zone and moving slowly. They were on fish, no doubt. We got up ahead of them and redeployed our baits. As soon as the frigates approached the boat, we caught a sailfish triple-header."

 

Don't just find the birds and chase them around. Figure out what they're following, where they're looking and how they're getting their next meal, and you'll have a shortcut to the bait. The gamefish won't be far behind.