Birds have caught a lot of fish for me. Well, maybe not literally caught them for me — though I do remember once when a two-pound saltwater catfish loudly splatted onto the driveway a few feet from where I was standing at the marina.
Fish don’t drop from the sky very often, so it took me a moment of stupidly staring down at the dazed animal before it occurred to me to look skyward. By the time I did look up, I was too late to see the departing osprey that had probably lost its lunch while flying overhead.
As far as I can recall that’s the only time that a bird has ever given a fish to me, though in Asia there are places where fishermen in small boats use cormorants to catch fish for them. A snug-fitting collar is placed around the bird’s neck and affixed to a tether.
The birds go overboard and dive down to catch fish, which they are prevented from swallowing by the tight fit of the collar. The bird is pulled aboard, the fish is taken by the human fisherman, and the bird is sent back overboard to do it again. Some of these guys work several birds at a time, and the video I’ve seen is fascinating.
I haven’t got a flock of trained birds fishing for me, but I do get lots of help from birds that are doing their own fishing. Birds are better than I at finding fish. They have a higher vantage point and better vision. They also have more incentive, because if they fail to find fish they go hungry, while if I strike out while fishing I can have always go get some sushi.
The fish that birds have helped me to catch have usually resulted from watching birds doing their own fishing and being able to get clues from their behavior that helps me catch fish of my own. I didn’t invent this; many saltwater anglers have done the same thing for generations.
It’s pretty common to spot a flock of agitated gulls and/or terns frantically dipping to the surface to pick up small fish. Often those small fish have been pushed to the surface by larger fish that are attacking them from below, and it’s those larger fish that we human anglers usually want to catch. This action can be fleeting, since it is based on a juxtaposition of three species: small fish, large fish and birds.
Just about every angler who’s pulled up on a flock of feeding birds has had the action suddenly cease upon their arrival, only to pop up again somewhere nearby (usually just out of casting range, of course). This can start a sometimes-endless routine of chasing the birds from spot to spot to spot in a game of angling whack-a-mole. But we hit pay dirt often enough to keep us enthused.
There are other, more subtle ways that birds can help us to catch fish. Sometimes those gulls and terns are not feeding at all, but have spotted a school of gamefish beneath the surface and are shadowing them in the hope that the fish will eventually encounter a school of bait and a feeding frenzy will then get going. If you see a group of gulls or terns flying 50 feet up — all looking down and all on the same course — then it might be worth trying to get in front of them and fishing a little.
Sharp-eyed frigatebirds do this too, only from much much higher altitude. Sometimes they get so high that they’re hard for us to see. Bluewater anglers in the Keys and along the east coast know to watch for high-flying frigatebirds that might be tracking billfish. In our waters, the frigates will fly above schools of kings, bonita or blackfin tuna.
Birds can show us fish in the shallows too. If you pull up to a miles-long grass flat in search of trout or other fish, you could just start drifting randomly to find active areas. But if you see a few cormorants swimming in an area, it may be worth starting your search there. This works a couple of ways since cormorants will eat pinfish and other small fish that might attract trout, but the hungry birds will also eat surprisingly large trout themselves. And unlike their collared Asian counterparts, our cormorants get to eat their catch.
Wading birds are another good clue. A knee-deep blue heron will likely be fishing in an area where there is a significant amount of bait — bait which is likely to also attract gamefish to that same area. But don’t expect to see a flock of blue herons anywhere. These large birds are highly territorial and will usually not allow other blue herons to encroach on their hotspots. Like some human anglers.
However, you might see multiple snowy egrets fishing near each other, either wading or perched in low-hanging mangrove branches. Their white plumage makes them visible from long distances, maybe up to a half-mile away if the sun is right. Green herons perched on low mangrove limbs or even on the prop roots are another good sign, but they are hard to see unless you’re very close.
Let’s go fishing!
Capt. Ralph Allen runs the King Fisher Fleet of sightseeing and fishing charter boats located at Fishermen’s Village in Punta Gorda. He is an award-winning outdoor writer and photographer, and is a past president of the Florida Outdoor Writers Association. Contact him at 941-639-2628 or Captain@KingFisherFleet.com.