There is no doubt that this autumn has been slow in coming. Balmy weather, infrequent cold fronts, a lack of frost and water temperatures still in the low 70’s this week all point to an extended fishing season this winter.
Also a bit behind schedule until now has been the arrival of migratory, fish-eating birds such as gulls and terns. A few such birds have slowly filtered in to Central Texas over the past two weeks to the point where Belton Lake now has a small, resident population that will continue to build over the next month.
These birds spend the warm months on large bodies of water well north of Texas and then move south in advance of ice-up in the northern latitudes of the U.S.
To survive, these birds must feed on small forage fish such as the threadfin shad found in our Central Texas reservoirs. Because shad are typically not found near the surface during the cool months, these birds rely on aggressive gamefish to push the bait near enough to the surface for them to swoop down and grab shad that have been wounded or killed by the gamefish beneath them.
Intentionally observing for the presence of such birds can be an angler’s pass to excellent fishing, and can help avoid the time-consuming chore of searching slowly over area after area using sonar.
Bird-assisted fishing is typically best from late November through the end of February. Although gulls and terns can certainly offer the fisherman a shortcut to good fishing, one still needs to understand what behaviors to look for in order to take full advantage of the potential such bird activity offers.
The best of the best is to search for large numbers (3-5 dozen) of gulls and/or terns circling over a small (less than an acre) patch of water with some individuals in the flock regularly diving down and making contact with the water.
This is a sure sign that abundant quantities of aggressive gamefish are driving shad to the surface.
Such was the scenario following the arrival of our last cold front. I was fishing Belton with Kevin Yuille and Bobby Gordon when, right at first light, a handful of the season’s first arriving gulls spotted white bass forcing shad to the surface out in open water. We moved into the area, used sonar to pinpoint the fish and commenced to catching them — 112 of them to be exact — all in a matter of four hours. The birds did not stay active this entire time, but they did help us get off to a good start and we took it from there.
A bit further down the activity scale would be fewer birds covering a larger, but still definable, area and only occasionally seeing birds diving down and coming in contact with the water.
This typically takes place just before a big feeding spree, or after a big feeding spree has occurred but is winding down. Fish will be less aggressive and more scattered.
An even lesser sign of activity exists when birds are simply sitting quietly in large groups out in open water, but are not flying about. This typically takes place after a big feeding spree has ended.
The birds will stay nearby, unless disturbed, waiting for the next feeding spree to take place some hours later.
There are also some bird-related scenarios to be avoided, as they indicate a lack of fish activity. One such scenario is finding birds lined up shoulder-to-shoulder on the shoreline at the water’s edge. These birds are resting and will not lead the angler to fish.
Birds flying in a straight line covering large expanses of water are also not helpful. These birds are searching for food, but have not yet found it.
Finally, birds gathered together in large groups repeatedly taking off and landing in short “hops” out in open water while making a noisy commotion are also not feeding. Rather, this is a social behavior engaged in as the group gathers and draws more birds into the flock before taking off on a migrating flight.
When birds lead the way to fish, the battle is still not over. One must find active fish within the area being patrolled by the birds using sonar, and will do well to choose a bait that matches the size and color of the forage fish being fed on in that locale.
Keeping a good set of optics on the boat is invaluable for this kind of fishing. Although many anglers opt for binoculars, I use a high-end Burris spotting scope with an adjustable range of magnification.
This monocular can be held and adjusted with one hand while my other hand is controlling the boat’s throttle or steering wheel.