The wet, cold, gray clouds that accompanied this week’s protracted cold snap had a silver lining.
That nasty weather pushed migrating shore birds south for the winter and brought some of them here to Central Texas, where they’ll stay for several months before departing, typically in March.
When their behaviors are correctly interpreted, fish-eating birds like gulls, terns, loons, grebes and cormorants, can point anglers to the exact location where gamefish are feeding on forage fish, namely threadfin shad.
When gamefish begin feeding by positioning themselves beneath schools of shad, the action typically moves upward in the water column toward the surface. The light at the surface makes silhouetting the bait possible. Once the bait is seen, the increased light just beneath the surface (compared to the much more dim conditions at depth) make sight-feeding on that bait much easier.
When gamefish feed at or near the surface, dead and wounded baitfish wind up there as well. Once there, they become easy targets for the sharp-sighted birds to prey upon.
Anglers who keep a trained eye out for a flurry of bird activity will be handsomely rewarded. Such was the case for a number of anglers this week on Belton Lake.
On Nov. 4, Angela Smith and Tearanie Hoyle of Killeen landed 150 fish during a half-day morning trip. Our first productive stop of the trip came when we spotted two cormorants feeding at the mouth of a cove. Although the cormorants, which are very skittish, flew off, sonar revealed the abundant bait they were feeding on in about 36 feet of water, as well as equally abundant white bass, largemouth bass and hybrid striped bass.
Then, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, gulls pointed the way to fishing action right at sunrise.
As gamefish forced shad to the surface and then chased them horizontally just under the surface, the birds keyed in on the commotion and about two dozen of them took turns maneuvering into the windand timing their beak-dipping perfectly so as to snatch 3- to 3½-inch long shad from out of the waves.
Angler Clay Lohse of Abilene landed 105 fish Wednesday. Belton couple Dave and Stephanie Covington fished their way to an 82-fish outing on Thursday, including a pair of hybrid stripers going right at four pounds.
On Friday, Steve Niemeier of Temple and his 12-year- old grandson, Caleb Fowler of Belton, landed another 107 fish. Helpful bird activity led the way to the first fish caught on each of these outings.
Simply finding fish-eating birds is no guarantee for catching fish. Interpreting the birds’ behavior is key.
The most productive scenario is to search for large numbers of gulls and/or terns (3-5 dozen) circling over a small (less than 1 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.
Sighting fewer birds and/or seeing those birds patrolling larger areas will still lead to fish, but some reliance on sonar to “close the deal” will be necessary.
Resting birds sighted on the water’s surface is a sign that you have arrived too late, however, there may be a resurgence of action in that area later in the day (often in the last two hours before sunset). The birds may also feed around the same time the following day, especially if the weather is stable from one day to the next.
A quality, waterproof and fogproof spotting scope or pair of binoculars is a tremendous aid in spotting birds. I use a 12-by-50mm spotting scope made by Eyeskey and keep it on the console so it is handy at all times at this time of year.
Remember, for you and me, fishing is for enjoyment; for these birds, catching fish is a matter of life and death. These birds must eat fish regularly or perish, so when they patrol, find and feed, their behaviors are worth sitting up and taking note of. Once you learn to interpret these birds’ behaviors, you too will find them quite reliable and infinitely more efficient than even state-of- the-art sonar equipment.