I consider it an early Christmas present. Three Friday afternoons ago, a cold front blew into Central Texas. In an instant, the skies clouded up, the wind changed directions and the ambient temperature dropped nearly 20 degrees into the high 80s.
An atypically long-lasting low pressure system then entered our local weather scene and started an 11-day long rain which dropped anywhere from 4 to 9 inches of rain, depending on your locale. To a man who makes his living in the outdoors, the cool weather and the cloud cover were both welcome, but neither was as welcome as the migratory, fish-eating terns that also arrived in our area with that cold front.
Terns look like small seagulls, with grey topsides and white undersides; and they are wonderful fish-finding machines with incredible eyesight. Normally, we don’t see enough migratory, fish-eating birds to be beneficial to anglers until well into November or even early December. Currently, several flocks of 30-40 birds each have taken up residence on Belton Lake and are making a living snacking on small threadfin shad most every morning and evening.
Because terns do not submerge their bodies when they dive into the water after baitfish, the baitfish must be on or very near the surface to interest the terns. More often than not, when terns feed on Belton, they feed on shad that have been forced to the surface by gamefish attacking from below.
Because terns do not chew their food, but rather swallow it in one gulp, the shad they select must be fairly small. Thanks to the perfect timing of this year’s spring flooding in conjunction with the threadfin shad spawn, there was both ample food and cover to support growth of the young shad. This has resulted in a bumper crop of small shad lakewide, and this, in turn has kept the terns at Belton Lake.
For anglers, timing is critical. Of the 11 trips I have fished on Belton Lake since the cold front’s passage on Aug. 12, nearly all of the visible, aggressive white bass action has taken place in the first 70 minutes of daylight, and during the last 70 minutes of daylight.
As soon as the white bass and hybrid stripers begin to force shad to the surface, the terns key in on the commotion and begin congregating directly over top of the fish and diving repeatedly.
So what does all this mean to the angler? First, you will want to be on the water early and/or late in the day. Next, you’ll want to have optics onboard in the form of binoculars or, as I prefer, a monocular, to help you view beyond what your naked eye can observe. Next, you’ll want to approach these surface-feeding fish with caution, being careful to use your trolling motor to approach them, or at least avoid creating a wake if you must use your outboard motor.
Finally, choose small baits that match the young-of–the-year shad in shape, size, and color. Stay as far away from the fish as your casting ability will allow and make long cast into the fish.
All of this came together last Saturday for U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer Ray Behan and his family. Behan’s crew of six, including his wife, Gaby, his father, Steve, his daughter, Virginia, and his niece and nephew, Reese and Tyler Volk, joined me around 6:30 a.m.
As soon as it was light enough to see any distance given the cloud cover that existed that morning, we spotted terns flying and diving, as well as the fish driving shad to the surface below them. I positioned Ray, an experienced caster, up on the front deck, and positioned everyone else near the two downriggers mounted on the left and right gunwales near the rear of the boat.
I kept an eye on the birds and sonar and steered us near active groups of fish, close enough for Ray to reach them by casting. I set both downriggers at 9 to 12 feet beneath the surface, each equipped with a 2- or 3-armed umbrella rig and Pet Spoons. Ray picked off the fish on the surface, and the rest of the crew worked over the more numerous subsurface fish beneath us using the downriggers. By 11:10 a.m, the Behan-Volk party landed exactly 163 fish, thanks in great part to the terns leading the way to fish a majority of the morning.