Seabirds For Speckled Trout
September 30, 2010
This seatrout action is strictly for the birds: If you spot gulls, terns or pelicans feeding, head straight for them!
Finding gulls feeding on the Mississippi Sound is the ticket to boating some good trout.
Photo by Polly Dean.
The sun had risen just enough to expose its entire circular shape on the horizon -- a perfectly round ball of glowing orange. Cruising across the Mississippi Sound, its water slick as a pane of glass, conditions were ideal. Birds of all types were on the move, flying leisurely about. The mix included gulls, terns, and pelicans, each on a mission to locate their specific morning snack.
Running along a stretch of marsh grass that tailed off into a large shallow cove, something caught my eye. At first it seemed to be a flicker of white here and there, but as we neared, it was obvious that our morning was starting out on a high note. On further inspection, we saw that what we were speeding toward was a thick concentration of gulls whose aerial antics made it easy to see that they were in a feeding frenzy.
Knowing the water under the frantic birds to be less than 3 feet in depth, we made a point of shutting the engine down while 50 yards out from the surface activity and proceeding to the action with the trolling motor. Standing just behind me were Buck Cunningham and John Hammett, both armed with 12-pound-test spinning gear rigged with popping corks and soft-plastic minnow imitations.
When just within casting distance, we saw revealed on the water's surface shrimp jumping frantically in all directions. As they skittered across the surface, hungry gulls from above swooped down to quickly snatch the doomed crustaceans as they fled. However, the cause of this surface melee was an enormous school of speckled trout that, traveling en masse, was scavenging its way across the bottom, chasing up any bait that crossed its path. Swirls and strikes on the surface made it clear that the gulls were not the only ones devouring the shrimp.
No sooner had the two anglers' rigs hit the surface than the bobbers plunged or took off horizontally across the water. At this point there wasn't much need to pop the corks to attract hungry fish. As a matter a fact, the bright chartreuse-hued corks were periodically attracting strikes; by the end of this day, the new corks looked as if they'd gone through a grinder -- worn pretty much down to the white Styrofoam underneath the paint and full of puncture holes from the trout's fang-like teeth.
The action remained steady for quite some time; cast after cast, Cunningham and Hammett set the hook on what seemed to be starving speckled trout. As the school worked its way closer to the shoreline on the edge of some thick subsurface grassbeds, an aerial act began took the watery stage: Having homed in on schools of anchovies spawning in the thick grass, the fish grew so excited in their feasting that, in pursuit of the minnows, many somersaulted into the air as if they were rainbow trout.
Once over the thick grass, we switched to topwater baits, and exceptional surface action followed. Trout eagerly chased MirrOlure Top-Dogs skittered across the surface. Swirls were apparent beneath the moving lures, followed by the smack of a bigger trout. The anglers were kept busy with specks coming to the surface and shaking their heads wildly to rattle the lures' tandem treble hooks.
If not for the aid of the gulls, this incredible fishing action might not have occurred. It was a classic example of how birds can be used as your "eyes in the sky." All along the Mississippi coast, many anglers are well aware of the potential of "bird fishing" -- and the smart ones take every advantage of the situation.
KNOW YOUR BIRDS
When it comes to fishing the birds for speckled trout -- especially in our region -- three categories of birds are the ones to look for. These can generally be grouped as gulls, terns, and pelicans. Gulls are by far the overall best bet for locating speckled trout, and are the first to take advantage of shrimp being chased to the surface.
On average, gulls are much larger than are terns -- and their eyesight is absolutely incredible. When they spot any surface action, it doesn't take long for masses of these birds to appear seemingly out of nowhere. Large flocks of hovering, diving gulls should always be checked out -- but even a few gulls working together can lead to plenty of fish-catching action.
Any gulls seen sitting on the water should be checked out, too. More often than not, gulls sitting on the water are resting right on top of a school of bait. Time after time I've witnessed boats making the mistake of passing up sitting birds, which should be treated the same as diving birds. Approach slowly, or just stick around a few minutes within sight, to see if trout chase the bait back to the surface; if they do, that'll trigger the gulls to head back into the air. Accordingly, you should always keep a good pair of binoculars on the boat, and use them for scanning the horizon for white clouds of birds.
Terns can be indicators of trout action, too. However, they generally feed on small minnows and aren't of as much use as the heavier-bodied gulls for finding trout. Yet at times, active flocks of terns are over trout, so it's wise to check them out.
Terns often target masses of red minnows, on which trout also feed. A few species of tern that are close to a gull's size join in the flurries of shrimp-catching.
Don't overlook the large pelicans. These big-bodied birds can be guides to baitfish, especially larger minnows like mullet and menhaden. They often feed in conjunction with gulls. Especially when seen working in the back of coves and along shorelines, pelicans should always be checked out.
As for tackle, any good-quality 12-pound-test spinning or baitcasting gear that casts well will do. Soft-plastic baits such as Cocahoe Minnows, Norton Shad, Deadly Dudleys, Salt Water Assassins, D.O.A. Shrimp, and various scented Gulp! baits also work effectively. They can be fished singly, or two in tandem, and a single bait works well under a popping or clacking cork. Especially if the water is clear, it's always good to go with a fluorocarbon leader such as Seaguar 25- or 30-pound-test.
Fish these softies on a 1/8- or 1/4-ounce jighead -- but if birds are working over deep water, try rigging them on a heavier jig of 1/2 to 3/4 ounce. At these times, bigger fish may be holding below the surface action, and the extra weight will get the bait down quickly through the smaller fish above and into the face of bigger trout closer to the bottom.
Slow-sink crankbaits such as Rat-L-Traps, MirrOlures and Yo-Zuri Crystal Vibes work well in the bird actio
n, too. Topwater lures can be quite productive, and extremely exciting to fish, when tossed into schools of feasting trout; almost any surface baits -- MirrOlure Top-Dogs or She Dogs, Zara Spooks or Pups, and Yo-Zuri Banana Boats, for instance -- will draw strikes.
As good as these baits can be, many anglers stick to the single-hook soft plastics, because fish can be unhooked faster, easier, and much more safely. Besides, a boatload of anglers tossing crankbaits hurriedly into a school of hot-biting trout will put a lot of treble hooks in the air, which can lead to a trip to the emergency room for somebody.
Don't forget to have some spoons along. These shiny and erratic swimming lures possess a wobbly action that's deadly under the birds. Tried-and-true brands such as Mr. Champs or Johnson Sprites in either a silver- or gold-finish are always dependable hardware, and adding a bucktail or reflective tab near the hook makes them even more alluring to trout.
METHODS OF APPROACH
Depending on the size of your boat, its setup, and the distance from the shoreline that the birds are working, several different approaches may be possible. First, let's suppose that your boat has a relatively shallow draft and is equipped with an electric trolling motor. If so, you're ready to take on birds working the shallows or in the open water.
Once birds are located -- and if your trolling motor's all charged up -- shut down the big motor and ease into casting distance of the action. It's easy to get excited and run right up to them, but approaching from 40 or 50 yards under the power of the trolling motor generally works best.
Next, get just within casting distance of the outer edge of the frenzied fish. It's always tempting to pull the lure across the middle of the school, but fighting a panicked trout through the school can spook them all, so keep your lure aimed toward the outer edge of the action and pick fish off the perimeter. Also, study the movement of the fish and gulls; for best results don't get in front of their path. Following from behind and casting from a safe distance can keep you in the fish longer and the birds in the air for an extended period of time.
Anglers not equipped with a trolling motor can use other tactics. One basic method: Cut the motor off upwind of the birds and drift back to them. Although this isn't the most accurate way to get within casting range, especially in a heavy wind, with a little practice you can get it to work for you. Also, if you get close to the fish and gulls it's often possible to ease down the anchor to slow your drift or to hold you permanently close enough to the school to land your share before they move off again. With a little luck, you'll be able to repeat the process after the gulls move away.
On occasion, both birds and speckled trout show up working just off the shoreline, and when this occurs, another tactic is possible. Numerous times I've beached the boat and then taken to my feet in an effort to approach the trout with the utmost stealth.
Grab a rod or two and a pocketful of lures or jigs and hit the beach on foot. Try to bypass the action and cut the fish off as they move down the beach. A mess of fish can be quickly caught and simply tossed on the beach before the activity slows and birds and fish move off. The method's considerable effectiveness apart, it's a lot of fun to trot down the beach, chasing after the activity. Just be sure your boat is properly anchored and won't be stranded by a falling tide while you are gone.
Of course, if birds are in shallow water with a bottom firm enough for wading, wade-fishing is another option. Like shore-fishing, wade-fishing can put you right in the middle of the feasting trout and gulls. Besides your standard fishing tackle, a landing net and floating fish basket are needed to make this version of the sport easier.
Once you're waist-deep in summer-warm waters, the stealth factor is in your favor again, and by slowly walking within casting range of the birds and surface-feeding trout, it's easy to pick off and follow trout as they move across the shallows. Take note: Bird fishing often correlates with "fish slicks" -- oily sheens that pop up to the surface after fish regurgitate their stomach contents or ravage a school of baitfish.
During the summer months, anglers cruising about can run across flocks of gulls anywhere in the Mississippi Sound. From state line to state line, the coast encompasses a 60-mile stretch of water from the Pearl River at the Louisiana state line to the Alabama border at South Rigolets Island.
Gulls can appear over the sound's deeper waters. However, gulls holding over speckled trout are likely to be located closer to the shoreline in shallows of 6 to 8 feet of water.
Areas in which gulls and trout are known to appear quite often: off the mouth of Cumbest Bayou and the Grand Batture Bar south of Moss Point; the beaches to the east and west of the mouth of the East Pascagoula River; off the mouth of the West Pascagoula River, especially the along massive shallow water oyster bars in Pascagoula Bay; and anywhere off the beaches from Graveline Bayou running down to Bellefontaine Beach off Ocean Springs.
Other areas where birds are known to appear at times during the summer months: between the shoreline and Ocean Springs Channel from the mouth of the Ocean Springs Small Craft Harbor running east to the Gulf Park Estates Pier; the large shoal area off the east end of Deer Island, as well as the outer beach of Deer Island at Biloxi; and anywhere along the beach front from Bayou Caddy in Bay St. Louis westerly to Heron Bay.
Bottom line: Seabirds in general and gulls in particular are anglers' eyes in the sky, and once they're spotted, it's generally a wise move to check them out; you might just find some hot speckled trout fishing beneath them. So don't pass up what the birds have to show you.