For the second year in a row, I departed a Key West marina, en route for the Marquesas, only to have my guide pull back on the throttle just a short run from our launch. In both cases – last January with Capt. Tom Rowland; this year with Capt. Rich Tudor – the spontaneous stoppage was well worth the slight delay. Why? Because of birds.
No doubt, the subtropical Key West habitat offers cozy digs for a variety of resident and transient birds from the herons wading shallow flats, to black skimmers and royal terns flocking around marinas, to the majestic white pelicans that winter around the nation's southernmost city.
However, one of the most welcome sites an angler can spot is a frenzied flock of sea gulls and least terns hovering close to the water as terrified baitfish flee the predators blowing holes in the surface. Throw in a handful of brown pelicans diving into the fracas and you know you have a full-blown feed occurring right in front of you.
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"In saltwater fishing, birds are one of the most obvious and consistent indicators of angling opportunity," Rowland Said. "Birds see extremely well and combined with an aerial view, they see baitfish that nothing else can.
"When a baitfish school is pushed to the surface, it is highly visible to them. Predator fish are usually pushing the baitfish to the surface, so for an angler, keeping a close eye on the horizon for any bird activity is a very wise thing to do."
Such was the case on both of my trips and this year the action popped up well within eyesight of our launch at the Pier House Caribbean Resort & Spa. As we idled toward the birds, the subsurface feeding activity seemed to race around a 50-square-yard area, but, as Tudor noted, sudden spikes in bird activity are like neon signs pointing to where the game has moved. That being said, fins usually outrun feathers, so predators occasionally gave birds the slip until the violent explosions of baitfish consumed near the salty breeze redirect everyone's attention.
Case in point, when Tudor suddenly motioned to the stern and said "There they are – behind the boat," I watched my buddy Alan McGuckin sling a Koppers Live Target Scaled Sardine toward the cannonball splashes and come tight on a hefty jack crevalle maybe three seconds after flipping the bail on his Quantum Smoke 30 spinning reel.
Flash back 12 months and I watched a nearly identical scenario occur a little farther west when a gang of bonita rounded up a school of baitfish in the Boca Grande Channel. Drifting with the wind, Rowland fired a blue/white jig right into the commotion and immediately connected with a silver speedster that gave him plenty of rod-bending entertainment before getting its picture taken.
Bonita, jacks and mackerel are the most common catches around inshore bird activity, but at times, you'll also find tarpon, cobia, sharks and even redfish joining the fun. Out in the deep blue, bird clusters often indicate packs of tuna, while spotting the solitary high fliers can be just as rewarding.
"Offshore anglers are always looking for bird activity," Rowland said. "In the Keys, finding a frigate bird diving on bait is like finding treasure. Dolphin, sailfish, marlin, wahoo or other predator fish are pushing the bait to the surface and are usually in the immediate area.
"In the backcountry, we look for other birds. The least tern, a small white bird, is my best indicator of what we call a 'shrimp hatch' or another phenomenon known as a 'guppy hatch.' These small birds have an incredible ability to sense where and when these hatches are going to happen and they can be found dipping and diving to get the small shrimp and fish that are available. Both of these situations are the best tarpon opportunities I know of."
Rowland also notes that when he's redfishing in Louisiana, he keeps constant watch for shore birds, like herons standing at the water's edge. These birds know that reds often chase baitfish right to the banks, where the forage minnows become easy targets for someone with long legs and a sharp beak.
In this and just about any other saltwater fishing scenario, play close attention to the birds you see. Get to know their behavior and don't ever pass up an opportunity to let them point you toward the fish.
"My best advice is always to be looking for bird activity," Rowland said. "Use binoculars, height (like the tuna tower) or your naked eye, but always be looking. Once you see some bird activity, it is usually worth a look even if it means deviating from your plan.
“Always have a jig or some sort of pitch bait ready to go at all times to take advantage of a situation like this because it can present itself quickly and vanish even quicker.”
For Key West fishing trips, visit www.saltwaterexperience.com.