It’s something we read about time and time again: find the birds – find the fish. But what does it really mean, and what should we look for when we’re on the water? There are lots of different birds doing lots of different things, and it’s important to know which birds provide the cues we need in the multitude of situations in which we find ourselves on the water. It’s also important to consider where we are in terms of freshwater or saltwater, lakes or rivers, bays, estuaries, or offshore. The best way to approach the subject is to look to the birds themselves, as each one and their different behaviours can mean very different things.
Terns are a really good bird as far as fish indicators go. Part of the reason for this is that they love baitfish. They also have a brilliant ability to scan large areas looking for baitfish. Their eyesight must be pretty spot on. Terns in estuaries, bays and offshore (which are the locations you’ll generally see them) can be interpreted depending on their behaviour. If the terns are flying around solo and not looking interested, they’re not so useful. If the terns are hanging over one area, but not diving, it means there are baitfish present, but they are probably too deep for the terns to get to. Terns swooping in an area, but not diving, means they are interested, and the baitfish are getting closer to the surface, and are probably getting pushed up by fish. Terns diving frantically amongst busting up fish generally means there are fish present. If there’s one thing you remember from this post, it’s this: the higher the bird above the water, the deeper the fish. The lower they are, the shallower the fish. This applies to most of the really baitfish-crazy birds like terns, tuna birds, mutton birds, gannets, shearwaters and albatross.
Pelicans are an interesting one in that they rarely appear to be doing much at all. We usually notice them when they are sitting and preening their feathers, soaring high overhead or mooching about the shallows, occasionally dipping their beaks in to extract a tasty morsel. But the good thing about pelicans is that their very presence indicates that there is food nearby, and their favourite food is baitfish. As we know, any predatory fish will be looking for baitfish, so the presence of pelicans, while not always a direct indication of where fish are, always fills me with confidence as it means you are in the right general vicinity. I read once that you will never catch a mulloway where there are no pelicans, and I’m sure there’s a skerrick of truth in that statement. The pelicans generally won’t be too far from the baitfish, so focusing on the areas within cooee of them can be a good trick.
Kingfishers are undoubtedly one of the cooler birds getting around. Watching a kingfisher flitting around a bass stream is pretty great, and like all the other birds, means there is food in the vicinity. Bird food, as well as fish food.
Cormorants are a bird loved by few and despised by many. I’m not entirely sure how they get such a bad reputation, but perhaps it’s something to do with them eating baby trout in dams or taking the odd bait. They don’t deserve this resentment, as, like other waterbirds, they are excellent indicators of the presence of baitfish. The odd cormorant diving casually and resurfacing 10 or 15 metres away generally isn’t the best indicator, unless it comes up with a beak full of fish. But occasionally cormorants will form large schools and hunt together, meaning that there are large aggregations of baitfish. I’ve seen this in estuaries and freshwater lakes. It can be worth fishing near or under these feeding aggregations, as any opportunistic fish will often sit below the commotion to pick off scraps.
Gannets are one of my favourites. I mostly see them while out offshore or in coastal bays, but frequently see them diving off the back of the beach and out off the rocks. Gannets as indicators are pretty similar to terns in terms of their behaviour. There general presence indicates fish, but their behaviour tells you where the fish are. Diving gannets are probably one of the best indicators when offshore for the presence of hungry pelagics. When offshore, it’s worth constantly scanning the horizon. If you see birds, head in that direction. Remember: high birds, low fish. Low birds, high fish. Diving birds, surface fish. Gannets will also sit around on the water in large groups. This means they’re just chiling and waiting for things to happen, and is a good cue for you to do the same or change tactics until they’re on the wing.
Good for eating chips, sometimes an indicator of the presence of fish.
This is a bit of an unfinished blog and might be updated as more birds come to mind (and I have a few more photos). I hope some of the advice has been helpful. Generally, the message is that birds are fantastic indicators of fish, and can be used to great effect when fishing in all sorts of different situations. Keep your eyes peeled, and watch what the birds are doing. Sometimes you might be surprised about what you can learn.