Becoming a better fly-angler means learning not only how to cast, tie flies and fight fish but also how to interpret conditions and signs Mother Nature provides us.
Most anglers know that birds are good indicators of the presence of fish. When they dip, dive and hover over the water, it can mean that fish are on top. Birds can also tell us which direction bait and predatory fish are moving. But — they can tell us even more. Birds act differently when they are around different types of baitfish, and being able to distinguish these signs and react to them make you a more successful angler.
Along the mid-Atlantic during the fall, we can find baitballs and birds most days. There are at least four kinds of baits that birds like to key in on.
The first bait that starts its migration is what locals call “snot bait.” They are tiny, clear, slender minnows with black eyes. Many times you see false albacore and/or Spanish mackerel rolling through schools of snot bait with only a few birds or sometimes none at all. The birds you see on this baitfish are mainly gulls that tend to sit on the water and wait. Because these baitfish are so small, birds have a hard time catching them in their beaks. When fish are feeding on snot bait, anglers can find it difficult to catch fish too.
One- to three-inch anchovies attract clouds of gulls, terns and even pelicans. Anchovies this size make up the classic baitball. The tighter the baitball, the tighter the flock of birds. These can be small flocks of birds on smaller baitballs or great flocks working big shoals of anchovies. Albies pick at the edges, making the ball of bait and birds tighter. After slashing the outside of the ball, they will eventually blast through the ball itself. When Spanish mackerel and/or bluefish show up, they tend to crash through the ball and spread the bait over a larger area. The birds will be manic and spread out as well.