For some of the best coastal fishing in Alabama, anglers should start every fishing trip by going birdwatching.
It’s classic scene here on the coastal waters of Alabama.
A pair of anglers is using the oldest fish finders in the world. There are no electronics involved. No high-tech gear at all. Just anglers waiting and watching for the best eyes in the world to find feeding fish and tell the anglers where they should be fishing.
It usually doesn’t take long for the world’s best fish finders to indicate where the anglers should be fishing.
The attention of all predators, including the two predators in the boat, is drawn to a flock of diving, screaming, working birds—all crashing into the water’s surface.
The birds rise and then dive again and again in a noisy riot of bird activity. What can’t be seen from above the water but what is most definitely happening at the same time below the surface is a large school of fish eagerly feeding on baitfish and shrimp. The feeding frenzy above the surface is being duplicated below the surface.
It’s a desperate time to be small and in the water as the larger fish are carving up the shrimp and minnows.
The anglers approach the wild melee of birds and make long casts into the turmoil of hunger. And both anglers are immediately hooked up and fighting hard to bring in the large, feeding predator fish.
Both of the boat-bound predators are smiling and laughing and they seem to be having a lot of fun. Using the feathered fish finders has worked again. It always does.
A Classic Birdwatching Situation—Bull Reds on the Beaches
In the fall and winter, Alabama’s near-shore waters just off the beaches and in the passes of the Alabama bays are visited by schools of very large, very hungry, very aggressive bull redfish.
These large fish (most reds will be over 20 pounds) run in huge schools and will often turn the water golden bronze in color when they come to the surface to feed. It’s truly a magic time for anglers.
However, these schools of mega-reds can be anywhere along the coast, and locating the feeding reds can be difficult.
This is where the birds come to our rescue. Anglers can spot feeding flocks of birds for a long way, and then run at top speed and approach the feeding birds and the reds below them. A good pair of binoculars can help anglers see far-distant feeding birds.
Pelicans, gulls, and other types of birds will be diving on the pogies and other baitfish which the reds have driven to the surface in their feeding attacks. A large flock of diving and feeding pelicans working a bait school which is also being attacked from below by big redfish is a truly impressive sight.
It’s important to remember that even though these big schools of reds are devouring pogies and may seem unaware of the world around them, running a boat too close to the feeding reds will spook them. The school will suddenly break off the feeding attack and go deep.
It’s much better when working feeding birds over fish to keep a good distance away and make long casts to keep the fish, and the birds, on the feed.
When working fall and winter reds under birds, it’s a good idea to throw lures that are heavy and can be cast a long way, and lures that are easy to de-hook and get back to the action.
Large jigs—½ oz is a good size—with white or silver soft-plastic grub bodies are great bull red lures. And since they sink quickly, they are not nearly as likely to be taken by mistake by a feeding bird.
When to go Birdwatching
Our buddy Captain Yano Serra of Speck-Tackle-Lure Charters in Coden, Alabama uses the birds a lot in all conditions.
“The birds will work all year long,” he says. “I like fishing the birds on a falling tide, but the birds will work winter, spring, summer, and fall. It can be any time of day, too. When the fish are feeding on shrimp (and that happens all of the time), the birds will be working them, too. Here in the bays, the fish will be mostly specks and white trout under the birds.”
Captain Yano adds, “In the summertime, even during the Dog Days and crazy tides, the morning shrimp will fall out of the little bays and bayous, and the trout will find them and drive them to the top.
That’s when the birds will find them. Off the beaches in summer, there will be mixed schools of reds and Spanish mackerel working under diving birds. If anglers keep getting cut off by those sharp Spanish teeth, it may be necessary to use a short length of light wire leader. The eagerly-feeding bull reds won’t mind a wire leader at all.”
In fall, Captain Yano advises anglers to look early and late in the day, and be ready to run because the feeding birds and fish may be a long way off. Especially after rains and cool fronts start to move the shrimp out of the Delta and down into the open waters of Mobile Bay, anglers can find birds working the shrimp driven to the top by feeding trout.
“In winter, I look for big flocks of cormorants—big, black birds,” Yano says. “They are diving to feed on mullet minnows and baby catfish. The trout and reds will be feeding on the mullet minnows, too, but they’ll be deeper. When I see a bunch of cormorants, I like to slow-troll through the flock of birds, and bounce a 3/8 oz jig off the bottom right where the cormorants are diving.”
How to Fish the Birds
Whether an angler fishes under birds in the Mobile Bay system or off the beaches in the Gulf, there are a few keys to successful trips.
First, don’t get too close. Even though the fish may seem to be only aware of the bait they’re destroying, a noise will put them down.
“Get upwind of the flock of birds and the feeding fish,” Captain Yano says. “Stay as far away from the fish and birds as possible. If you spook the fish, the fish will drop back down to the bottom or leave the area.”
“Even though the feeding fish will hit just about any lure presented (top-water lures can be a real blast in these feeding frenzy conditions), so will the birds.”
Another important point to keep in mind when fishing the birds is that even though the feeding fish will hit just about any lure presented (top-water lures can be a real blast in these feeding frenzy conditions), so will the birds. Gulls, in particular, will dive and take a floating lure off the water. And it’s no fun trying to remove several treble hooks from a screaming, thrashing, biting and pooping bird. This is why sinking lures, like the heavy jigs mentioned earlier, are a better choice of lures when fishing the birds.
When the fish stop feeding, the birds will also start to leave.
However, don’t be too eager to run off to some other spot after the surface feeding stops. Again, look at the birds. If the flock of birds stops flying and diving and just sits on the water, staying in the area might be a good idea for anglers, too.
Very often when the birds are just sitting and waiting, the fish are still there, too. The fish may be waiting to drive the pogies or shrimp back to surface for another feeding party. A few long casts with a jig that is allowed to sink deeper may reward the angler with fish that would otherwise be missed after the feeding frenzy has stopped.
There are Fishing Birds, And There Are Lying Birds
The first thing that any angler who fishes the coastal waters of Alabama will notice is a lot of different kinds of shorebirds and water birds. Some are much better at indicating where fish are actively feeding than others.
One very common kind of diving water bird that lives on the Alabama coast is terns. These small, mostly white, sharp-billed birds work the water constantly. Captain Yano says, “We call these terns ‘Liar Birds.’ They’ll chase and work little tiny minnows that are not being chased by bigger fish.” Anglers who chase flocks of feeding terns may be wasting their time.
But those big white-and-grey gulls, that’s what we want.
Captain Yano explains. “I’m looking for big flocks of those big gulls. I’m looking for the gulls to be fighting and diving and screaming. I’m looking for lots of action. You may not actually see the fish feeding below the surface—they may be a foot or more below the surface—but they’ll hit anything you throw at them.”
No matter the season or water conditions, a flock of diving, screaming gulls is worth some attention. There’s a reason the birds are there, and that reason is usually that they are feeding. Where the birds feed, the fish feed. It’s pretty simple and effective.
The big brown pelicans which dive from high above the water and crash headfirst with big splashes are usually chasing pogies and other larger baitfish. Usually, trout won’t be found under working pelicans, but big bull reds will very often be feeding heavily below pelicans. Working a flock of diving pelicans just off the Alabama beaches can be very productive, especially for big reds.
The Moral of the Story
It’s nice to have a fully tricked-out fishing boat with lots of electronic fish-finding gear, but sometimes the best kind of fish-finding information comes from very old and totally low-tech sources.
Captain Yano laughs as he says, “Fishing the birds has saved my day lots of times. It doesn’t matter—clear water or muddy, hot or cold—the birds will work. I just watch in the distance. I’m always looking for birds.”
Important Contact Information:
Captain Yano Serra
Speck Tackle Lure .com