The terns were in tight to the beach, so I staked out my surf fishing rod and grabbed my fly rod. I tied on a small sand eel fly, made a cast, and hooked up. Magic? Nope. Terns feed on small bait fish and while there were silversides, bay anchovies, and glass minnows around I saw a sand eel hanging from one tern’s beak. Study your birds and you’ll know what bait is in the water.
Matching Birds with Bait Fish
Terns: Terns hit small baits, mostly silversides, bay anchovies, and sand eels. When they hover close to the water’s surface they’re on a big pod of bait fish, with predators underneath. If they wing it high, they’re looking for food.
Gulls: Herring gulls feed on herring, but they also love mackerel. When a flock of Herring gulls work together there is probably a school of big fish underneath the bait. Black-backed gulls are unreliable. They are aggressive birds that basically eat anything smaller than them. Their value to surf fishing anglers is similar to black-headed Laughing Gulls: they love crustaceans, and in particular crabs.
Shearwaters: Shearwaters feast on squid, but also follow schools of mackerel and menhaden. They usually are around when there are Storm Petrels, skimmer birds that tiptoe their way across the water’s surface in search of plankton. Petrels follow bigger bait like squid and mackerel that feed on the silversides and anchovies that feed on the plankton.
Gannets: Gannets are plunge-divers that soar to 50-70 feet heights. When they get a clear view of their favorite food, the herring, they drop from the sky and crash into the water, with air sacks cushioning their impact. Gannets use their wings to swim to bait fish which they either inhale or impale with their long, pointed beaks. When you see a flock of them diving along a beach you’re in for a treat.
The Key to Surf Fishing Success
There are a lot of birds in different areas, from the albatross to the pelican to blue herons and the like. Study these birds and what they eat and you’ll know what bait is in the water. Then you’ll pick the right saltwater lure or use a dropper rig and hammer the fish.