Birds are the fisherman's eyes in the sky, by observing their behaviour they can lead you to fish before anybody else knows whats happening. This article will cover the types of birds found in the broadwater and seaway, their holding areas, what to look for and what to ignore.
There are 4 main types of birds in the seaway and broadwater . Terns, Seagulls, Cormorants and Pelicans. Of these 4 only one is of real interest to fisherman, that is the Tern.
The Common Tern is distinguishable by a sharp beak and a black head, grey wings and white body. Terns are the fisherman’s eyes in the sky, they can see fish feeding on surface from a long way off and send out scouts even further that will communicate with the main flock if a school of fish pops up and there are easy pickings to be had. Terns will also only eat small fish, so they won’t waste time picking up rubbish like seagulls do. Terns also have exceptional eyesight into the water, they are capable of tracking fish 3-4 metres under the water and often will do so until the fish push the bait up to the surface where the terns can make easy pickings. Giant Trevally, Yellowtail Kingfish, Bigeye Trevally, Tailor, Queenfish, Tuna, Dart and Australian Salmon are the main species that terns can track. Terns are in the broadwater and seaway year round.
Seagulls will also get involved in a feast, if there are big schools of baitfish around that are near the surface and easy to catch seagulls will be there, likewise if there is a big school of fish feeding for a few minutes seagulls will join in. Seagulls however will also spend alot of time eating rubbish around scum lines. They are worth keeping an eye on but generally if there are no terns about they are just eating rubbish.
Cormorants are large black birds with long necks, they are in the broadwater and seaway year round but will occasionally show up in flocks of hundreds of birds. Cormorants are superb fish hunters and do not need fish to push bait up to the surface as they are quite able to get down 10 metres under the water to catch fish themselves. When the large flocks arrive they spend most of their time pushing bait into the shallows, if you see this behaviour its best to ignore it, there usually isn’t any large fish around. Occasionally they will join in a big feast if fish are pushing bait up to the surface for a while, generally if cormorants join in the fish are hunting alot and there is alot of surface feeding so they abandon their normal method of feeding in favour of easy pickings.
Pelicans are the largest and slowest of the bird species in the broadwater but they have limited uses to the fisherman, they will get involved if the bait is thick and easy to catch and they will occasionally join in a feeding frenzy if it lasts for a while. Like the cormorant, an indicator for the level of fish feeding activity on the day.
So those are the 4 main species of birds to be aware of, the Tern is the most important and that is the one we will focus on for the rest of the article.
Terns have specific behaviour that will tell you what they are doing, the 5 main types are sipping, tracking, watching, dive bombing and hovering. I will go through each of these as being able to tell what they are doing is very important to being in the right place at the right time.
Sipping – Sipping bait is the term I use for Terns that are picking free swimming bait off the surface, usually this bait is only schooled up loosely and there are no fish hunting the bait underneath. You will see this behaviour more than any others in the seaway and broadwater. Generally it is a sign of plenty of bait around but not much else. Terns that are sipping fly low to the water and generally swoop in at a shallow angle to pick the bait off, think of it as like a wave action. At the top of the wave the tern is scouting for bait, once he see’s it he swoops in and grabs the bait at the bottom of the wave. The action is more horizontal than vertical. If I see terns sipping bait, I’ll have a quick look but generally won’t waste much time on them.
Tracking – Terns that are tracking large fish under the water will be flying along horizontally anywhere from 5-10 metres above the water with their heads pointed straight down into the water. The deeper the fish are the higher the terns will be, and conversely the closer the fish get to the surface the closer the terns will fly to the water.. I have followed terns that were obviously tracking fish for nearly a kilometre before the fish popped up to the surface. You can try and pre-empt this by getting in front of the terns and making a cast to intercept the fish below, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Once the terns start false dive bombing(they vertically dive towards the water but pull up at the last minute) you know the fish will be up in a matter of seconds so get within casting distance.
Dive Bombing & Hovering – Terns use vertical dive bombs to get bait that gets stunned or disorientated while fish are feeding on them. They will usually fly up 2-5 metres in the air, then vertically dive into the school of feeding fish. This vertical attack pattern is the surest sign of feeding fish that can be seen from quite a distance away. If the feeding is really thick they will hover half a meter above the fish and pick up bait as it gets disorientated.
The sentinels(watching) are terns located in strategic locations that are looking for any sign of fish feeding. As soon as the sentinels see any feeding fish they will communicate it to the rest of the flock and the mass of birds will take off at once and head towards the action. Its like a big neon sign saying "fish are over there ", but it is surprising how many fisherman ignore it. If the fish are not coming up for long you may get a number of false starts where the birds take off then circle around and land back on the bank/beacon. Watch them carefully when they take off to see if they are heading towards fish, if the flock breaks up some head off in one direction, others circle around and land then it was a false start. If they all take off and head in one direction then they are most likely heading for fish. Sentinel locations are as follows:
Birds are an important part of any savvy fisherman's arsenal of fish finding techniques, they are smart airborne hunters whose life depends on finding the food they eat so they are exceptionally good at it. They can show you where fish are feeding and be an early warning indicator of fish activity if only you take the trouble to watch them.