There are many instruments that can help fishermen locate their quarry: electronic plotters, silent-trolling motors, radar, side-scan sonar, even underwater video cameras.
When it comes to finding near-shore species, however, some of the best come neither from a store nor with a price tag: birds.
Learning how to read what birds tell you can be a huge benefit when pursuing a wide variety of species.
Most often, they can assist in finding baitfish.
Virtually every morning during the spring and fall, we head out in search of scaled sardines before beginning to fish. We start in spots that historically have been good bait producers such as Howard Park near Tarpon Springs, the southeast end of Anclote Key and the grass flat just north of the Hudson Channel.
There, the first thing we look for are terns and pelicans. Even if they are not diving into the water, where they are hovering or circling often yields clues as to the whereabouts of baitfish.
The high dive
The types of dives pelicans make offer a great deal of information as to what is below the surface.
When they drop from high above the water and vanish from sight momentarily, they are going deep. This is a sure-fire indication there is baitfish well below the surface. The champion high-diver is the gannet. These large, powerful birds dive from very high andshoot down as far as 20 feet to catch their prey.
When you are offshore fishing, always check out a group of high-diving birds. On many occasions, they have steered us to a concentration of deep bait surrounded by kingfish.
When marine birds make short or shallow dives, it indicates the bait is near the surface and relatively easy to catch.
Birds such as pelicans, terns and even gulls merely plop onto the surface and snag what they are after. This is common when baitfish are densely packed and is typical of glass minnows, juvenile threadfin herring and scaled sardines.
Indications of bait size
Another clue a diving pelican offers is the size of the baitfish below.
If he comes up empty more often than not, odds are he is after large baitfish, or even mullet or ladyfish, and what's there is not big enough to make it worth continued efforts. It takes only a single 2-pound mullet to satisfy the hunger of most pelicans, so they will keep trying.
Conversely, when you see pelicans holding their mouths down in the water after diving, it indicates the baitfish are very small. This is a way of removing water and minnows from their mouth.
In most cases, such diving will not steer you toward bait big enough to put on a hook, but there could be gamefish hanging around the area.
Ideally, pelicans will dive, tilt their beaks skyward and swallow fish on a regular basis. This shows the bait is a decent size and fairly thick.
Pointing out gamefish
Our avian friends point out not only bait, but big fish as well.
When we are targeting spotted sea trout on shallow grass flats, we always check out the areas with osprey working them. These handsome birds of prey have the best view of the flats and know exactly where the fish are.
By setting up a drift into the area where the osprey are visible, it is common to start catching big trout just as you pass below the birds. At times, they will be after mullet, but soft-skinned trout are one of their favorites.
They also will grab redfish and snook. On rare occasions, I have even seen them carrying flounder and stingrays.
I once saw an osprey grab something a little too big for it, which started an epic back-and forth battle as the fish pulled the bird, the bird pulled the fish and the bird gave up and released its grasp.
Another situation birds help find big fish is when they eat the scraps from a feeding frenzy. When fish such as mackerel, bonito and bluefish surround a pod of bait, the resulting melee provides opportunities for easy meals for all kinds of birds.
They essentially will mark the location of the bait pod, making it easy to relocate after you drift off of the fighting fish.
Next time you are out, spend a little time observing the local birds' mannerisms. The more you know about them, the more they will help you find the fish you are looking for.
Ed Walker charters out of Tarpon Springs. Call (727) 944-3474 or e-mail email@example.com.