Confessions of a Bird Watcher

This is the month for Barataria Bay anglers to bring their binoculars and fish where the action is.

“A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” Ancient proverb

If a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, what is a Bush at hand worth under the birds?

That’s what I was aiming to find out when I asked Capt. Papa Joe Bush (504-689-3728) to take me out for some fishing action under the birds.

Bush says flocks of sea gulls start showing up in the Lafitte area every spring everywhere from Bay L’Ours to Hackberry and Barataria Bay, and all points in between. It’s an annual occurrence, as regular as a Swiss clock. The shrimp show up, and the fish that eat them show up, and anglers show up to catch the fish, and the birds show up to show us where to cast. It’s a joint effort, and the winners are the birds and the savvy anglers who know how to exploit them.

Using birds to find fish is an ancient practice, going back in many societies for well over a thousand years. Somewhere way back in ancient Japan and China, ingenious anglers trained cormorants to dive and retrieve fish from their rivers. Imagine going fishing without any tackle of any kind whatsoever. All they took out in the boat were their birds. Their trainers placed metal rings around their necks so the birds couldn’t swallow the fish they caught, and small ropes around their legs ensured they wouldn’t fly away.

Whenever the birds brought a fish back to their owner’s boat, he would reward them with some goodie they could swallow and a pat on the head, like you’d pat a dog. It’s an old and slowly dying practice, but one still found in many parts of rural China and Japan.

The point being, birds and anglers have a long history of cooperation in locating fish. It’s a winning combination for anglers because these birds have incredible vision and see things you and I miss. They also get a “bird’s eye view” of all the action from high above it, and when they see schools of fish crashing through swarms of shrimp, you can be sure they’re hovering over that action just waiting for the opportunity to snatch a shrimp.

Many anglers pass up the birds, dismissing everything under them as too small to bother with, but according to Bush, that can be a mistake.

“We often catch some very nice-sized fish, up in the 1- to 2-pound range, under the birds,” Bush said. “Naturally, you will catch a lot of smaller fish, that’s part of the package. You have to expect you’ll toss a lot of what you catch back. You might keep one fish out of three, or one out of four, and that’s not too bad. If you’re only keeping one out of eight or 10, pull up and look for another flock to fish under.

“Some flocks may be over all undersized fish, and another flock just 50 yards away might be over 2-pound trout. You never know until you try.”

Bush says most of the birds right now are hunting shrimp over schools of trout. But as the month wears on, some of the schools under the birds will be sail-cats.

“If you catch catfish under the birds, move,” he said.

The attraction

I asked Bush what is the attraction of fishing under the birds as opposed to hunting bigger fish.

“The attraction is fast action, which is always a lot of fun,” he said. “The bite under the birds can be instantaneous and frenzied. It’s a blast to have everybody on board catching one fish after another. A lot of times, just as soon as your bait hits the water your cork disappears, and you have another fish on. You’re likely to have throwbacks, but you’re going t o catch a bunch of keepers, too. It’s just a lot of fun, and the fish you catch are the best-eating size.

“The attraction also is, when you see those flocks of birds diving, it’s almost guaranteed fish in the box. I qualify this statement with almost, because sometimes all the trout will be too small, and sometimes it could be sail-cats under the birds. But almost all the time, you’ll put some trout in the box under the birds.

“Bird fishing is also a great way to introduce somebody to fishing. Some people think of fishing as a long, boring process of watching a cork all day long, and they think actually catching a fish is rare. But you put them under a flock of feeding birds, and they get into non-stop action. They are thrilled, and maybe hooked for life.”

Confessions of a bird watcher

I can ditto Bush’s sentiments. I have to admit I like to chase the birds, often to the frustration of my fellow anglers. When I’m at the helm, I admit I can be distracted from my game plan by a diving flock of birds. It can be a real dilemma, which I’ll try to explain.

When I take a group of buddies out for a trip, we usually formulate a game plan. We consider the wind speed and direction, the tide, the time of year and overall weather conditions, and then we decide where to go. Almost always our target is speckled trout, and naturally, the bigger the trout the better.

We know that the best trout bite is usually early, especially if you love that topwater action, which dictates an early start in order to jump through that window of opportunity.

That’s when temptation strikes. I’ll be headed to our target destination, when a flock of diving gulls will catch the corner of my eye. I might not even have the birds on my mind, but once I see them, and see them crashing the surface in a frenzied hunt for shrimp, I know the trout are there. I know schools of specks are swarming right under those birds devouring anything in their path. And I know that if I stop and toss plastics into that frenzy, I’ll catch fish.

Then I think, “Why run all the way out there to our planned destination when we don’t even know for sure we’ll catch a single fish, and when we could possibly load up right here under the birds?”

You see? It’s a real dilemma. If I detour to fish the birds, it eats away our precious time and effectively shuts down our carefully crafted game plan. If we catch a lot of fish under the birds, nobody really complains. But if the birds don’t pan out, and sometimes they don’t, then I get the blame for a bum trip, and perhaps rightfully so. Oh, we might still eke out a few fish here and there, but that precious early bite is gone.

I admit, I’m like an addict. I see the birds, I want to fish there. I’m drawn to flocks of diving gulls like moths are drawn to a flame. And like an addict, I feel the crushing emotional “downer” when I’ve spent so much time sneaking up on the birds, only to have them scatter to the four winds when I get close, and find nothing underneath them but water and bird droppings. What is a bird watcher to do?

Bush’s tips for bird addicts

1. If your game plan is bigger trout on the beaches, stick to it. You have to use that short early morning window of opportunity on the beaches, especially if topwater fishing is in your plans. Pass up the birds. Don’t look at all the dive bombing, splashing, crashing, screeching frenzy. Don’t think about what might be under them. Keep your focus, stick to your game plan, and when the early morning topwater bite is over, you can always come back and look for the birds. (That doesn’t mean the birds will still be there. Maybe you’ll strike out on the beaches and then the birds will all be gone and all the smart guys who stopped early and fished under the birds are already back at the dock with their limits. But don’t consider that. Push such thoughts out of your mind. Tell yourself, “I am not an addict.”)

2. If your game plan is to fish the birds, totally ignore No. 1.

3. Head south. Point your bow anywhere from the bottom end of Little Lake, Bay L’Ours, Plum Point, Coffee Bay, Ryan’s Point, Black Shell Bay, Red Eye, Hackberry Bay and Barataria Bay — and look for birds. Bring binoculars.

4. Preferably, you want to find birds diving, hovering and working the surface. Those birds are over a feeding frenzy, and fish just below the surface are tearing up the shrimp. However, many times you’ll also find trout under birds that are just sitting on the water. In those cases, the trout aren’t chasing the shrimp up toward the surface, but the fish and shrimp might still be there. Maybe your lure fished ever so enticingly under a cork just might crank up the action again. It’s worth a try if you don’t see actively working birds.

5. Look for gulls. Gulls are the larger sea birds (no, not pelicans) — gray wings, white chest, black head, very distinctive, good-looking birds. Not at all like those ugly, lying, deceiving terns. Ignore the terns. Those little devils will whirl and dive and splash and crash and make you think there’s a thousand trout under them. But they lie. There is nothing at all under them. Nobody knows why they dive at nothing like that. Probably they are crazy.

6. Sneak in quietly. “The dumbest thing I see anglers do is to roar right up into a flock of birds and then shut the motor down and expect to catch fish,” Bush said. “They scatter the trout, the shrimp and the birds long before they even get close. And that’s all she wrote for that school of fish, because they’ve scattered in all directions. There may be a boat or two or even three fishing a flock of birds, with everybody catching fish until some knucklehead roars in a pulls a stunt like that.”

So make as quiet an approach as possible. Shut down the outboard well away from the flock so as not to spook the trout feeding under them. Then sneak in with your trolling motor.

7. Approach from upcurrent so you can cut the motor and drift toward them.

8. Try not to get right in the middle of the flock. The best tactic is to try to stay with the trout action as long as possible, so you don’t want to spook the fish. Fish the fringes of the action, and peck away at the trout. Try to keep up with the flow of action using your trolling motor. Sometimes they’ll take off and disappear no matter how careful you are, but other times, you can stay with them for quite a while, and really put some fish in the boat.

9. Fish friendly. You can fish under the same flock someone else is fishing if you do so quietly and considerately. And if someone quietly slides along the action you’re fishing, the same holds true. We’re all out to have a good time and catch some fish, and a little consideration of your fellow anglers goes a long way.

10. The fish often remain even after the birds fly away. You and your boat often spook the birds and move them off from the action that is still raging under the surface. Keep fishing until the bite ends, then look for more birds.


And for the record, we found out what a Bush would do under the birds. Despite horrible winds and muddy water, Bush found several flocks of gulls working the surface and we managed a very respectable catch in a short time.

Capt. Papa Joe Bush can be reached at 504-689-3728.

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About Rusty Tardo 359 Articles
Rusty Tardo grew up in St. Bernard fishing the waters of Delacroix, Hopedale and Shell Beach. He and his wife, Diane, have been married over 40 years and live in Kenner.

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