I was paying big bucks for a day of fishing with local guide Ebbie Rollins in a corner of the Bahamas where bonefish are said to be as thick as the doctor flies that were eating me alive.

Halfway through a fish-less morning, Ebbie suddenly stopped paddling and silently slid out of his kayak. He gestured for me to follow and we waded toward a featureless line of mangroves. Except for an osprey that was resting on an overhanging limb, the scrubby bank appeared to be identical to the miles of mangroves we had already paddled that day. Then I saw a pod of bonefish cruising in the ankle-deep water. I hooked one and spooked the rest.

When we stopped for lunch, I asked Ebbie how he knew to stop at that particular spot. “It was the bird,” the native Bahamian replied. “That’s the difference.” He explained that his years of experience had taught him that an osprey is a sure sign of fish nearby. Whether offshore or inshore, freshwater or salt, an experienced angler is also a knowledgeable birdwatcher.

osprey carries fish in its talons
They don’t call them bird eyes for nothing. | Feature photo: Tina Nord/Pexels

How to Use Birds to Your Fishing Advantage

Birds spot fish while soaring high above the water—some can even smell the fish below. Moreover, fish-birds know the patterns and habits of their prey better than any fisherman.

My bonefish experience is just one example of an angler using birds to direct him to his finned quarry. Seabirds swirling over the water often denote bait and fish in the area. Many times, I’ve paddled after frigate birds to find rolling tarpon and cruising jacks. Diving gannets or seagulls point to large bait and big gamefish like striped bass and red drum. Gulls diving into the drink just about anywhere herald the presence of gamefish.

What many anglers don’t realize is that gulls and terns will rest on the surface while waiting for the action to start. A few casts around bobbing sea birds can often lead to a hook-up. Speckled trout anglers often cast to sitting gulls that are patiently following schools of feeding fish.

Freshwater bass anglers are smart to target areas where they see red-winged blackbird’s flitting from reed to reed. No one knows why bass hang around blackbirds, but some anglers guess that the fish and birds both feed on the same insects.

When the fish bite back

Occasionally, fish turn the tables on their feathered tattletales. A buddy of mine once saw a large trout suck a small bird right off of a branch. Several companies even produce lures that look like birds.

cormorant with a large fish in its beak
This cormorant got quite a catch. | Photo: Mathew Schwartz/Unsplash

One of the most unusual fisherman-bird relationships I’ve run across comes from the world of catfishing. A guest on my weekly radio show mentioned what he calls, the plops. I asked him to elaborate. “Y’all ever see cormorants roosting in dead trees by the water?” he asked in a thick Texas drawl, “Well, they eat shad and other fish and what their bodies don’t use they shit out.”

He claimed that the bird poop acts as chum to attract baitfish. Then the catfish come in to eat the baitfish. Next time I’m catfishing, I’m going to watch for roosting cormorants, but there’s no way I’m going to try to match that fowl bait.

Dan Armitage is a freelance outdoor writer and the syndicated radio show host of Ohio’s Buckeye Sportsman with Dan Armitage.

Cover of the Early Summer 2012 issue of Kayak Angler MagazineThis article was first published in the Early Summer 2012 issue of Kayak Angler Magazine. Subscribe to Kayak Angler Magazine’s print and digital editions, or browse the archives.

They don’t call them bird eyes for nothing. | Feature photo: Tina Nord/Pexels




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