Bird Watching

Published in the July 2009 Issue July 2009

I was paying big bucks for a day with the flats fishing guide, and had flown better than a thousand miles to get to the corner of the Bahamas where bonefish are said to be thick as the doctor flies that had painfully punctured my skin as we poled silently along edges of mangroves in search of the elusive "grey ghost."

The swishing sound of Bonefish Joe's push pole broken only by a curse and a slap as yet another deerfly-sized bug chomped through Supplex to get at my blood, I stood steady as a statue on the deck of the sleek skiff, fly rod in hand, trying to beat the eagle eyes of my guide to spot the first fish.

Half a morning later, when neither set of eyes had yet to see a bonefish, barefooted Joe suddenly hopped down from his platform atop the outboard and announced that we were moving.

Some 200 yards up the fringe of mangroves, at a spot that looked no different that the thousand or so yards we had already covered, we started poling and fishing again under the watchful eye of an osprey perched in one of the low-growing trees. Less than a minute passed before Joe whispered that fish were approaching from 10 o'clock at 40 yards. Casting slightly to the left of where the boat was pointed, my bead-eyed fly sank to what I thought was bottom-when the guide said "strip fast!" and the "bottom" took off toward Africa throwing a rooster tail of water as it charged across the ankle-deep grass flat.

We hooked several fish in the immediate area, landing two, before the action subsided.

When we stopped for lunch, I asked my guide how he knew to move, and to where, since everything above and below the water appeared to be identical to the fishless areas we had cruised all morning.

"'Was de bird, mon," Joe replied. "Dat de diff'rence."

He explained that he had used the osprey to show him where the fish were. Joe told me that flats guides have learned that ospreys hang out in the vicinity of fish activity, including bonefish, and provide valuable beacons for fishermen. I have to admit, learning that the famous fishing guide was using birds to show us where the fish were took some of the mystery out of the classical hunt for the elusive bonefish, but it wasn't the first time I had heard of birds being used to locate prime angling areas.

The Bahamas bonefish experience was just another example of ways I have witnessed over the years our feathered friends assisting fishermen. On assignment in the Florida Keys for PDB magazine in April, I was trolling about 12 miles offshore testing a Starcraft center console deck boat. Hoping to hook into tuna, dolphin or sailfish, we were not having any luck until I spotted a frigate bird circling high overhead to our south. Also known as "fish birds" because they often follow schools of baitfish waiting for the prey to swim shallow enough to feed on from above, by the time we got to the frigate it had been joined by gulls and terns that began diving into a patch of water. Kicked to a froth by panicky baitfish being attacked by birds from above and gamefish from below, by trolling our lures just through the watery mass we took tuna on practically every pass.

"Following the birds" is a popular practice among saltwater anglers everywhere, and it's a tactic I've used fishing in freshwater, where gulls are often seen diving into the water. Casting or trolling lures the size of the local baitfish into the area under the birds, we usually catch white bass, but sometimes crappies, largemouth or smallmouth bass as well.

The most recent example I've run across of birds helping fishermen came from a catfish guide I hosted on my weekly outdoor radio show Buckeye Sportsman with Dan Armitage ( When my guest mentioned fishing "the plops," I stopped him in mid-sentence and asked the catfish expert to elaborate on the unfamiliar fishing term.

"Y'all ever see cormorants roosting in trees by the water?" he asked with a thick Texas drawl. "Well, they eat shad and other fish and what their bodies don't use they [excrete] when they are sitting up in the trees. Wherever it lands in the water it acts like chum, attracting bait and fish and the catfish can be thick under those roosting trees feeding on all that stuff. We bait up with shad guts and cast to water under anywhere we see cormorants roosting-and usually hook into cats!"

Which begged the question: "So why do they call it fishing the plops?" I asked.

"Cause that's the sound the [excrement] makes when it hits the water," responded the Texas guide. You want to try to copy the sound with your bait size so it goes `plop' when it hits the water."

It was a noteworthy radio show, and not my last, thanks to my producer's fast action with the "bleep" button keeping me one step ahead of the FCC.

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