By Mark Fike
After fishing in the Chesapeake Bay and lower reaches of the Potomac and Rappahannock Rivers for several decades I have learned a few things from those anglers that have made a living from the named waters. Fishing in ponds, upper rivers and small lakes is sometimes more about structure than finding food. The exact opposite can at times be true in saltwater or in brackish situations.
Out in the Chesapeake Bay and other large bodies of water such as the Gulf of Mexico, commercial charters and knowledgeable anglers do fish on structure as a key part of their strategy but at times it is much easier to just find the bait and therefore find the fish.
It is true that bait does often focus on structure such as rock piles, wrecks, ledges etc… but sometimes schools of baitfish are in open water.
For example, rockfish, bluefish and Spanish mackerel and other game fish chase minnows and menhaden. They often corral the baitfish, slash and feed in them and just plain gorge themselves on the moving buffet. When the dinner bell rings things can get really interesting if you find one of these feeding frenzies.
So, how do you go about finding the bait? In a word — birds. Birds will point the way every time if they are diving on bait. It is uncanny how fast a few birds can home in on the leftovers from a feeding frenzy. It is even more amazing how fast those couple of birds will be joined by dozens of other birds before it is over.
If you are out fishing on big bodies of water and you see birds such as terns, gannets and gulls wheeling and working the water and diving into the water repeatedly, you need to get to the outer fringes of the area as fast and quietly as possible. This is your cue to begin “feeding” yourself.
At the end of the previous season I was doing some tests on some gear for a magazine when I saw a whole flock of gannets go flapping by me with a purposeful look in their eye. Not one to miss an opportunity, I fired up the boat and followed.
Less than a mile away the birds began diving into the water. I pulled uptide of the location and drifted back into the boiling water. Birds were flapping all around me. Baitfish were frantically leaping from the water while fish were snorting, slashing, popping and splashing all around the boat.
Every cast I made with a spoon brought in a rockfish or a bluefish and sometimes a catfish. The blues and rock were small and the blues were the only fish I could keep, but the fishing was extraordinary. I could not believe the fast action.
When things slowed down I fired up the motor and followed the birds once again. I learned the technique on the bay and ocean with the charter captains. The baitfish could be seen as a huge cloud on my fish finder screen. A ball of black dots and upside down U’s appeared each time the bait went under the boat.
Sometimes even when the birds are not working, you can find bait by paying attention to your fish finder and locating bait. Next, begin trolling spoons or sassy shads or even rubber eels through the area. It is important to get the lures down to the same level as the bait though.
Find humps or underwater islands to fish around. Check out the down tide side of the structure for bait. Baitfish often prefer structure such as bars or islands. Cloudy days are noticeably better for finding bait on top. Morning and evening hours are obviously good too.
Be careful not to roar right up to the middle of a feeding frenzy or you will chase away your fresh fish dinner. Make long casts to the edges of it or troll the perimeter of the area to hook up with blues, rockfish or Spanish mackerel. Get into the action and follow the birds to the bait and then the bait to the fish. It is an easy way to find the fish. Good fishing.