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Birds lead way to fishing riches

© St. Petersburg Times
published August 18, 2002

Go out at low tide and notice the individual characteristics of each wading or diving bird. Learning their names and habits will enhance your ability as an angler.

Terns are a family of small, white diving birds who inhabit the Suncoast. They feed on smallminnows and insects. Least terns are seen during the summer months diving on pods of minnows. They are one of the smallest species of terns with a wingspan of 20 inches. Their rapid wing beats allow them to hover over pods of baitfish waiting for the perfect opportunity to waylay their prey. Little glass minnows do not make good bait, but they point out where Spanish mackerel, bluefish, trout or snook could be hiding.

Caspian or Royal terns have wingspans of 43 to 53 inches. They dive on schools of threadfin herring (greenbacks) or scaled sardines (whitebait), showing anglers where to throw bait cast nets.

Once the terns are located, look for the height of the "boiling" or nervous water the bait creates. That usually tells the size of the bait. Bait schooling on the surface resembles boiling water. Baitfish prefer to remain below the surface because they know there is danger from above. But when there also is danger from the deep, it appears schooling on the surface is the lesser of two evils. The bigger the boil, the bigger the bait.

Herons are the largest of the wading birds who scour the grass flats at low tide. The great blue is the most common and usually feeds on big baitfish like finger mullet and pinfish. It also will eat crabs and shrimp. If big baits are on the hit list, get the mullet cast net and come back at high tide.

Little blue herons, green-backed and yellow-crowned night herons feed on glass-minnow size baits, as do the Louisiana and the tricolored herons. But like the least terns, their value is in locating gamefish rather than a bait source.

Brown pelicans are clumsy walkers but graceful diving birds. Their shallow, low dives generally indicate small juvenile minnows such as threadfins, sardines or glass minnows.

Medium-height dives indicate bigger baits such as adult sardines, which are the perfect size for snook, speckled trout and red drum (redfish).

Height and speed mean shad is the target. Tarpon fishermen who use shad look for these high divers.

Double-crested cormorants are black and have a ducklike appearance. They dive and swim the grass flats. Pinfish usually are the cormorant's favorite prey, and pinfish are a favorite prey of trout, redfish and almost all other game species anglers chase.

White ibis are medium-sized wading birds with long, curved orange bills and orange legs. They love scouring oyster bars, grass flats or mud flats at low tide in search of crabs, shrimp, worms and small baitfish. These birds are after the same prey as redfish.

If there's a flock working a particular oyster bed, make a mental note. When the water comes up, that's the place to be with your fiddler crabs.

Ibis also are a great help locating sand fleas. Just walk the beach until you see a flock working a particular spot. You almost can bet the fleas will be there too.

-- If you've had a great day fishing from land and want to share it with our readers, contact the LUBBERLINE at (727) 893-8775 or e-mail

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