The Bird is the Word on Bait Fish

By Tom Keer

Aug 24, 2016

On your next surf fishing trip, study the feeding shore birds. Their breakfast might help you hook up your next catch!

The terns were in tight to the beach, so I staked out my surf fishing rod and grabbed my fly rod. I tied on a small sand eel fly, made a cast, and hooked up. Magic? Nope. Terns feed on small bait fish and while there were silversides, bay anchovies, and glass minnows around I saw a sand eel hanging from one tern's beak. Study your birds and you'll know what bait is in the water.

Matching Birds with Bait Fish
Terns: Terns hit small baits, mostly silversides, bay anchovies, and sand eels. When they hover close to the water’s surface they’re on a big pod of bait fish, with predators underneath. If they wing it high, they’re looking for food.  

Gulls: Herring gulls feed on herring, but they also love mackerel. When a flock of Herring gulls work together there is probably a school of big fish underneath the bait. Black-backed gulls are unreliable.  They are aggressive birds that basically eat anything smaller than them. Their value to surf fishing anglers is similar to black-headed Laughing Gulls: they love crustaceans, and in particular crabs.

Shearwaters: Shearwaters feast on squid, but also follow schools of mackerel and menhaden. They usually are around when there are Storm Petrels, skimmer birds that tiptoe their way across the water’s surface in search of plankton. Petrels follow bigger bait like squid and mackerel that feed on the silversides and anchovies that feed on the plankton. 
Gannets: Gannets are plunge-divers that soar to 50-70 feet heights. When they get a clear view of their favorite food, the herring, they drop from the sky and crash into the water, with air sacks cushioning their impact. Gannets use their wings to swim to bait fish which they either inhale or impale with their long, pointed beaks. When you see a flock of them diving along a beach you’re in for a treat.

The Key to Surf Fishing Success
There are a lot of birds in different areas, from the albatross to the pelican to blue herons and the like.  Study these birds and what they eat and you'll know what bait is in the water. Then you'll pick the right saltwater lure or use a dropper rig and hammer the fish.
Tom Keer
Tom Keer
Tom Keer is an award-winning writer who lives on Cape Cod, Massachusetts.  He is a columnist for the Upland Almanac, a Contributing Writer for Covey Rise magazine, a Contributing Editor for both Fly Rod and Reel and Fly Fish America, and a blogger for the Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation’s Take Me Fishing program.  Keer writes regularly for over a dozen outdoor magazines on topics related to fishing, hunting, boating, and other outdoor pursuits.  When they are not fishing, Keer and his family hunt upland birds over their three English setters.  His first book, a Fly Fishers Guide to the New England Coast was released in January 2011.  Visit him at or at