"Birds!" It’s a shout from the bridge that’s sure to get any angler’s heart racing. A quick scan of the horizon, and there they are: Maybe it’s a knot of gannets divebombing yellowfin tuna or a pair of frigate birds swooping in low to pick off flying fish in front of a cruising marlin. No doubt about it — birds mean business offshore. Marine life is not equally distributed across the deep oceans of the world — it’s concentrated in small pockets. Bottom structure, currents and tides, upwellings and other factors help shape these pockets that hold the majority of marine life, including baitfish and pelagic species. And few of nature’s creatures are better equipped to locate these areas of bounty than seabirds.
Birds possess several natural advantages that make them superb seagoing hunters — the power of flight being the first and most obvious. As the high towers on most serious sport-fishers demonstrate, altitude gives you an incredible advantage when trying to locate activity down deep or at a distance. Any gain in elevation allows the captain to not only see farther toward the horizon, but also peer down into the water at a better angle to see far below the surface. A bird soars hundreds of feet over the ocean’s surface, where the view literally stretches for miles in every direction.
Combine this with a bird’s high-power vision, and it’s a very potent combination. It’s hard to say just how well certain bird species see, but it’s pretty much a given that they have excellent long-range vision. Birds are also tuned into the visual cues from one another. When one diving gannet’s wings flash white in the sun, it’s a visual cue that’s seen by others for miles around — it’s the reason why one feeding bird turns into 50 in just a matter of minutes.
Then there’s their sense of smell. Some species of seabirds smell baitfish extremely well, and at much greater ranges than humans. David Lee, the recently retired curator of birds at the North Carolina State Museum of Natural History, says that storm petrels and other low-flying species use their sense of smell to detect fish oils released by baitfish. “You’ll see them tacking back and forth into the breeze like sailboats,” he says. “Once they find the scent, they’ll head upwind until they locate the source, which may be quite a long distance away — a couple of miles or more. They may not feed on the larger baitfish, but it’s still a pretty good indicator of a concentration of predators and prey.”
Species like shearwaters feature external, tube-shaped nostrils located on top of their beaks that help further improve their olfaction. Like a good bird dog, some seabirds can smell the game way before anyone else.
So which bird species are the biggest players in the offshore game? Lee says that the most important species are frigate birds, shearwaters, boobies, terns and storm petrels, with pelicans and gulls sharing a lesser role.
The Man with the Frigate Tattoo
Few skippers have as much experience throughout the Atlantic, the Caribbean and the Pacific as Capt. Bubba Carter. From 1986 to 1997, he fished out of Costa Rica, before moving his operation to Venezuela, where he fished the marlin-rich water of the La Guaira Bank. He named his first charter boat Tijereta (pronounced tee-her-EET-ah), which means “scissor” in Spanish, and is the nickname for the scissor-tailed frigate. His fourth Tijereta is now based out of Los Sueños Resort and Marina in Costa Rica. When asked why he chose the name, Carter replied simply, “Because the frigate birds are always on the fish.” In the early days, his mates would actually sunburn their necks as they looked skyward for the soaring black birds. “If you see one or two circling up high in a certain spot, you can be sure they’re watching something. It might be a marlin swimming deep or a school of bait, but they’re circling for a reason,” he says.
And if those same frigate birds begin to swoop low over the waves, head that direction. Frigates feed by intercepting flying fish and other bait off the ocean’s surface, rather than diving into the sea, so a low pass means that baitfish are right on the surface, often pushed up by marlin, sailfish and big dolphin.
Frigate birds also play an important role in the Atlantic, especially in the winter sailfish fishery off Isla Mujeres, Mexico. Like a brightly glowing neon sign that says “Fish Here,” large knots of frigates signal the presence of baitballs and sailfish below. One captain who’s spent plenty of time chasing both the birds and sails, Arch Bracher, often points his 56-foot Paul Mann charter boat, Pelican, south for the winter from his home port in North Carolina’s Oregon Inlet Fishing Center. “This past year we were pretty much fishing right out front for the first half of the season,” he says. “There were some highfliers over bait, and others were on bonito, and there would be a few frigates on bait here and there, but for the most part, it was a straight trolling bite. During the last half of the season, however, everything shifted: You had to find the frigates working on the baitballs to catch sails.”
Bracher reported seeing small schools of sardines (about the size of a hula hoop) that would have 50 or 60 sailfish corralling them tightly into a ball, always with a feathery swarm of frigate birds overhead. “We would fish one ball of bait and then see another one a quarter mile in front of the boat, so we’d troll that way. You’d think there would be a few sailfish scattered in between the two, but that wasn’t the case — you had to be fishing right around the birds to get a bite.”