Eyes in the Sky

Feb 20, 2017 General Interest

Seabirds are our friends, writes John Eichelsheim. With the advantage of height, excellent vision and often an acute sense of smell too, species like gannets can find feeding fish from many miles away. Following the birds can lead us to good fishing.

Many species of seabird feed on fish, usually small bait fish, but also squid and krill. Baitfish may be tiny – often the fry of many fish species – or relatively large, such as mackerel. Large diving birds like gannets prefer larger food items such as pilchards and various mackerels (which may themselves be feeding on smaller fishes), while terns and smaller shearwater species prefer much smaller prey.

By noting which bird species are present and observing their feeding behaviour, we can often tell what sort of fish are lurking below the water’s surface and determine how best to catch them.

Gannets feed singly or in large groups depending on the food source. In work-ups where fish and/or marine mammals have forced schooling bait fish to the surface, gannets can gather in their thousands to feed, often forming huge, wheeling columns high above the work-up. The birds dive on unfortunate bait fish from above, but rely on predators in the water to force the bait to the surface. Columns of gannets can be seen from miles away and are always worth investigating.



Gannets feed individually or in loose flocks, patrolling bays and inshore waters seeking bait such as mackerel, piper and mullet. They prefer bigger prey items over smaller ones, though they sometimes dive on anchovies, perhaps gulping down several at once.

Gannets in feeding mode are a sure sign predatory fish are about, so it’s worth fishing in an area where birds are present. This is true even if the gannets are fairly spread out rather than concentrated in a work-up. The predatory fish that are forcing the bait to the surface or feeding on the ‘outfall’ from the feeding activity of mammals, birds and fish, will readily take lures as well as natural baits of approximately the same size and shape as the prey species. Soft plastics and metal jigs work especially well.

There are dozens of species of ‘tube-noses’ – shearwaters, petrels and prions – in New Zealand waters. All of them feed on small fish, squid and krill.

The most common inshore species include sooty shearwaters, flesh-footed and Bullers shearwaters, the North Island little shearwater and the smaller fluttering shearwater, which often rest on the water forming rafts of many hundreds of birds.

There are plenty of others, including several species of petrel and prion. They look similar and feed in a similar way by diving and swimming under the water.

Shearwaters often feed with gannets, but the smaller fluttering shearwaters are commonly found close inshore where they form large flocks to feed on small, shoaling bait fish such as anchovies. Shearwaters are often accompanied by blue penguins and sometimes also by shags.

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If you find shearwaters but few gannets, chances are the birds are feeding on small bait fish and you should tailor the size of your lures/baits to suit. For instance, during the annual anchovy run in the inner Hauraki Gulf, it pays to change down from five- and seven-inch soft baits to three- and four-inch models to consistently catch the snapper, kingfish, kahawai and other species that shadow these massive anchovy schools. The same holds true for metal jigs: tie on small 14-25g micro-jigs to get in among the action.

Anchovy schools are marked by fluttering shearwaters scuttling along and diving under the surface of the water. The birds can move quickly, which makes the fishing difficult at times, but often when large bait balls form the work-ups can become almost stationary, offering superb fishing for many species that take advantage of the feeding bonanza.

There are several species of tern in New Zealand, but for sea fishers the most common and most important in terms of locating fish is the white-fronted tern, Sterna striata. This is a medium-sized tern
that feeds almost exclusively on small fishes. Terns tend to feed in flocks ranging from a few scattered individuals to hundreds of birds working in concert. Terns feed on the wing, making shallow dives
into the water to snare small fish near the surface.

White-fronted terns are often called ‘kahawai birds’ and that’s not a bad name because flitting, splashing terns are often an indication of feeding kahawai. It’s not the kahawai the terns are interested in, though, but the small bait fish the kahawai are feeding on.

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Terns like smaller bait such as anchovies, whitebait and smelt, which also happen to be among the favourite prey species for kahawai, but terns will also hover over feeding skipjack and albacore tuna, slimy and jack mackerels, barracouta or any other predatory species that forces small fish to the surface.

In many parts of the country feeding kahawai are shadowed by other fish like snapper, which eat any dead or dying bait fish the kahawai miss, as well as contributing to the feeding frenzy in their own right, and sometimes kingfish, which may in fact be more interested in the kahawai or mackerel than they are in tiny bait fish. Either way, it can be worth tossing about a larger topwater lure, soft bait or jig to entice a shadowing kingfish.

For snapper fishers, terns may not be the sure-fire bet that gannets are, but wheeling, diving terns are certainly worth a few casts, especially around the peripheries of the action. I have caught many a good snapper from among feeding terns.

Shags are mostly inshore predators that dive and actively pursue their prey under water. The relatively large and common pied and black shags are primarily marine species; many smaller shags favour estuarine and freshwater environments.

Shags generally hunt in relatively shallow water. Although they can dive to 25 metres plus and stay underwater for a minute or more, they seem to prefer 10 metres of water or less.

Shags are both solitary and cooperative hunters. Groups of shags can often be seen working together to trap schools of fish against structure. When they are feeding in this fashion, there are almost certainly other predators targeting the bait as well, so it’s well worth fishing in the vicinity.

While shags eat a wide variety of small and not-so-small fishes, they find schooling fish like pilchards and anchovies irresistible, gathering in large numbers to feed on them. Any time you see lots of shags about, stop and wet a line.

Little blue penguins eat small fish and krill. They dive under water to chase down their prey, so penguins at the surface don’t necessarily mean bait at the surface, but large aggregations of penguins indicate plenty of schooling bait fish in the area, and while the bait fish are small, the advice for
fishing under shearwaters holds true for penguins too: use small lures/baits for best success.

If you see lots of penguins in an area, use your sounder to find bait schools, which may be well below the surface, and spend some time prospecting with jigs and soft plastics. If there are bait fish there will be bigger fish trying to eat them.

Gulls, both the large black-backed and the smaller red-and-blackbilled gulls, are the least reliable indicators of fishy activity. Gulls are as much scavengers as they are hunters, especially the blackbacked.
Flocks of wheeling gulls are more likely to be squabbling over discarded fish or offal than feeding on bait fish at the surface.

That’s not to say gulls don’t take the opportunity to join in on a baitfish smorgasbord when it presents itself: gulls happily join terns and shearwaters to gorge on anchovies pushed to the surface in the Hauraki Gulf every autumn by kahawai and snapper. Sometimes the anchovies are so thick the gulls can sit on the water and pick them off the surface.