Hovering, fluttering and feeding seabirds often indicate feeding predators.

Find the food and you’ll often encounter what eats it, and this is certainly true for schools of small baitfish. No predator, large or small, can resist the opportunity to participate in a baitfish-eating smorgasbord.

For most recreational anglers the term ‘baitfish’ describes a wide range of schooling fish, including whitebait, anchovies, pilchards, mullet (both yellow-eyed and grey), piper/garfish and various species of mackerel. However, the term can also be used to cover larger schooling species such as trevally, kahawai, small tuna species and koreru by anglers targeting big-game fish (i.e. marlin, sharks, large tuna [bluefin, bigeye and yellowfin] and broadbill swordfish).

In this feature we will focus on coastal baitfish activity; more specifically how to identify a situation and then take advantage of it.

Kingfish holding amongst a school of anchovies
Trevally, maomao, mackerel and kahawai are attracted by concentrations of krill.

While baitfish are often eaten out of sight, deep beneath the water’s surface, they can also be driven up against the surface where their escape options are much more limited. When this happens, they also become vulnerable to aerial attack, which many types of seabird exploit.

Consequently, although anglers will frequently see anchovy and pilchard concentrations on their fish-finder while travelling, it takes skill and experience to interpret what’s really taking place underwater deep beneath the surface, especially since conventional fish-finders only show what the boat has already travelled over. (Having said that, the latest fish-finders ‘see’ beside and in some cases in front of the boat as well, providing a much better overview of the situation.)


So, while it can be worthwhile stopping and fishing deep baitfish concentrations, chances are the marks on the sounder are simply big schools of baitfish, which may or may not have predators in attendance. But add wheeling seabirds squawking, swooping, diving and plummeting into the water, and anglers have the signposts that alert them to potential baitfish carnage. That’s why it often pays to check out any seabird activity.

Feeding birds also look very different depending on their species and the type of bird(s) present can indicate vastly different baitfish scenarios. Sure, a blizzard of gannets accompanied by thousands of splashing fish will be obvious indications of a fish feeding frenzy, but just two or three gannets circling, or swooping seabirds can also alert savvy anglers to something spectacular going on. In a similar vein, even if the splashing fish are not the species you want, their activity usually draws other predators to the table and gets them in the mood to feed.

Plummeting gannets gets the heart beating faster.

For example, even tiny whitebait and juvenile anchovies are pursued by mackerel, kahawai and trevally, which in turn attract hungry kingfish and sharks. Meanwhile, deeper down, snapper wait to pounce on any injured or dead baitfish falling through the water, and they sometimes feed all the way up to the surface, where they’ll take baits and lures.

Some areas are natural ‘baitfish traps’. Coastal structures can act as natural barriers that create huge current back-eddies that concentrate and hold schooling baitfish, particularly anchovies and pilchards. In some places, islands, reefs, and underwater topography features force plankton-rich water upwards at certain phases of the tide, attracting hungry fish – typically kahawai, trevally, maomao and koheru.

Time on the water in invaluable for identifying those areas with regular baitfish and seabird action, but newbies can find useful information on social media or from local fishing-tackle stores.

No matter how much intel you leave home with, on the water, always start by looking for seabirds – a good pair of binoculars will really help. Ideally, there should be lots of seabirds splashing and diving, but even a small bunch of gannets or terns circling or hovering over the water can be worth checking out.

If you come across big ‘rafts’ of gannets or sooty shearwaters sitting on the water, perhaps accompanied by a greasy slick on the ocean’s surface, check out the area around them, too. The activity on the surface may have died away, but out of sight in the depths, the carnage may be continuing unabated.


Besides, the work-up’s exhaust (the trail of dead, dying and dismembered baitfish carried along by the tide) provides a smorgasbord for various predators for long after the main action has ceased. Snapper, for instance, cannot adjust to depth changes as quickly as some other fish species, so they tend to remain at a comfortable depth and wait for any work-up remnants to waft down to them.

These nice kingfish were spotted on the boat’s fish-finder amongst a large anchovy school.

Still no luck? Watch for streams of seabirds flying in the same direction. Their elevation and keen eyesight offer huge advantages when it comes to spotting work-up activity.

Some seabirds also have an extraordinary sense of smell, which they use to locate work ups. Not only that, but the behaviour of other birds nearby, which in turn may be reacting to seabirds further away still, also alerts them to potential feeding opportunites.

Dolphins and whales are good baitfish indicators too, but unless the dolphins concentrate baitfish into a near-stationary ‘meatballs’, dolphin pods can be hard to keep up with (for other predators and anglers both), even when sporadically pausing to feed.

As for whales (the spume from their blowholes in the distance often gives them away), they can indicate the presence of baitfish and associated baitfish predators, but they also eat up bait balls in just a few monstrous gulps, killing the action dead!

When you find work-up activity, resist the urge to charge into the thick of it – you’ll only scare the fish away. Instead, note on which direction the feeding birds/fish are heading, then position the boat so the fish move up to you – or so the boat drifts/is blown down onto the feeding zone. That way you become part of the action, often with baitfish sheltering under the boat’s hull to escape the hungry predators trying to eat them!

Now comes the fun part: catching!

Hovering terns mean feeding predators below.


All sorts of pelagic species like to eat small fish. These common species can be caught in the following ways: Kahawai, kingfish (mostly juveniles), albacore and skipjack tuna: Casting and quickly retrieving a compact, shiny 15-90g metal lure (depending on the baitfish size involved) works well, but take care not to tangle with seabirds, as these birds are easily injured. Other methods include casting 3-7-inch soft-baits (with the baitfish size determining the soft-bait size), then winding them back quickly, or jiggling them erratically up and down like an injured baitfish. Jigging a flashy metal jig, yo-yo style, directly below the boat is another useful technique.

Legal kingfish; yellowfin, albacore and bluefin tuna: Although casting around the edges of the workup using topwater lures such as poppers and stick-baits can be effective, dive-bombing gannets and hungry sooty shearwaters and skuas can make this unviable. Instead, try casting sinking stick-baits or lightly weighted, fluttery-type jigs and working them back erratically. Or drop a fluttering-type jig straight down 20 to 30 metres and then bring it back up with a very exaggerated mechanicaljigging action. Watch for the line going slack on the way down, or suddenly accelerating away, as fish often strike such lures during the descent.

Obviously, deploying a live bait can be worthwhile too, but a decent sinker may be required to avoid diving seabirds.


Although predators of bait schools in midwater usually consist of kingfish (and tuna if you’re lucky – barracouta and sharks if you’re not), they may be joined by snapper if there’s been activity in the area for some time. A 100-350g jig actively worked in midwater will account for kings and tuna, as will a live mackerel on a weighted rig.

If targetting the whole water column, cast out a 5-7inch soft-bait on a ⅜-5/8oz jig-head (depending on the depth and how long you want the lure’s descent to take), feeding out line just before the slack is taken up. Watch your line and if anything at all unusual appears to be happening, flick the bail arm over, wind up the slack and strike firmly!

Hook-up! Find the feeding seabirds/dolphins/ whales and the fishing action can be frenetic.


This is mostly the ‘snapper zone’ (although trevally, gurnard, john dory, kahawai and kingfish are frequent catches too), and the technique you choose to catch them is up to you.

The most popular methods include using 4-6oz ledger rigs armed with baited 4/0-8/0 circle hooks, or else jigging with 60-140g slow jigs or slow-pitch jigs.

If using bait, streamlined torpedo-shaped sinkers will take your baited rigs down quick-smart, and remember to steadily lift into bites rather than striking if you want to consistently hook up using circle hooks.

Slow jigs are increasingly popular these days, and it’s not hard to see why: if you can drop a weight down to the bottom, then wind up several turns, repeat the process, and repeat again, you can catch fish on a slow jig!

Personally, I like to ‘pimp’ the retrieve a bit, repeatedly slowly lifting the rod and dropping it again whilst simultaneously making one handle rotation (mechanical jigging). There’s usually no need to wind up more than 6-10 metres before dropping the lure again.

Tight lines! BNZ