Many people who hit the saltwater know that watching various birds can lead them to shoals of fish and help them locate productive fishing locations.
Far fewer people realise the same is also true when trout fishing in freshwater environments. The presence (or absence) of different bird species provides clues as to where to fish. Watching the birds’ feeding behaviour adds more clues.
My interest in birds has paralleled my interest in fishing for the last 35 years or so, and the observations I’ve detailed in the following feature should enhance your trout-fishing experience.
One of the key freshwater birds is the black shag. Black shags are a specialist freshwater shag, and weighing close to two kilograms they are an apex predator (right up there with eels). These guys have voracious appetites, so generally frequent areas where there are good numbers of trout; they can eat trout weighing up to 1.5kg. No doubt they are one of the reasons our cleaner rivers have lower numbers of larger trout, which is what most anglers prefer. Consequently, while some anglers (fewer than in the past, I hope!) see black shags as a menace, I view their presence as a sign of a healthy ecosystem, and that trout are successfully breeding there. Similarly, black shag presence on smaller tributaries can indicate the presence of some decent fish, indicating larger breeding fish being present in the headwaters. Further, when fishing stream mouths at lakes, I feel more confident when black shags are around and feeding, too.
The little black shag is about two thirds the size of the black shag, and is often seen pack-hunting in the North Island lakes and larger, slower-moving, often coastal rivers. These guys can be good indicators of shoals of baitfish, such as smelt, especially on the Rotorua lakes. Tracking the path of the little black shags can often lead to success when the trout are smelting.
A third species of shag, the little shag, is encountered on freshwater waterways and estuaries throughout New Zealand. These guys are only a third the size of the large black shag and are very widespread. They have small beaks and are generalist feeders, often taking bullies, whitebait and koura. I frequently watch them to see where shoals of whitebait are.
Flocks of little shags are often a sign of a productive river or lake – an indicator of environmental stability, with the food chain intact, which means there is a good chance of catching decent trout.
The crested grebe, found only in the South Island lakes, is a similar bird type to shags, being a very sleek and elegant diver; it has a spectacular crest that’s used for courtship displays. They take a range of small fish as well as dragonfly nymphs.
Consequently, like shags, the presence of crested grebes invariably indicates potentially good trout fishing, leading you to productive edges of weed beds and indicating areas where baitfish are concentrated.
Other diving birds can give us good insights on lakes, too. The endemic black teal, also known as the scaup, concentrate around healthy and productive weed beds, marking out key areas worth fishing on lakes. These small but plump little black ducks have a beautiful flute-like call rather than the normal quack. When the fishing is slow, I love watching their antics on the water, as they are often found in groups. Scaup, like trout, generally prefer clean water for feeding and are therefore a good indicator of the waterway’s health.
The white-faced heron is generally found on the water’s edge and indicates where shoals of small fish, such as whitebait, are located. Often shoals of fish are driven into shallow water by trout, so when you see a heron actively hunting along the water’s edge, it is usually worth further investigation. Whitebaiters know that herons often mark out the location of whitebait shoals.
For anglers, it is often the aerial hunters that provide the most obvious sign, especially the terns. The Caspian tern, or taranui, is the largest of the terns and a fish-feeding specialist. They dive into the water for larger baitfish like miniature gannets. Seeing Caspian terns is often the trigger to put on a lure like a Rapala.
Caspians are generally coastal, so when they come up the rivers to feed, it is usually while following shoals of smelt and whitebait. Further inland, Caspian terns indicate areas with good numbers of trout and salmon smolt. As a large, fish-eating bird, the Caspian has a very healthy appetite.
The smaller white-fronted tern, while generally a coastal species, also goes short distances up rivers, and its presence along our larger rivers can indicate that the smelt shoals are present in the river.
The smaller, grey-coloured, black-fronted terns are masters of the sky, with ultra-sharp eyesight. They easily spot and intercept mayflies, making them one of the best indicator bird species for river fishers.
The tiny welcome swallow is another dedicated aerial feeder; these birds mark areas on lakes and rivers with lots of midges and smaller insects present. Seeing the swallows actively feeding is a sign that insect hatches are underway.
Finally, two small birds can indicate where insects are being washed ashore after, or during, a hatch. The native pipit is often seen bobbing along the edges of lakes and rivers feeding on insects, as is the introduced chaffinch. Both these small birds can be found foraging along river and lake shorelines where insects are washing up.
By now it should be obvious that you will be able to catch more fish by observing birds and reacting to their behaviour. Less obviously though, their antics can often enhance the overall fishing experience – a simple pleasure to appreciate in this often hectic world.
This article is reproduced with permission of