The seabirds, scores of them about 100 yards away, were wheeling, screaming and diving. We could see the splashes of fish wildly feeding just under the surface. They were not the explosive strikes of the big stripers we had hoped for, but it was impossible to ignore them.
Running ahead but well outside of the feeding school, I chopped the skiff’s throttle, turned and eased within casting range. My partner and I flung our lures just to the edge of the action. I was fishing a half-ounce Bass Assassin, and Moe, a half-ounce gold Red Eye Shad.
Moe’s rod dipped down almost immediately from a strike, and I felt a sharp tap, tap, tap. “Bluefish,” I snorted, “small ones.” I could imagine the toothy little devils reducing my five-inch soft bait to a stub.
My friend landed, then carefully unhooked a wriggling nine-inch snapper blue from the treble hooks of his crank bait and released it. I pulled the shredded remains of the soft plastic body from my jig head and searched in my box for another to replace it.
“This is not going to get any better,” I said, looking across the acre or so of small splashes. “Let’s vamoose.”
Putting the boat up on plane and scanning the horizon, I soon saw another group of working birds about a quarter-mile away.
Bigger birds, bigger fish.
“Those are bill gulls over there,” I said. “Maybe we’re in luck.” Ten minutes later we had two fat rockfish thumping on the deck, though neither was a keeper. A few more casts and a look at the fish-finder confirmed the absence of anything approaching the 20-inch minimum, so off we went again.
Across the Bay and into the distance were several groups of birds working over feeding fish. We had a job to do, and I was glad that I had remembered to top off the gas tank that morning.
How to Catch Them
Late August is the beginning of fishing for breaking rockfish under birds. A more exciting fishery just does not exist on the Chesapeake. We were following up on reports of a couple of acres of 30-plus-inch fish just off Love Point. We never encountered that school. We did, however, enjoy lots of hook-ups and releases.
You can do a couple of things to make the most of these opportunities. First, you need a good pair of binoculars; models with image stabilizing are particularly helpful. Scanning the waters to find birds that have located the feeding fish will save you a good bit of time.
Next, know your birds. Terns and young laughing gulls are the smaller birds you see wheeling about the Bay. They feed almost exclusively on silversides and anchovies. Bigger predator fish will sometimes key on the small baitfish, but this time of year these schools attract mostly smaller rockfish and bluefish.
Mature laughing gulls are a bit larger, the ring-billed gull larger still, then the herring gull on up to the black-backed gull, the largest of all. When these bigger birds are on the feed, you can bet that the baitfish will be bigger and the game fish chasing them larger as well.
The very best trophy fish-finders are pelicans and gannets with wingspreads of more than six feet. They’ll be working over the schools of the largest menhaden and the heaviest rockfish, bluefish and Spanish mackerel.
There are other protocols. Never run into the midst of a breaking school. That will put them down and anger anyone else trying to fish them. Turn off your engine while engaging breakers for the same reason, and don’t cast into their midst. You’ll avoid cutoffs from sharp gill plates of rockfish and teeth and abrasive tails of bluefish if you always work the edges.
If the feeding fish on top are small, go deep. Bigger fish are sometimes on the bottom picking up baitfish injured by the frantic, smaller fish feeding on top.
Squash your hook barbs if you’re doing a lot of catch and release. It will make things easier for you and the fish.