Few things are as exciting as spotting a cloud of gulls on the horizon, diving and dipping over breaking fish. Those working birds indicate a feeding frenzy, which can lead to some of the hottest action of the season. The fish are often so charged up that it’s almost impossible to come away empty-handed. Almost.
While even a novice can usually manage to get a bent rod when fish are breaking water, different anglers have different results when they compare pictures or coolers at the end of the day. A few subtle tactics can help you take full advantage of the situation.
The way you approach a school of breaking fish is important because it can impact the success of your catch. Don’t go blazing into the fray at full tilt. Do so and there’s a good chance you’ll drive the school down or break it up. Slow down and come off planing speeds when you’re 100 yards or so from the frenzy. At half that distance, slow to minimum idle. Remember that regardless of engine noise your propeller makes a whine underwater that’s directly related to the speed at which it’s turning. Painful though it may be to creep toward the action and delay your casts, in the long run, slowing down will pay off.
Your relationship to the wind and current is another important aspect of the approach. If you’re down-current of a school and you pull up to its edge, after a cast or two you’ll have drifted right back out of casting range. Instead, circle around the school until you’re on the upwind or up-current side. Then shift into neutral at the school’s edge and you’ll be able to cast for a much longer period of time as you drift down the periphery of the working fish.
Trollers, meanwhile, will do best to work the periphery of the school. Trolling right through the middle may be a surefire way to hook up, but it’s also a method that often breaks up the fish and kills the action.
Although the frenzy you see is right at the surface, don’t focus all your efforts at the top of the water column. Fishing deep under working birds can put you on significantly larger fish. With some species—including stripers—the largest fish often sit beneath the frenzy and wait for a baitfish that got injured in the fray to come drifting by.
Experienced anglers know there are no real rules in fishing, or at least none that don’t change in different situations. There will be occasions when the largest fish you catch from the breakers hits a topwater lure. Yes, this directly contradicts what I just wrote about larger fish often lurking below the frenzy. But these are fish we’re talking about; sometimes they do what we least expect. If going deep doesn’t produce the lunkers, try chugging a large plug across the surface. It could produce a fish that’s bigger than the one you catch with subsurface lures like jigs or spoons.
One note of caution: Small fish will hit that topwater plug, too. If there are a lot of throwbacks in the school, you’ll want to clip a tine off the treble hooks, crimp down the barbs or replace the trebles with single hooks. Yes, this will lead to a slightly lower strike-to-hookup ratio. But otherwise, you’re destined to injure and perhaps kill a large number of the fish you release, because regular trebles often cause a lot of damage.
Sometimes an angler will pull a lure through a chaotic surface blitz, yet the lure goes completely untouched. What gives? Often, lure size is the culprit. When fish are in a frenzy, they’re going after schooled bait, not individual fish. And schooled baitfish are commonly the same size. So, if a pack of predators is tearing through a shoal of bay anchovies that are no more than 3 inches long and you’re casting a 6-inch jig, they may ignore it completely.
Color matters, too. When you’re not getting as many hits as you should while working a feeding frenzy, even after trying different size lures (or spotting the bait to make sure you’ve matched size properly), try a new color.
And here’s one last tip for when you’re fishing under birds: Keep your casts low and side-armed, as opposed to high and arcing through the melee. Make those high casts and there’s a good chance that sooner or later a bird will fly into your line and get tangled in it. You’ll have to spend valuable fishing time trying to free your angry feathered friend.
This article originally appeared in the November 2018 issue.