Birds help point the way to fast fall fish­ing

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - FOR THE RECORD - SHAN­NON TOMPKINS shan­non.tompkins@chron.com twit­ter.com/chronout­doors

Wa­ter the color and clar­ity of weak cof­fee or strong tea bled down the canal and into the bay, slowly — fi­nally — drain­ing large sweeps of es­tu­ar­ine marsh that had been swamped for al­most a month by a com­bi­na­tion of ab­nor­mally high tides as­so­ci­ated with the fall equinox and an un­usual amount of fresh­wa­ter runoff from a month of heavy rain.

That brown flow car­ried with it a host of trav­el­ers, some driven by in­stinct and oth­ers sim­ply shang­haied by the gather­ing cur­rent. We caught glimpses of some as we launched the boat just af­ter sun­rise a week ago. Sil­very glit­ter­ings just be­neath the sur­face. Swirls flash­ing white and chrome. Fin­ger-size crea­tures burst­ing from the wa­ter, fran­ti­cally skip­ping and snap­ping and skit­ter­ing over the sur­face to refuge in the nar­row­ing band of flooded shore­line oys­ter­grass.

Food line starts here

We weren’t the only ones who no­ticed the smor­gas­bord served by the fall­ing tide. A picket of herons and egrets lined the canal, stalk­ing and stab­bing break­fast.

One fear­less snowy egret perched on the lip of cul­vert just feet away from the boat as we squared gear and read­ied fish­ing tackle, the bird’s long, pointed bill held just mil­lime­ters from the wa­ter’s sur­face, cocked, locked and ready to spear what­ever ed­i­ble the cur­rent brought it. The egret never had to wait more than a few sec­onds be­fore it struck at a morsel — men­haden, sil­ver­sides, maybe a kil­li­fish or two … and shrimp.

It was the sight of those shrimp that most en­cour­aged us; they were a key to why we were there on this bright, clear au­tumn morn­ing a cou­ple of days af­ter an early-sea­son cold front passed and left only a slight breath of wind in its wake. Shrimp — white shrimp — were mov­ing, leav­ing the marshes and es­tu­ar­ies where they had grown from post-lar­val near-noth­ings back in the spring to ju­ve­niles ready for the next step in their chal­leng­ing life cy­cle. It is a step that makes life pretty good for some of the bay’s avian res­i­dents. And that con­nec­tion — birds and shrimp — can trig­ger some of the best, fastest and most en­joy­able fish­ing of the year for an­glers on bays along Texas’ up­per coast.

We idled out of the canal into East Galve­ston Bay and square into the mid­dle of a scene many Texas an­glers look for­ward to each au­tumn. Low over the wa­ter to the west and maybe 300 yards away, the low-an­gle morn­ing sun glinted off the white wings of a cou­ple of dozen gulls and terns, wheel­ing and swoop­ing, hov­er­ing and div­ing into the bay wa­ter.

An­other clump of gulls and terns were sim­i­larly en­gaged maybe a quar­ter of a mile from the first group. And to the south, a third flock crowded low over the bay’s sur­face, their wings flash­ing in the early-morn­ing sun­light. Three groups of “work­ing” birds, all within a half-mile!

We picked the clos­est flock, swung wide so as not to spook the birds or what was un­der them, ap­proached from up­wind, killed the out­board when we were maybe 75 yards or so from the tight-bunched flock and let the wind as­sist the boat’s trolling mo­tor in get­ting us within cast­ing range.

The birds paid lit­tle at­ten­tion to us. Like hye­nas try­ing to sneak a meal from a lion’s kill, the gulls and terns were fo­cused on potlick­ing the hard work of a school of speck­led trout mur­der­ing a mob of white shrimp.

Fol­low the shrimp

As hap­pens each au­tumn as wa­ter cools and pulses of north wind shove wa­ter from the es­tu­ar­ine refuges rim­ming bays along Texas mid­dle and up­per coast, swarms of this year’s crop of white shrimp had ex­ited the marshes and sec­ondary bays and other shal­lowwa­ter reaches of the bay sys­tem, gath­ered in a large con­cen­tra­tions and moved in groups to the open bay, slowly mak­ing their way to­ward passes of­fer­ing them ac­cess to the Gulf of Mex­ico. Once in the open Gulf, the shrimp will con­tinue grow­ing, quickly ma­tur­ing and, over the com­ing months, spawn­ing. The re­sult­ing larva will be car­ried back into the bays on late-win­ter and spring tides where the cy­cle will con­tinue.

But to make it to the Gulf and their spawn­ing grounds, the mi­grat­ing shrimp have to run a gaunt­let of hun­gry mouths, both piscine and avian. And hu­man.

Schools of preda­tor fish — mostly speck­led trout and sand trout but some­times gafftop or red­fish — pa­trol the bay, hunt­ing these slow-mov­ing masses of crus­taceans. When they find a wad of shrimp, they go to work, herd­ing the ag­gre­ga­tion tighter, push­ing them to­ward the sur­face where the shrimp have less room to ma­neu­ver and then tear­ing into them.

The shrimp flee as best they can, of­ten leap­ing, skit­ter­ing and snap­ping along the sur­face in a fran­tic ef­fort to avoid be­ing snatched by a yel­low­mouthed speck.

The re­sult­ing melee quickly draws the at­ten­tion of sharp-eyed gulls and terns that cruise over the bay, tak­ing ad­van­tage of their el­e­vated per­spec­tive to scan the wa­ter for the dis­tur­bances made by feed­ing fish and flee­ing shrimp or, if the wa­ter’s clear enough, the sil­very flashes of fish rip­ping through their con­cen­trated quarry.

The birds quickly gather over the feed­ing school, wheel­ing and hov­er­ing, and then div­ing, snatch­ing skit­ter­ing shrimp from the wa­ter and of­ten from midair or scav­eng­ing any stray bits of torn-apart shrimp. They will fol­low the al­most-free lunch (or break­fast or sup­per, as such plun­der­ings can oc­cur just about any time of day) un­til the shrimp and fish scat­ter and the birds do the same, cruis­ing to find the next such op­por­tu­nity.

For an­glers, op­por­tu­nity to plug into this move­able feast is as sim­ple as lo­cat­ing those tightly grouped flocks of hov­er­ing, div­ing gulls and terns bird-dog­ging a feed­ing school of fish. Get within cast­ing range of ac­tively “work­ing” birds, and hook-ups are al­most guar­an­teed.

That is what hap­pened when we moved close enough to fire casts be­neath hov­er­ing or div­ing gulls or to the boils made by fish grab­bing a shrimp at the sur­face. As soon as the jig/soft-plas­tic grub hit the wa­ter where a skit­ter­ing shrimp had dis­ap­peared in a wel­ter of wel­ter of wa­ter, it was “fish on.”

The first fish was a mod­est-size speck, typ­i­cal of the fish found un­der “work­ing” birds. Most “bird” trout are small­ish, of­ten less than the 15-inch min­i­mum for re­tain­ing and sel­dom more than 20 inches. It seems larger specks aren’t will­ing to ex­pend the con­sid­er­able en­ergy re­quired to hound shrimp in open wa­ter; larger speck­led trout pre­fer the more con­sid­er­able meal pro­vided by mul­let and other fin­fish to the snack-size shrimp. But, oc­ca­sion­ally, schools of solid “keeper” specks will shadow and ha­rass mi­grat­ing shrimp. And now and then, birds will work over a school of red­fish — some­times a school of big 25-35inch reds.

Most of the time, how­ever, count on the fish un­der “work­ing” birds dur­ing au­tumn to be 14- to 17-inch speck­led trout or of­ten a mix of mod­est-size specks and sand trout, their smaller cousins. So even if it is tough to come up with a le­gal speck from a school lo­cated un­der feed­ing gulls, an­gler can eas­ily box enough “sandies,” which have no min­i­mum length re­quire­ment or daily limit, to make for a cou­ple of great meals. (Sand trout do not freeze well. Keep­ing more than can be eaten fresh is a chancy and even waste­ful move.)

Lures? Jig/soft-plas­tic baits are best bets as the lure closely im­i­tates a shrimp and the jig’s sin­gle hook makes for eas­ier, quicker un­hook­ing so the an­gler can get back in ac­tion faster. This can be im­por­tant as the fast fish­ing tends to be ephemeral.

We trailed that first school for sev­eral min­utes, stay­ing just within cast­ing range and tak­ing care not to push the fish or the birds too closely and snip­ing fish from the edge of the mov­ing school. Then it was over, the fish and shrimp scat­tered and the gulls ei­ther wing­ing away or set­tling on the wa­ter to rest.

No mat­ter. There were other “work­ing” flocks of gulls and terns to chase, and other schools of trout to snipe. And we did, hit­ting maybe a dozen dif­fer­ent flocks/schools be­fore the out­go­ing tide slacked and the ac­tion evap­o­rated.

Spe­cial time of the year

Such ex­pe­ri­ences are one of the things that makes au­tumn such a spe­cial sea­son for fish­ing in bays along the up­per and mid­dle Texas coast. The au­tumn run of “bird” fish­ing is tied to the an­nual mi­gra­tion of white shrimp, which can be­gin as early as late Septem­ber but usu­ally be­gins in earnest dur­ing Oc­to­ber and con­tin­ues un­til late Novem­ber in most years.

White shrimp are most com­mon in bay sys­tems that have de­cent fresh­wa­ter in­flows, a cru­cial el­e­ment to cre­at­ing the mix of salin­ity lev­els, habi­tat and nu­tri­ent-rich wa­ter s shrimp re­quire. That means sys­tems from Sabine Lake on the up­per coast to San An­to­nio Bay on the mid-coast of­fer the state’s best “bird fish­ing” po­ten­tial, with the sprawl­ing Galve­ston Bay sys­tem and East and West Matagorda bays be­ing the pre­mier ar­eas.

Runoff a fac­tor

This year, heavy fresh­wa­ter runoff has sig­nif­i­cantly af­fected that po­ten­tial in some of what usu­ally are prime ar­eas for fish­ing the birds. Trin­ity Bay in the Galve­ston sys­tem and por­tions of West Matagorda Bay, nor­mally pre­mier spots for find­ing flocks of gulls and terms point­ing the way to feed­ing trout, have been swamped by fresh­wa­ter runoff that has hurt what typ­i­cally is red­hot “bird” ac­tion dur­ing au­tumn. But some ar­eas with sig­nif­i­cant fresh­wa­ter runoff and low salin­ity lev­els — East Galve­ston Bay, much of West Matagorda Bay and reaches of the San An­to­nio Bay sys­tem not as heav­ily af­fected by fresh­wa­ter pour­ing from the Guadalupe River — are see­ing good “bird fish­ing.”

And that ac­tion should con­tinue at least through Thanks­giv­ing. Best con­di­tions are a day or two af­ter a cool front knocks a few de­grees off wa­ter tem­per­a­ture and the north wind’s shoved tides lower, trig­ger­ing a flush of shrimp from the marshes and shal­low es­tu­ar­ine ar­eas. The trout will be wait­ing for those shrimp. The al­ways hun­gry gulls and terns, too. And so will an­glers who look for­ward to those cool, clear, calm au­tumn days when they all come to­gether.

Shan­non Tompkins / Staff

A tern snatches a white shrimp missed by a speck­led trout that made the boil be­neath the bird. Dur­ing au­tumn, coastal an­glers can en­joy fast fish­ing by key­ing on flocks of gulls and terns shad­ow­ing feed­ing schools of trout and other preda­tor fish.

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