As rockfish, blues, and Spanish mackerel begin to head south for the winter, they often feed on schools of bait that they drive to the surface of the Bay or ocean. When this happens, all sorts of birds from tiny terns to giant pelicans start diving and feeding on the same bait. In the ocean and Lower Bay, gannets join the fun and put on an aerial display diving from dizzying heights deep into the water to grab baitfish.

working birds
Ric Burnley caught this big blue on a metal lure dropped deep under working birds.

Most captains will fish diving birds with a “run and gun” technique. They run to the birds and then have their anglers cast lures into the frenzy. This works well until the local idiot runs his or her boat into the middle of the birds and scatters the bait and the fish. Trust me, this will always happen.

Once the bait and fish scatter, you have two choices. One, start looking for the next flock of birds, or two, stick around and drop your jigs to the bottom and see if any of the fish stayed around to pick up the scraps left by their smaller friends on the surface.

I go with number two. On more than one occasion I have found nice fish on the bottom after the birds have passed by and moved on to the next hot spot.

On a charter trip to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, I had two fly fishermen onboard. We were sounded by diving birds, but the rockfish were feeding on bait that may have been sand eels on the bottom. I could drop a Stingsilver down and hookup every time, but the fly fishermen couldn’t get their offering down to the fish in 40 feet of water. We tried fishing the bridge pilings and the rips without result, because every rockfish in the Bay was on those sand eels in 40 feet of water. I did send them home with a limit of fish that I caught on the Stingsilver, but they never had a single strike in six hours of casting with their fly rods and God forbid they would put them down and pick up one of my rods rigged with a jig.

If you encounter birds working the surface, but your lures cast to the middle of the action don’t get any attention, you may have to look around to find where the fish are feeding. The best way to do this is to run into the current while looking at your SONAR screen until you mark the fish. Continue to run a bit past the mark, and then shut down and drift back to the fish while jigging on the bottom.

While it is rare to encounter a school of fish under diving birds without competition from other boats, it is possible if you are willing to get out on the water very early in the morning. By very early, I mean before the sun comes up.  

When this rare event occurs, the best way to take advantage of it is to position the boat so the wind and current will move you towards the activity. You can drift right down on top of the fish and have birds diving and fish breaking right next to the boat so long as you don’t fire up the engine and stay as quiet as possible. At this point pretty much anything you drop in the water is going to get eaten.

As you might have guessed, I am a big fan of Stingsilvers for this style of fishing. They are easy to cast a long distance when you want to stay away from the schools and will sink fast when you want to jig for the deep-holding fish. Other metal lures such as Cast Masters and Hopkins will work just as well.

You might think surface lures would be perfect for catching breaking fish. Well, they would be, if they didn’t catch birds. Once you untangle an angry seagull from a plug with treble hooks and braided line, you will never toss a surface lure to breaking fish again. Speaking of treble hooks, I switch out the trebles on my metal lures for single hooks and crush the barbs on those.

Light spinning outfits are perfect for this fishery. Six- to seven-foot rods matched to reels that hold 10- to 12-pound mono line, and you are ready to go.

By Eric Burnley