Hot spots: Where the gulls are Smart anglers not just bird-watchers

Everyone who fishes regularly has a favorite piece of water -- a stretch of trout stream or bass river, an arm of a reservoir or lake, a tidal creek, river mouth or channel edge. Mine is a point of land near the Bay Bridge, where the bottom steps away in well-defined plateaus for more than a half-mile.

It is not an especially popular piece of water. It is shallow in parts, laid out with crab pots and marked by clam-line buoys. No state reefs have been placed there, and there are no wrecks marked on charts of the place.


In fact, most fishermen pass it by on their way somewhere else.

But always there are fish there at this time of year, drawn to the clam beds and patches of hard or oyster bottom and the bait fish that can be cornered along the drop-offs or herded onto the plateaus.


Because the submerged point runs west to east, both sides of its length are exposed fully to tidal currents, which sweep the eastern end in 30-plus feet of water.

Such a place can be a classroom, if it is fished often enough, and when wind, tide and dawn or dusk are in phase, lessons can be learned at a frantic pace.

Early this past week, my wife will tell you, I spent more time than I should have attending evening classes. But bluefish, spanish DTC mackerel and stripers were busting the bait fish on the surface near dusk, and yardwork and other household projects could wait a few days until nature was again out of phase.

It is generally accepted that the best fishing on any given day will come when daylight is dim and fish that feed on other fish will drive their prey to the surface and eat until they are sated.

Such feeding frenzies draw crowds of birds, and the birds in turn draw crowds of fishermen, who may or may not have a sense of what nature has put before them.

It is easy enough to chase the birds, cast or troll beneath them and catch a fish or two before the schools break up or the fish sound.

But a fisherman who begins to understand why the fish are breaking in a certain area can fish longer and more successfully and will not ruin the moment for the other fishermen around him by trolling through the middle of a school or barging full speed into a group of boats circled around an acre or two of feeding fish.

From Sunday through Wednesday, off this innocuous point of land, the second high tide occurred from one to three hours after dark, making the hours of dusk prime fishing time.


Early Sunday evening, with the wind a whisper from the north and the tide starting a weak flood, the only birds that were flying were the Orioles, who were beating up on the Oakland Athletics 3,000 miles away.

Yet a handful of boats was gathering at the mouth of the Severn -- the evening fishing fleet standing at the end of Tolly Point Bar, waiting for the stripers and blues to start breaking.

As the tidal flow increased, the rip across the top of the bar began to build, and as the current built, the bait fish would begin to seek refuge in underwater eddies, where the lower levels of the tide would, for a short time, be brought to a standstill by the unyielding edge of a drop-off.

An hour before dark, with the tidal current nearing full flood and the daylight dimming, the gulls began to skim low over the water, circling, stalling and then flying away.

The tide was scouring the deeper plateaus, sweeping the bait fish up and into the shallows atop the bar, and the blues, stripers and mackerel were beginning to follow up from 25 or 30 feet or more to less than 15.

Within minutes, two fish cleared the water -- a panicked bait fish, with a bluefish right behind. A gull shrieked and dived, and then the surface was dimpled with swirls of feeding fish, the sky almost instantaneously filled with gulls.


The fishermen, of course, were right behind the gulls, casting spoons and bucktails into the melee and catching fish.

For the next three evenings, the pattern was much the same, with the fish coming up an hour or so later each successive day to match the later times of the tides. In each case, the fish came up initially over a sharp drop-off and seemed to work the bait fish into or across the current.

Of course, once you feel you can find the fish whenever you want them, the natural world slips out of phase, the wind blows strong and it seems the fish have moved on.

When that happens, break out the chart book, scout the bottom contours and recheck the tides. A strong ebb tide will work to your advantage as well as a rising tide. And midafternoon with the tide running well can be as good a time as any to catch fish.

By Thursday, with the wind southerly at 10 to 15 knots, the high tide worth fishing came shortly after 10:30 a.m., and by the time Jim Phillips and I got on the water, it was early afternoon, past midway of the longer ebb of the day.

Tolly Point seemed barren except for a small group of terns working a loose school of small stripers in the shallows, and rather than go trolling, we began to look elsewhere. In the lee of Thomas Point, well down tide, we found a large group of birds over breaking blues and stripers, which were feeding ferociously on a school of bait fish.


The bait fish had been cornered, backed against a shoal by the ebbing tide and buffeted on the surface by the southerly wind, and for a hour or so, the fishing was as good as 4- and 5-pound blues and stripers on a fly rod can be.

Chasing the gulls is, said Phillips, who would rather cast a fly rod than eat, "really simple fishing. It is not like taking a trout from the Gunpowder or the Savage. You just look for the birds and cast."

But it is, in effect, something like taking a trout from a cold-water stream or a bass from a warm-water river. One still must know where the fish will be and why they will be there.