There is no greater asset to the offshore fisherman than the frigate bird. These amazing birds are extremely light for their size and even more agile. They can dog fight a tern right out of the sky and steal his dinner before it hits the water. I must admit they were dealt a pretty bad hand: they make a living eating fish but they cannot land or dive in the water. It sounds impossible, but they have adapted to this challenge quite well. They have amazing eyesight and are very persistent. They will follow a school of predator fish indefinitely and when the big guys scatter a school of bait fish, and send them jumping or flying away, the frigate is right there to cash in. Some say the height of the birds’ flight indicates where the fish are in the water column. An old captain once told me, “The bird is as high as the fish are deep.” When they are way up there circling they are looking for fish but when they are close to the water that is when they are on fish.
It is important to read the birds’ actions, as well. There are certain physical things that affect the birds’ behavior. For instance, they will always try to position themselves for an upwind approach. The bait may scatter in any direction but it is just easier for the frigate to swoop in with a headwind. Keep that in mind when you are trolling so you can try to anticipate where the predator fish will be located. It is also impossible for them to see into the glare of the sun. I have seen them actually look behind themselves to watch a school of fish and at the precise moment do a full 180 degree turn and dive down to within inches above the surface to snatch a flying fish right out of the air. I can assure you that the sight of a frigate bird on a slow day of trolling is like a breath of fresh air.
However, it’s not always a win: frigate birds have no interest in the predators, just the bait they are chasing. Frigate birds don’t guarantee a full fish box when you do catch up with them. I have chased them for miles only to get covered up by jacks or bonitas. Still a fun catch, but not exactly what you were looking for.
Frigates are a lifesaver when the sailfish are chasing bait on the reef. It is like having a spy plane or drone working for you. They will hover over a big ball of bait that you may not be able to see and follow it until the sailfish send them into the air, giving you time to get in position and be ready to pitch a bait right in the exact spot.
Sometimes it seems like the frigate is flying just a touch faster than you are able to troll without tearing the baits up. This is when you have to decide whether to pull the lines in and go after him, or continue and hope what he is chasing slows down. I like to keep a couple artificial baits rigged for just this reason. The ballyhoo come in and the lures go out, and then I can go as fast as I need to get to the action. (The tuna seem to move the fastest.) Frigates will follow the quickly moving predators and then just fold up and dive for the surface when the fish hit the flying fish. It’s best to put the lures way back and try to get ahead of the projected path and hope that you are close when the tuna hit the surface. If you are, you should hook up every line.
During the mahi mahi season, the frigate is priceless. They will stay with a piece of debris or flotsam waiting for the mahi to chase the bait out from under it, essentially point a big red arrow. Birds find the debris and show anglers where it is; anglers just troll a downrigger past the spot to catch the unseen wahoo or mahi. It’s a pretty cool concept, really. I have sometimes felt bad catching a bull or cow dolphin under a frigate and then watching him fly away in search of another one. But I am always grateful.
Be ready for quick changes and don’t get frustrated. It always seems like they come up right where you were and not where you are. Without question the frigate bird is a true fisherman. They have saved many days for all of us out there and have put plenty of fish in the fish box. Keep an eye out for them, Good luck and I hope to see you out there.
Capt. Vinny Argiro has been chartering in Key West since 1989. His number is 305-849-2367. His website is www.captvinny.com.