On The Water Clues

Finding fish is easier when you know what to look for. These On The Water Clues will increase your chances of saltwater fishing success. We’re going to break these down into four categories: Birds, Slicks, Bait, and Structure.

Some of these will be obvious, and some will take some getting used to. But learning about them and looking for them will make you a better fisherman.


Birds can be found diving for shrimp and baitfish being pushed to the surface by game fish. This action is easy to spot and take advantage of if you follow some simple advice.

Don’t move too close too quickly, make a bunch of racket, and spook the fish. Thinking like a hunter here will help. Stealth is very important. Stay as far away from the action as possible while still being able to cast into it. Fish feeding under the birds are often frenzied and will hit just about anything you throw at them.

A couple more tips will round out this section. If the birds are working over deeper water, cast a heavier lure that will get down more quickly. Hit the edges of the action as well. Both of these tips help to account for the bigger fish feeding under the birds.

And when the birds move off, don’t immediately leave. Stick around and continue to fish the area. Sometimes fish are caught after the action slows, bigger trout and redfish might be around.

I know I said I was finished but I thought I would also say something about pelicans. I learned about pelicans while fishing with Chris Martin at Bay Flats Lodge. We always look for diving pelicans and have found lots of redfish when we’ve followed them.


Slicks occur when fish eat so much they regurgitate. When this happens you know game fish are around and they are feeding. A pretty good indication that you might be in business! Slicks look like oily patches on the water and smell like watermelon.

When you’re fishing slicks, the small ones are the fresh ones. And you’ll want to cast right in the area. You’ll notice, though, as slicks get older they move and get bigger. When this happens you have to think about the duck shooting tips you were taught about leading birds. You remember, swing out in front, pull the trigger, and keep moving your gun?

It’s the same concept with slicks. You’re looking for the hunter here, the fish, and you can think of the slick as the shot. You’ll need to notice which way the wind is blowing the slick and how big it is. Then think about where the slick came from, and how long it’s been floating and expanding, and go back to that area and cast all around it.


Seeing baitfish in the area you’re fishing is an important step in finding the fish. Sometimes they’ll be milling about, and sometimes they’ll be scattering. And you know what that scattering means!

Crashing and scattering bait are being chased by the fish you are trying to catch. Sometimes this will be a big, loud commotion, easy to see and hear. Sometimes the scattering bait will only be visible for a few seconds. And here is another example of it paying to be alert when fishing the saltwater.

A couple more words about bait, specifically mullet. Quite often you’ll see a single, big mullet making lazy jumps for no good reason. This isn’t the type of baitfish action you’re looking for. The second tip regarding mullet is when you’re fishing during the winter. Seeing just a few mullet in an area is a good sign when fishing colder weather because there are fewer baitfish around.


Structure gives baitfish, shrimp, and crabs places to hide, and thus attracts game fish as well. Sometimes structure is easy to see from a boat or kayak, including grassy points, jetties, and exposed shell reefs. Sometimes it can only be detected by wading or using a depth finder.

Finding baitfish activity near grassy points and along shorelines with flooded grass is a good indication that redfish and flounder will be in the area. Redfish and flounder often feed in shallow grassy areas.

Shell reefs are another type of structure that holds a lot of baitfish and attracts game fish as well. Fishing the points during tidal movement and the windy side of mid-bay reefs are effective tactics. Stealth plays an important part in reef fishing. Wading as quietly as possible and not anchoring directly on the reef will help you catch more fish.

Jetties offer easy access to the fish-holding structures. They (along with reefs) are pyramid-shaped, and they extend out from the top. The gulf side of jetties is normally more productive during an incoming tide and the bay/Intracoastal side of jetties is better on an outgoing tide.

Sometimes bottom structure in the form of guts or transitions from sand to mud and shell bottoms are only discovered while wading or with a depth finder. These transitions can be the key to success at certain times of the year. During colder months, baitfish are drawn to warmer areas of the bay. These warmer areas include deep guts and holes and mud bottoms. Mud warms faster than sand and will hold baitfish and game fish when it gets colder.

On The Water Clues: Conclusions

I hope you’re noticing that finding fish is about being prepared with a certain amount of knowledge and then being focused, alert, and stealthy when you’re out on the water.

That’s one of the things I love best about saltwater fishing. There are many variables and it is a challenge to find fish. But when you stick with it and begin to notice clues, your chances of success and enjoyment increase.

So get on the water and put what you’ve learned into practice!

Return from On The Water Clues to the Finding Fish page.