For inshore saltwater fishermen, adjusting to daily tidal flow is second nature. For many bass anglers, though, tides present an often daunting and commonly confusing set of variables that compound the pursuit of an already cantankerous opponent.
To be sure, there’s no downplaying the very real challenges that anglers face in coastal areas as a result of rising and falling water levels every single day. However, despite the obstacles, the scene is not without its balancing benefits. For anglers, the good news is that tide cycles bring clockwork dependability. Unlike dam current, which fluctuates in schedule and frequency, the ocean’s ebb and flow occurs in clearly predictable fashion.
Tides advance and recede based on the moon’s gravitational influence, with new and full phases bringing peak flow. Strong winds can hasten or hinder a tide – depending on the direction – and leave water high or low for extended periods in a day. But for the most part, fishing tidal regions gives anglers at least one clear advantage – planning.
New Jersey guide and FLW competitor Pete Gluszek explains: “Water coming through a reservoir is an unpredictable scenario. You never know how much water (the dam operators) are going to release, when they’re going to release, or if they’re going to release. But, based on tide schedules, I can tell you two months or two years from now what the flow will be over a particular grass flat.”
Knowing the location, time and volume of water movement enables savvy anglers to narrow their searches to areas of highest probability. Bass like plenty of water over their backs, bass like current, and bass like baitfish. Tides directly affect each of these elements, thereby drawing the proverbial treasure map to bass bounty.
How tides work
Tides grant access to backwater areas often rich in habitat, forage and bass. Just be careful not to overstay your visit, or an outgoing tide could strand you in a shallow trap.As coastal brine pushes against the boundaries of inland waterways, its influence is felt far past the brackish zone. Mingling occurs in open spaces of bays and river deltas, but as terrestrial boundaries increase confinement, the denser saltwater easily displaces freshwater. Essentially, incoming tides shove rivers, creeks and bayous back into their shorelines, while outgoing tides allow the waters to recede. These daily dynamics define access and opportunity.
From Gluszek’s Hudson River homewaters, to Chesapeake Bay, around to the Mississippi Delta and westward to estuarine marshes draining into San Francisco Bay, changing water levels assume the lead role in this largely two-act play. Not surprisingly, anglers who have a good understanding of the interaction between these tidal actors are obviously better positioned for success. Generally speaking, a “losing” (outgoing) tide offers the most consistently productive stage. That said, incoming tides see plenty of feeding activity as bass rush to capitalize on newly available food sources contained in flooded shorelines and ponds that they can’t reach on low water.
For anglers, more water means more depth and therefore better access to secluded spots. The flipside, however, is that fish will go where fish can go. Thus, a rising tide usually spreads your quarry across a broad playing field, and you can burn up a lot of daylight searching these expanses.
Ultimately, your best tactical advantage is to ride the falling water. Declining water ushers bass into tighter confines where you’re more likely to find good numbers of eager fish. Crowds imply feeding competition, and hesitance equals hunger, so expect more impulse strikes.
Spinnerbaits will tempt tidal bass, especially when baitfish are abundant.Guiding the Venice, La., area, Capt. Anthony Randazzo mostly targets redfish and trout, but commonly encounters largemouth bass on his marsh trips. Experience has taught him that the last few hours of an outgoing tide and the first hour of the incoming cycle will find bass hunkered down in their comfort zone, generally in deeper sloughs, cuts and main bayous.
“On the higher tide stages, the fish will scatter, and you’re not sure where they’re going to be,” Randazzo said. “But you know on the lower stages that those fish are locked on to those outer fringes.”
Potomac River guide Steve Chaconas describes it this way: “Current keeps baitfish moving, and moving prey are easier for bass to find. This creates feeding opportunities throughout the day, with the special situation of falling tides shrinking the playing field and bringing fish to limited cover. It’s like musical chairs – fish are scrambling to find cover as the water lowers, and they’re positioning on outside edges of grass beds and on downcurrent sides of all other cover. This provides better, more visible targets for all anglers.”
Complementing the concentration effect, an outgoing tide typically brings better water quality into an area, and that’s a big turn-on for bass. Shoreline vegetation filters the tide, so falling water emerges cleaner. Leaving tides also pull baitfish, crustaceans and other edible morsels from the areas they vacate, and the filtered water carries a vulnerable buffet to waiting bass.
Tips, techniques and tactics
When the tide is moving, look for your better action around current-swept points with eddies, rocks, timber or any other irregularities that create ambush points. Stillwater bass may roam to find baitfish, but those in tidal zones will stake out prime feeding spots – creek mouths, for example – and pick off what the current delivers. When in doubt, look for egrets and herons – they’ll spot the bait every time.
Chaconas advises utilizing the tide’s changing water to your advantage. Both ends of a tide cycle will change the water, and knowing how to leverage these shifts is essential to bass strategy.
“Tides carry cooler or warmer water and clear or stained water,” Chaconas said. “Be aware of what the tide is bringing to you when it changes, and adapt or move around a bit to find the best conditions for your situation. In the winter, I look for the outgoing tides to carry warmer water to my spots. I will take advantage of this slight 2- to 4-degree warmup to be a bit more aggressive as the mood of fish becomes more active.
“Sometimes I want to fish off-color water. If a tide carries stained water, the fish in this area are easier to catch, as they aren't holding as tight to cover and tend to take moving baits more aggressively.”
Gluszek, *****cently completed an instructional DVD on tidal fishing (www.petegluszek.com), said tides necessitate a blended strategy for bait choice: “I use a power/finesse approach. During a heavy flow, I like power-fishing, but I go to finesse (tactics) when the tide slows down. It changes throughout the day, so it seems like I’m changing between the two more than I would in a stable lake environment.”
Bait selection varies with geography, but productive options for fast water include topwater plugs, frogs, spinnerbaits, flukes and crankbaits. When a tide slows, probing likely targets with drop-shots, jigs, Texas-rigged worms or free-lined Senkos will produce. In any case, tidal bass are more accustomed to using quick bursts of power to zip in and out of current to snare their meals, so most will put more effort into the strike than the fight.
Careful planning and preparation yield big dividends
A few pointers for tidal fishing:
- Don’t overstay your visit. Falling tides wait for no one, and tarrying upcurrent for too long may leave you stranded for several hours once the door closes.
- Carry a wooden dowel or a capped PVC pipe for pushing your way through skinny spots.
- In major rivers with busy shipping lanes, pay attention to what’s passing your area. Wakes from large seagoing vessels can thrash, swamp or ground unprepared boaters.
- Know the rules of the road, including the various navigational aids that apply to marine waterways.
- File a float plan with a relative, friend or dockmaster. Include vessel description, your intended fishing area, launch/return times and cell phone numbers for all aboard. A disabled boat can drift a long way on an outgoing tide, so a proper float plan gives the U.S. Coast Guard and local law enforcement key search details in the event of an emergency.
Because tidal fish are conditioned to eat when the water is moving, they may become lethargic during a slack tide. This is a good time to check voicemail or eat a sandwich, but don’t overlook the scouting potential of a slack low tide. Receding water reveals key features such as bottom contour, obstructions and run-outs, so look and learn.
Redfish are a common bycatch for bass fisherman working brackish marshes. Conversely, inshore saltwater anglers may find largemouth bass lurking around their redfish holes.Expanding on that thought, the best way to tackle a new body of tidal water is to carve out a small area and fish it through a day’s complete tide cycle. Observe the movement of fish and forage through high and low water, note specific drain points, and develop a mental map for future visits.
Remember that tide schedules change daily, so don’t assume that yesterday’s noon bite will repeat precisely tomorrow or the next day. You can, however, expect to find similar activity in a day’s schedule by “chasing the tide” in or out. For example, if the first hour of an outgoing tide yields sweet crankbait action on rock points, fish the pattern until it wanes and then move down the coast a few miles where the same stage will be starting. Such leap-frogging can keep you in the tidal bite for several hours.