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April 09, 2010

Fishing With the Tides

Be in all the right places at all the right times...

Most of us have an undying belief that certain of our favorite spots must be fished at a specific phase of the tide. For example, I know that if I'm standing knee-deep at a particular notch along Tampa Bay an hour before a full-moon low tide pretty much anytime from March through November, I'm going to catch a half-dozen fat reds, a few big trout, a ladyfish or two, and maybe a bonus snook; it's money in the bank.

But it took me several years (true, I'm a slow learner) to figure out that those same fish had to be somewhere nearby when I didn't have that perfect low-tide moment. And once I understood that, it morphed into an understanding that tides can be "chased" throughout an estuary, allowing you to be in dozens of spots at prime time, all in the same day.

For example, on any big estuary, the tide rises on flats near the mouth several hours before that same rise will arrive at the head of the bay several miles inland - on big bays like Charlotte Harbor and Tampa Bay on Florida's west coast, it can be half a day. And if you're interested in fishing up the tidal creeks, often a good option, add several hours more.

So, for instance, if you've found that reds in your area like to push into the spartina grass or mangrove edges as the water hits the last hour of rise, it's possible to find this terrain near the mouth of the bay at the start of flood tide, work it for an hour during the peak time, then fire up and run perhaps eight or 10 miles up the bay and find similar terrain where that same tide is now just beginning to flood. Fish that out, and move inland again to yet another spot where the rise is just beginning - thus staying on the cusp of the bite all the way. It's run-and-gun fishing - not a lazy man's sport, but it works.

And because you're chasing rising water, you can push into some very gnarly places without fear of getting stuck - as long as that water is going up on a given spot, the fish will keep plowing farther into the cover, and you can go after them. (Just keep a careful eye out for the tide's turn, however, because it's easy to get caught in a bottleneck, an area that's shallower than you need it to be, on the way back out.)

When the tide turns in earnest, you can work back toward the bay mouth, again hitting prime time in three or four spots. Now, however, the best spots are going to be the outer edges of the grass or mangroves, runouts, creek mouths, sloughs, cuts through the sandbars, and points around oyster bars and mangrove islands. Fish each of them while they're hot - with lots of current flow, loads of bait flowing through and frequent explosions telling you the predators are there - but be ready to haul up the PowerPole and motor on as soon as the peak period slows. (Also watch out for getting stuck: The water will go out from under your hull at an amazing rate, sometimes making it better to anchor off the edge and wade in under iffy circumstances.)