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Take What the Tide Gives You

Knowing Which Tide to Fish Can Mean Fish in the Box!

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Take What the Tide Gives You

Blake Butterworth caught this gag grouper in the ICW out of St Augustine

Photo by Ron Brooks
So many times I see people heading out for a day of fishing, and I wonder where they plan to fish. They have an expensive looking boat and appear to have all the right gear. Then later that day I see them, fishing in a place that makes me wonder just how much they know about fishing. Back at the dock, we may even talk; and, more often than not I hear stories of an unsuccessful day. “They just weren’t biting,” is the usually tale.

I believe that if these people knew a little more about the tides and fish habits relative to the tides, they would catch many more fish. I have places that I fish only on an incoming tide, because I know the fish will be there as the water moves in. I also have places I fish on an outgoing tide for the same reason.

Creatures of Habit

Fish are creatures of habit. They move because they have to move (the water is running out from under them) or because their food is moving. Fish migrate up and down the coastal waters every spring and fall because they are following the bait fish. If the baitfish linger in an area because of an unusually warm fall, the bigger fish will linger as well.

Just as water temperature makes fish move each season, the tides in any given area of the country make fish move every day. They are the key to catching fish and catching them every day. If you know the tides, you can generally catch fish somewhere on that particular tide.

A Late Fall Trip

I fished a late fall trip with Mark Butterworth and his son Blake on a day that had us waiting for the tide to get right. We fished out of St Augustine, Florida, and launched at first light, just as the tide was about to reach a high crest.

St. Augustine is an area I fish a lot on an outgoing tide. I have a couple of spots that I sometimes catch fish on a high tide, but my concentration has always been on outgoing water there.

We headed for a couple of areas to fish the slack water, waiting for the tide to begin running back out – more killing time than anything else. To my surprise, Mark caught a snook in one location and Blake caught a small gag grouper in another. Neither catch was unheard of in these parts, but the snook had all of us somewhat baffled.

Surprise Catch

Snook are warm water fish that move south as the fall and winter months approach. Snook cannot survive very long in water colder than 55 degrees. Massive fish kills on the southern tip of Florida have occurred in years past because of a sudden drop in water temperatures caused by a particularly strong cold front. The water today was around 60 degrees; any snook in the area should have been headed south a long time ago.

As the tide began moving out, Blake managed a small gag grouper on jig head tipped with shrimp. Juvenile gags are often seen in the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW), but not at this time of year.

Fishing the Outgoing Tide

The tide began to drop as we headed up the Intracoastal. The plan was to run north and fish several areas as we moved back south with the outgoing tide.

We managed to boat a number of small seatrout, several redfish in the 18 to 27 inch range, and three flounder. We fished almost exclusively with artificial baits as we fished the tide down to about half low. Because of a previous commitment, we left the fish biting, heading in past several boats that were sitting and waiting for a bite in the main channel of the waterway.

The Secret

The key to our success was that we took what the tide gave us. But it’s really no secret. In this area of the ICW, creeks and mudflats cover large areas of marsh. At high water, fish move into these shallow areas, feeding on those flats. They are hard to reach by boat when the water is high. We saw several anglers wading the flats or in kayaks or canoes – all of them pursuing fish that roam the flats at high water.

In our case, we simply needed to wait for the fish to come off those flats. We needed to wait for the dropping water to drive the fish to us.

Here’s Why

As the water drops on an outgoing tide, fish will move into the deeper feeder creeks and into larger creeks. They move because the water is running out from under them and because the baitfish are moving as well.

Up and down the ICW, small run outs and feeder creeks provide excellent ambush points not only for the fish – they wait for food to come to them - but for anglers as well. The key to our success was being in the areas that hold fish coming off the flats as the tide dropped. The key was taking what the tide gave us.

Many a trip I make finds me piddling or exploring until I know the tide is right. I may fish one area on an incoming tide, and then run several miles to another area when the tide changes and starts heading out.

Bottom Line

You can try this for yourself. Next time you catch some fish make a note of the tide condition. The chances are you will be able to catch fish there again on a similar tide. And, if they aren’t in that same location, they may be in a similar location on that same tide. You just have to take what the tide gives you
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