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 The Role of Tidal Currents in Fishing

by A.C. Becker, Jr.


lunar phases

You can catch fish on a rising tide and you can catch fish on a falling tide, but you're not likely to catch a lot on either a high tide stand or a low tide stand.

It all boils down to currents or water movement. When the tide is on its high or low stand, there is very little water movement, and when there is little or no water movement, fish do very little feeding. There can be days when there is considerable water movement, and there are days, fortunately they are in the minority, when there is an absence of currents On some days the currents are strong, while on others they are reasonably mild.

You can get information on tides and water movement in each issue of Gulf Coast Fisherman magazine by turning to the three month tide listings printed in each issue. Follow them and you can improve your catch success. But keep in mind all the information in the tide tables is based on constant weather condition. There is no way to predict months ahead what the wind will be doing on a particular day. Winds always influence tides. Winds that blow from offshore tend to hold tides at levels a little higher than predicted. Winds that blow from the land masses outward into the Gulf of Mexico do just the opposite.

Fish have four ways of locating their food. In order of importance, these are (1) scent, (2) sound, (3) sight and 4) feel. A fish has to be right on top of its food for feel to be of any importance, and at best, sight under water is limit to a few yards. The density of water is such that it transmits sound five times farther than the air above. Scent ranks first because it ranges great distances in water. Sharks as an example can detect the scent of blood from as far as a mile from the source.

This is one way moving water or currents come into play. Currents in effect can be called "nature's chum line." Currents carry scent great distances, enabling game fish to accurately home on their source of food. Thus, it behooves the sports angler to fish during periods when there is sufficient water movement to create these chum lines.

Now consider how currents intertwine with tides. Tides throughout the Gulf Coast range from a maximum of four (two highs and two lows) to a minimum of one (either high or low) every 24 hours. The more tide changes within a 24 hour period, the more water movement. The degree of water movement links directly to the time period between two tides and the height of the water on the tide stand as compared to the height of the water immediate following tide stand.

Tides are controlled by the moon's position in relation to the sun and earth. The solar (sun) day is 24 hours, while the lunar (moon) day is approximately 50 minutes longer. Consequently, tide times will vary progressively each 24 hours. When tide stands are close together, and there is little difference between the height of the water on consecutive stands, water movement and currents are likely to be relatively light.

Fishing is generally poorest on a one tide day as there may be a 10 to 12 hour period between tide stands. If the water height of the respective stands is less than a foot, there will be a long period, usually 8 to 10 hours, of practically no water movement. Hence, for all intents and purpose "nature's chum line" is practically non-existent.

Currents are extremely important to fishing the flats and along grass stands in bays, the surf and jetties, in passes and cuts, and around offshore banks and petroleum platforms.

The most productive action on the flats and along grass stands is usually right after a high tide stand. The receding tide then causes water movement out and it carries a lot of food matter to within reach of game fish. During the spring and summer months you can often get unusually good flounder action in areas of high tide runoff. Currents churn loose all kinds of minute marine life in the troughs along the beachfront. Look for large redfish, croakers and sand trout in the fall; whiting and sand trout in the winter, and speckled trout and pompano during the mild weather months.

Passes, cuts and the channel side of jetties always produce well during the first hour or two after a high tide turns and begins to fall. Offshore bottom fishing can be miserably slow when there is a complete absence of currents. SCUBA divers who go down when there is no water movement tell me they see fish milling in schools but doing very little feeding.

If moving water is a key ingredient in good fishing, then the faster it moves the better the fishing. Not necessarily so.

Fish normally swim into the current. The moving water sweeps food matter to the fish and as moving water moves over the fish, it allows them to filter oxygen from the water with a minimum of effort. But when the current reaches a point where it becomes an effort to maintain headway into the current, fish turn and go with the current to areas where they can get relief. These are usually areas where obstructions deflect the currents. This is the reason the eddies caused by fast moving water at the ends of jetties can be productive of large game fish.

If you're faced with a situation of fishing fast moving water, get there at the start of the movement.

There can be periods when there are days at a time when there are constantly strong currents. These periods normally occur in the fall and spring and are extremely important in the propagation of many fish species. Consider the redfish. It drops spawn in the shallow surf. Then currents sweep the spawn through passes and cuts and carry it back into the bays where the hatch occurs and the fingerlings grow up. Then there is the flounder. Its young hatches in the Gulf. Then the spring currents help the small swimming fish to move into the bays where they mature.

It's interesting to note the periods of the least water movement occur in the winter and summer. It's during both of these seasons that most fish go to relatively deep water and wait it out.

Pay attention to tides and currents. They have a story to tell, and will give you the edge in fish tracking.

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