Tending Tides

For successful fishing in the great state of Florida it’s critical you make sense of the ever-changing tide.

FSF Staff November 21, 2012

Throughout every venue across the state the tide is an extremely important factor that has an incredible influence on your overall angling success. As certain as death and taxes, tides will rise and fall like clockwork. Educated anglers who observe and study the tides and their influencing factors can be in all the right places at all the right times. Using the latest tidal data, consistently successful anglers know how to capitalize no matter the prevailing conditions.

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Photo: doughertyphotos.com

Tides are a unique phenomenon that occur throughout the world’s oceans. While every geographic region is affected differently, tides bulge around the world from east to west as our planet rotates in the solar system. Fluctuating sea levels are a direct correlation to the gravitational pull of the sun and moon. With that being said, pressure from approaching frontal boundaries, winds, coastal topography/bathymetry and depth of water also dictate the velocity, height and occurrence of tides in your particular region. While tidal movements ignite the movement of both predator and prey, there are different types of tides that will influence the fishing depending on your particular location in the state.

If you do your homework you will be able to predict where and when shallow water game fish will hold during any period of the tide.

Along the East Coast, anglers experience semidiurnal tides. This movement results in two high and two low tides during each tidal day, which consists of 24 hours and 50 minutes. Because of the unique attributes of the Gulf of Mexico, this shallow water basin has much different tidal fluctuations and occurrences than what anglers experience on the Atlantic Coast. Diurnal tides occur along the Gulf Coast generally west of Apalachicola and result in only one low and one high tide during a tidal day.

From The Florida Keys north to Apalachicola anglers experience what is known as a mixed tide, where there’s an unequal variation in the height of high and low tides. Sometimes mixed tides result in two tidal swings each day, while on others there may only be one, or a unique combination of both.

Since we know that tides are greatly influenced by the sun and moon in relation to the position of earth, tides are highly predictable. For anglers in the United States, NOAAs Tide Predictions Service provides tidal datum for hundreds of locations around every coastal state. These monitoring stations are incredibly accurate and collect tidal datum every six minutes. Some of the data observed includes water height, wind speed and direction, current direction, barometric pressure and air and water temperatures.

While tide predictions are available, observed tides may vary significantly depending on prevailing environmental factors. Wind speed and direction can greatly influence the velocity of the tides, with strong onshore winds forcing water inshore and effectively flooding area shorelines. Offshore winds deflect water away from shorelines and can hold back tides substantially. In addition, approaching frontal boundaries can change pressure, with high pressure systems generally resulting in lower observed tides. Conversely, low pressure systems result in tides that are much greater than predicted. The difference in predicted and observed tides can vary a foot or more, so it’s important you also rely on what you experience while on the water.

While the above-mentioned factors influence tides, lunar positioning has the greatest impact on tidal velocity and height. Spring tides occur during full and new moon periods, but unlike the name implies do not always occur in the spring. During spring tides the alignment of the earth, moon and sun results in extraordinary large tidal swings. Neap tides occur during first and last quarter moon phases and result in smaller tidal swings.

So now that you have a general idea of what factors influence tidal flow and height, you may be asking yourself if it is better to fish during high, low, slack, outgoing or incoming tides. Unfortunately, there’s no blueprint to success and the action you experience will be determined by your ability to read the tide and understand how it impacts where game fish will be staging.

Inshore game fish live by the tide and feed best during periods of moving water. This is because changing tides increase water movement and bring forage to hungry predators. During a slack tide with no moving water game fish have to exert more energy to search out and chase down prey, so they’d simply rather wait for the tide to bring food to them. Keeping this in mind, low tides congregate shallow water game fish along deeper flats, points and potholes within nearly every shallow water basin. With the falling tide fish generally bunch up together as prime feeding habitat dries out.

Incoming tides submerge fresh territory, with game fish gravitating to mangrove and spoil island shorelines during periods of incoming water. It simply makes sense that with the flooding tide shallow water predators stage along areas that offer access to recently inaccessible locales. Look for pockets of activity around these staging points where game fish wait until new territory is submerged. In comparison to large concentrations of fish at low tide, high tides offer game fish more room to roam and as a result larger schools often break up into smaller hunting packs.

While tides can take time to master, inshore game fish migrations are as predictable as the tides themselves. If you do your homework you will be able to predict where and when shallow water game fish will hold during any period of the tide. You won’t always hit a homerun, as the only guarantee in fishing is that there are no guarantees, but you’ll certainly be headed in the right direction.

Across the offshore scene tides aren’t as noticeable, but that doesn’t mean they don’t influence game fish feeding habits and tendencies. Ocean going currents like the Gulf Stream and Loop Current definitely overshadow tides, but tide-influenced currents will have an impact on your offshore endeavors. When fishing reefs and wrecks with high relief game fish will almost always face into the current. You’ll want to focus your efforts on the down-tide side of the structure where hungry predators wait for disoriented baitfish and crustaceans to be swept away. If you are at anchor and the tide switches it may be unnoticeable on the surface, but down below the bite may turn off. You may think the fish simply stopped biting, but the changing tide may have altered your position to the point where your baits are no longer in the strike zone and the structure is not where it was when you first set anchor. In areas with impressive bottom topography tidal swings can also create current rips on the surface that confuse prey and attract pelagic predators.

During the winter, powerful cold fronts push south into state waters and have a big influence on water temperature. Offshore waters won’t fluctuate too much, but inshore shallows within the ICW and associated waterways can change drastically in only 48 hours. When an outgoing tide flushes cooler inshore water through an inlet and into the ocean, temperature breaks and edges can form near the mouth and concentrate predator and prey.

Educated anglers who understand the tide’s influential factors often display great patience, as they know that certain factors will turn on the bite. Game fish are slaves to the tide and if you learn to decipher the tide you’ll be able to time the bite like clockwork. However, don’t give the tide too much credit because game fish have to feed and at times break the mold of what’s expected.

Interpreting Tide Tables

When you glance at a tide chart you will notice peaks and valleys that represent tidal stages. Along the horizontal axis you will see a note for the time of day, while the vertical axis represents tide height. Before we go any further it’s important to note that tide height is in relation to Mean Lower Low Water (MLLW). This is a 19 year average of the lowest low tides during each moon phase. This serves as the basis for tidal prediction and range. Next, you’ll notice the predicted tides for various times throughout the day. For example, a tide chart may list -0.6 feet for a low tide. This means that at low tide the water will be .6 feet below the MLLW. From here you can calculate the tide’s range, which is the difference between the highest and lowest tide(s) of the day. With a low tide of -0.6 and high tide of 5.3 feet you will have a tidal range of 5.9 feet. Since tides have many influencing factors, you will likely have to calculate adjustments for your particular region. Some of these adjustments might mean a difference in tidal swings of a few minutes or a few hours.

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