Ringed in spartina grass, the clear tide pool is an oasis of sorts. Marked by shoals of exposed oysters, a cool northeastern breeze combined with a negative low tide has given birth to this fish-filled entrapment. Pods of fingerling mullet dimple the surface while dozens of silhouettes in the shape of drum sit motionless below. “Fish on,” says Captain Ed Zyak, as a scrappy redfish streaks across the bow kicking up puffs of mud in its wake. Over the next half hour or so, he lands a half dozen more until the once-dry runouts etched into the shoreline begin swirling with eddies from the incoming tide.
PHOTOGRAPHY: Pete Milisci
Defined as an outgoing tide that falls below the normal mean for a low tide in a given area, negative lows or minus tides are most prevalent during winter months on full and new moon phases. These extreme tides can siphon huge volumes of water from the shallows, leaving fish, shrimp and crabs confined to small residual pools and troughs until the incoming flow returns. The reciprocation of this extreme has the strength to reverse currents of small rivers and creeks as a result from the surge of incoming water. Other factors such as rain, runoff and wind can also influence tide outcomes in certain regions of the state.
“Wind can dramatically effect tides on both the west and east coast,” Zyakexplained, “Especially along the Nature Coast in areas around Cedar Key, Steinhatchee and here around Horseshoe Beach where the tide charts may predict, say, a -0.5 for a specific time; but if there’s a strong easterly breeze blowing water out of the bays, you could experience up to a -1.5 foot drop in water elevation on the flats.” On the flip side he described that the velocity from a hard 15 mph westerly wind forcing large sums of water in from the Gulf, could completely negate an outgoing tide prediction as well. “There’s no easy way to predict how much the wind is going to influence the tide outcome other than to observe as much as possible while on the water.”
Avenues and Potholes
“Extreme negatives are great for locating potholes,” explained Tampa Bay guide Captain Lynn Zirkle. “You get a good look at the topography of the bottom with all the little indentations and runouts you can’t see under normal conditions.” The lush homogenous fields of turtle and manatee grass blanketing Zirkle’s home waters of Sarasota Bay are excellent for targeting the patchwork of white sand holes and lateral depressions fish frequent until the incoming tide returns.
“During a negative tide, I search these areas to determine what potholes fish are using to ride the tide out in and what avenues they use to get in out of the shallower areas.” Grass flats near passes like Fort Desoto Park and Cow and Calf Key, see negative tides push fish as far as a ¼ mile out to the bars outer edge until the incoming water returns.
Zirkle searches for troughs branching out from their centers to locate the few viable routes holding enough depth to allow predators to commute through. “On a slack tide, I set up on the edges of these bars as close as possible to where a runout dumps into an open channel. Once the outgoing tide starts moving, the redfish that are already in shallow will feed all the way out through these cuts with the outgoing flow and that’s where you want to be to intercept them. If it’s a minus tide, that avenue will eventually close up leaving them temporarily confined, and that’s when the real fun begins.”
Indian River Lagoon
“Depending on the size of some of these troughs and sand holes, the fish that get trapped can eat up all the available crab, shrimp, and baitfish before the tide returns,” Zyak explained. “And once the food supply runs out, they become really aggressive.” In Stuart within the Indian River Lagoon, there are fewer potholes and seagrass than on the west coast but plenty of other bottom irregularities to explore. Near the St. Lucie Inlet, a series of tide scoured troughs running east-west to the southerly flow of discharging water becomes a landlocked mecca during strong tide intervals. “I’ve snorkeled these areas to see how they’re shaped, and to observe how predators like snook and trout relate to these configurations during tide movement,” he described. “During the warmer months they cruise up and down the hard grass edges feeding on the bait lines of glass minnows and mullet that stack up along the tideline. By winter, they become less active, but during a negative tide this area can get pay dirt low. If you can get in, and aren’t worried about getting out anytime soon, you’ll find fish hunkered down between these humps that separate the troughs willing to eat anything that swims near them.
While catching fish in a barrel certainly makes for epic daydreams, the reality of pulling it off requires a much more thought out plan in order to become successful. Extreme lows make for dangerous navigation. For one, there is much more exposed bottom to deal with making once navigable waters inaccessible. This forces new exploration routes to be taken which can increase the risk of injury, as even the slightest bottom protrusion while running at a modest speed can destroy lower units and even eject anglers from their vessels.
For example, along the Nature Coast a vast webbing of bars and sedimentation exists within the coastline of Horseshoe, forcing boaters to run several miles out from the launch channel during a negative tide only to then turn around and back track in order to access the inshore flats, or else risk the gauntlet of exposed humps and bars marring the path of a diagonal shortcut. Being physically prepared to exit your craft is a must when attempting to reach isolated areas when crossing only inches in depth. Unless you’re in an airboat, keep a pair of waders or protective boots on hand, as skinny water soon to become terra firma will more than likely require manual labor to prevent being stranded.
While most boats can’t float across a dried up bar, getting close enough with any craft to further advance on foot is typically the best strategy for locating impounded honey holes. As with most fish confined to small areas, corralled snook, reds, and trout become much more cautious than those with access to open water. During winter, water conditions are clearer, making it even tougher to sneak up within casting range.
“For me, wading becomes the best option for these situations,” Zyak explained. “It reduces your vertical profile, you’re silent, and you don’t have the hassle of positioning a boat or a skiff.” Investing in a good pair of insulated waders is worth their weight in gold for traversing winter flats. When selecting a pair make sure they fit comfortably without being too loose, and contain a large enough chest pouch to carry the essentials such as pliers, cell phone, and extra lures.
Once the incoming tide inundated an exposed oyster bar that Zyak carefully avoided on his way in, he waded towards it before connecting with a pair of redfish that were lurking off each side of the mound. During the excitement he paused for a moment, taking note of how the water had already crept up to his waist. “You also have to think about how to get out of a place like this,” he cautioned. “Did you wade across a creek or channel that was already deep to begin with? I try to envision how an area is going to look after the tide returns, and plan my exit strategy beforehand. Especially on a strong tide like this, you can get too far from the boat not paying attention, and have to swim back to shore.”
By late winter, the majority of predators stacked in potholes and troughs aren’t foraging great distances for a meal, opting instead to sit on bottom with their mouths pointed in the direction of tide flow in hopes that an easy morsel will sweep near it. As water temperatures drop, so do the metabolisms of redfish, snook, and seatrout, and depending on what region they inhabit, a large portion of their diet may switch from the larger finfish they fed on during the warmer months to smaller baitfish, shrimp and crustaceans that require fewer calories to digest. Small sinking twitchbaits, 1/8th oz. jigs and fast-sinking shrimp and crab imitation lures in light colors work best this time of year.
Light spinning tackle is crucial for making long casts to avoid spooking corralled fish in clear water. To compensate, Zyak prefers a 7’ medium action G. Loomis E6X spinning rod, matched with a 3000 Shimano Sustain FG spinning reel. Line choice is green 10-pound PowerPro braid attached to a long three-to-four foot section of 20 lb. Seaguar fluorocarbon leader. “The light braid is great for casting distance, and the long leader helps to maximize concealment in clear water,” he noted. “However, in regions of the state that contain snook, you’ll need to increase the size of the leader to a minimum of 30 lb.”
Extreme low tide fishing can be one of the most challenging, yet equally rewarding inshore endeavors you can experience. Keep an eye on the tide predictions this month, stock up on the right gear, and plan your trip carefully. With a little hard work, you can turn the negative into a fish-filled positive.