August 24, 2012
Where coastal waterways meet the deep blue sea, the daily pushing and pulling of water affects all elements of the local ecosystem. Tidal waters offer outstanding bass fishing opportunities, balanced by challenges inherent in these fluctuating fisheries. From the California Delta to Louisiana marshes to Chesapeake Bay, and north to the Hudson and Connecticut rivers, anglers must master the mechanics of varying water levels and fish response at all stages of water height and current speed.
Anglers well acquainted with tidal waters appreciate their dynamics, while newcomers typically struggle. The difference-maker is an understanding of water movement unlike the continuous flow of a river or occasional currents within landlocked waters. Rather, we're talking about ocean motion — the stuff of legends and the undeniable force that makes largemouth bass behave differently from their inland brethren.
Fishing on a Timetable
Beyond tournaments scheduled on tidal waters, there's a great reason for freshwater anglers to venture into brackish areas — predictability. Thanks to the moon's gravitational tugging, oceans advance and recede with regularity. This provides a crystal ball glimpse into the short-term future of a fishing spot. "Tidal movement allows you to plan and strategize better," notes New Jersey tournament pro Pete Gluszek. "The only variable is wind, which holds tides up or pushes them out. Other than that, patterns and spots are very predictable."
Some might consider current generated by hydroelectric dams similar, but Gluszek disagrees. "Water moving through a reservoir isn't predictable. Despite printed schedules or seasonal models, you never know how much water the dam operators will release, when they'll release it, or if releases will indeed be made. Based on tide schedules, I can tell you two months or two years from now what the flow will be over a particular grass flat on the Hudson River."
Arizona pro Brett Hite has a fondness for tidal fisheries, especially after winning the FLW Series Western Division event on the sprawling California Delta in March 2008. With four major rivers and dozens of lesser streams flowing to the upper end of San Francisco Bay, these waters, dense with lush grass and tules and full of big bass, exemplify the tidal stimulus.
"No matter the weather, bass are going to bite at least twice a day, thanks to tidal flushing," Hite says. "Tides bring water rich in nutrients and it washes through and over grassy areas. The basic pattern at the Delta is that you fish the inside grassline on high tides and the outside grassline during low water."
Growing up in a neighborhood where food usually flies swiftly past affects the behavior of tidal bass. FLW Tour pro Sam Swett, a veteran of Louisiana bayous, says tidal bass exhibit an explosive initial surge when they're hooked, but less endurance in the long run. "During the first few seconds after you hook one, they're stronger," he says. "They use that initial power burst to rush into current to eat what they want and get back to their holding spot."
In tidal environments, bass find many freshwater favorites such as bluegill, crayfish, and shad, along with marine forage including mullet, blue crabs, and other wanderers that cross the largemouth's path. "There's a tremendous amount of food in brackish zones," Gluszek notes. "With both marine and freshwater forage, there's always plenty available, in many forms. In tidal areas, bass seem to crave needlefish. They have a lot of teeth but I've seen big bass blast them three feet into the air on a strike."
Go with the Flow
Tidal waters have potential for tremendous angling action, but it's not always easy. You must solve the usual riddles bass pose, compounded by at least two daily changes in water level and current direction. On inland waters, you can hit the same spot at different times of day to rest fish or to leverage meteorological changes to your advantage. In a tidal environment, the spot you fished at daybreak may be dry by noon. Or you may find biting fish where you saw only mud and fiddler crabs six hours earlier.
Specifics vary geographically, but simplify your tidewater search with this truth: Bass always position themselves with the optimal blend of cover and feeding opportunity. Understand that their ideal position changes throughout the day, based on depth and current direction.
Fishing the Flood Tide
Swett describes high tide effects: "When incoming water floods shoreline banks, bass move in to take advantage of all the newly available prey. If you can reach them, you can catch a lot of fish in these spots."
No doubt, higher water allows you to move into more secluded places. The flip side is that fish may go as far as they can, often beyond the range of a big bassboat. A rising tide scatters your quarry, often into inaccessible shoreline areas. There can be too much of a good thing.
Captain Steve Chaconas, a Potomac River guide from Alexandria, Virginia, notes that rising water enables bass to graze shoreline vegetation for crawfish. Mimicking these crustaceans by intentionally hanging shallow-running crankbaits in grass, then ripping them free, is one of his tricks for incoming tides. He also throws surface baits during this stage.
"On an incoming tide, I stay on the move with topwaters," Chaconas says. "Since the water isn't real clear and the abundance of grass limits bass vision, I like big, loud baits."
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His highwater arsenal also includes spinnerbaits, drop-shot rigs, and soft stickbaits and jerkbaits rigged weedless with no weight. Where weedmats provide overhead cover, punching through them with jigs and heavy Texas rigs can be deadly, as well.
During tournament competition, Gluszek prefers to work the incoming and higher stages, as the inherent challenges favor those with tidal experience. "When bass spread out, anglers unaccustomed to fishing tidal waters can catch some fish. But if you establish successful patterns during these stages, you have many areas to yourself."
Falling Tide Tactics
Gluszek, who owns the FLW Stren Series record for largest winning margin — a 17-pound 3-ounce advantage he posted at the Hudson River in September 2008 — said the last hour of outgoing water through the low tide is the easiest period to fish because of its draining effect. The only remaining cover is like a magnet to bass departing shallow feeding areas, and key targets are easily spotted.
Chaconas adds that falling tides shrink the playing field and concentrate bass in limited cover. "It's like musical chairs," he says. "Fish scramble to find cover in sufficient depth. As water drops, they move to the outside edges of grassbeds or to the downcurrent side of other cover."
In addition to concentrating fish, outgoing tides generally improve the bite by drawing water through shallow vegetation. The result is a filtered, oxygenated flow packed with small prey. Creeks and cuts draining marshes and shoreline vegetation become key spots, as bass stage here to pick off tide-borne meals.
Sam Swett prefers fishing an outgoing tide, as he did in February 2004, winning an FLW Tour event on the Achafalaya Basin in his home state of Louisiana. Fishing main bayous with ditches feeding ponds lined with abundant vegetation, Swett banked much of his plan on water moving out of interior marshes.
"Water leaving these ponds is clear," he notes, "and it carries food that baitfish seek. Bass are attracted to the current and converge to feed on bait. It's visual fishing, and you can see the color lines and current breaks." Swett likes a 3/8-ounce Colorado-blade spinnerbait to coax falling tide bass out of hydrilla banks, since it functions as a drop bait. Other productive options include crankbaits, chatterbaits, and Carolina rigs.
Once the outgoing flow slackens, the bite can get tougher as bass feed less actively. Working finesse tactics in low-tide strongholds is one option, but savvy anglers also maximize this time by scouting the area to note creek drains, depressions, humps, stumps, and other fish-friendly structures that will hold fish once water begins flowing in, several hours later.
Tidal experts also recommend observing how an advancing tide fills an area. Coming and going, water follows the path of least resistance, so look for drop-offs, trenches, and any other features where bass might move to or hold near on a particular tide stage.
Captain Anthony Randazzo, who catches plenty of bass while guiding for redfish and speckled trout in southeastern Louisiana marshes, advises tidal neophytes to start with a manageable area and expand outward. "When you first visit an area, fish one small section all day and observe what the tide does through every stage," he recommends. "Then base your next day's plan on what you find."
Tidal environments present plenty of challenges, but the potential for spectacular fishing more than outweighs the obstacles. Consider the tide a subway for commuter bass. They ride the train to work every morning and ride it back each afternoon. That said, your formula for success is fairly simple: Learn the travel routes, stay off the tracks, and get ready to reel.
David A. Brown, Tampa, Florida, is a veteran outdoor writer and photographer, as well as president of Tight Line Communications.