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Fishing the Tides: How Tides Affect Fishing in Bays, Inlets & Rivers

Planning your fishing trip around the tides is your best tactic for catching more fish! Here's how to fish the tides the right way.

Fishing the Tides: How Tides Affect Fishing in Bays, Inlets & Rivers

A flooding tide offers the best red fishing action at many of Florida shallow bays, flats and marshes.

Florida fishermen are often faced with many challenges that tidal bodies of water present. A few inches of tide, either flooding or falling, can mean a huge difference in their fishing success. Although certain tidal stages can be predictable when targeting gamefish, Florida fishermen always need to have a backup plan. Knowing how the flow of water affects different environments can offer huge advantages when planning your trips around the tides. Keep in mind, depending on where you are fishing in the Sunshine State, tide variations can range from less than a foot in South Florida and the Gulf Coast to up to seven feet in Northeast Florida coastal waters. To add to the puzzle of fishing on tidal waters, the present moon phase, wind, temperature and water clarity are also important elements to consider.

bridge with water underneath with kayaks and fishermen
In South Florida the tide range is often less than a foot but can mean a huge difference when fishing close to bridges and similar ambush points.

A prime way to demonstrate this culmination of factors occured during a fishing trip to Sarasota Bay where my son, Terry David, and I were fishing for shallow water redfish in a popular area properly named the “Blow Down.” A spit of dunes was the only structure that separated the bay from the crystal-clear waters of the Gulf of Mexico. During a past hurricane, the wind and wave action had ripped a narrow pass through the sand dunes into the shallow bay. Old blown-down trees also drifted into the bay and now served as excellent fish structures. A light westerly wind was blowing clean water into the bay from the Gulf while a flooding tide helped cover deadfalls where redfish were now holding. The water temperature in the Gulf was slightly warmer as well, which helped with our morning of redfishing. Casting ½-ounce gold spoons and D.O.A. shrimp was key during our morning incoming tide.

That night a front arrived with hard northeast winds blowing up to 18 knots. Upon our return to the Blow Down, the strong northeast wind had created waves on the large shallow bay. Instead of a light westerly wind blowing clean water through the cut in the dunes, the northeast wind was now blowing dirty water from the bay right into our targeted redfish waters. The incoming tide and clean water from the Gulf had lost out to the stronger northeast winds and presented difficult fishing conditions. After making a few casts with Redfish Magic spinnerbaits without a strike (Pro Tip: a Redfish Magic spinnerbait is one of the best lures when targeting redfish in discolored water) we decided to move to the east side of the bay where water conditions were much better. Also the flooding morning tide would hopefully trigger a good redfish bite close to the mangroves.

Saltwater fishermen targeting gamefish in bays located close to the ocean, inlets and beaches are always concerned with the present tidal flow and the other conditions outlined above. Although an excellent bite may be enjoyed during an early morning incoming tide, that success may not be found on the following morning if you simply replicate yesterday's itinerary as tides and conditions vary from day to day. In my home waters of Northeast Florida, a flood tide at the St. Mary’s jetty rocks that arrives at 6:44 am on day one will not flood on day two until 7:40 am.  Each day the tide is almost one hour later, which presents a conundrum for fishermen that had their best luck on day one at daylight. During their next day of fishing, the best action may well take place one hour later.

fishermen with large tarpon in the water at the side of the boat
Tarpon fishing at many Northeast Florida inlets is best during the last of the flooding tide.

Additionally, there is a lag time in the tide from the mouths of inlets and beaches for fishermen who target tidal sportfish farther back in the bays and rivers. For example, large tidal rivers like the St. John's may have a flood tide at 6:00 am in the morning at the Jacksonville jetties and a simultaneous low tide 50 miles south in Palatka, the bass capital of the world. Tide range also comes into play on the St. John's with the city of Palatka only fluctuating around one foot between low and high tide compared to the significant tides experienced farther north. Some of the best trophy largemouth bass fishing in the Sunshine State is enjoyed by bass fishermen casting lures to deep drops in the sandbars during a falling tide and the highs spots of the sandbars during a flooding tide.

As if it wasn't already complicated enough, some species will feed quite differently during certain periods of the tide. At the many popular inlets located in Northeast Florida, including St. Mary’s, Nassau, St. John’s and Ponce, some of the best fishing action comes during the last of the flood and the first of the falling tides and these changing conditions often trigger different feeding methods for sportfish.

guy fishing water outflow pipes
Saltwater gamefish will school at deep sloughs during the first of a falling tide.

During one trip to Ponce Inlet for king mackerel in July, we were anchored up at the landside of the inlet with ground chum and cut pieces of menhaden marinating hoping to entice a bite. Barbed live menhaden were cast far back into the chum slick. The early morning flood tide was perfect for chumming up a real smoker kingfish. Minutes after setting up a good slick we had landed a 37-pound kingfish, then the action stopped dead as the tide began to fall. My many years of experience chasing kingfish told me to pull the anchor and begin slow trolling ribbonfish deep in the middle of the channel during the first of the falling tide. Setting a ribbonfish at 25 feet of water with our Cannon downrigger paid off with a 35-pound kingfish and several smaller kings to follow.

Other species like tarpon, cobia, sharks, jack crevalle and redfish also put on a major feed at the mouths and up in the inlets during the last of the flooding tide. As the tide begins to fall, these gamefish make their way into deeper water where the inlet meets the ocean and feed for a short period of time before spreading out into the nearby open waters.

lady fly fishing from a kayak towards mangroves
An incoming flood tide at Duck Key offers ideal fly fishing opportunities for a variety of South Florida shallow water sportfish.

In shallower haunts, redfishing can either be excellent on certain tides, or awful if you don't know how to fish them properly. Redfish will move up onto the flats during a flooding tide and relocate into deeper nearby channels during low tidal phases. Some of the most exciting redfishing in Northeast Florida comes during a flood tide on a spartina marsh flat.  Here redfish will feed tail up and head down on fiddler crabs and other crustaceans. During a dead low tide, the redfish will opt to school in big numbers on a shallow nearby mud flat waiting for the tide to flood nearby marshes. The ever-popular seatrout will also move up close to shoreline cover during a flood tide and venture deeper during the falling tide.

Offshore fishermen will also experience better fishing conditions when the tide is right, not only while targeting striking fish but bottom fish as well. Here the same rule of thumb applies, the tides have greater effects on offshore fish havens that are located closer to major inlet mouths.

boat stuck on land after tide falls in florida
Fishermen that do not pay close attention to a falling tide may spend several hours waiting for the tide to once again flood!

The best way to keep track of the tides is to download a tide app on your phone where you can keep track of the tides not only on land but on your boat, too. Also keeping a log of when you have enjoyed the best fishing action on a particular tide is key! Detailed notes compiled over the years can reveal fish behaviors and patterns that you can utilize to better understand how to "go with the flow," resulting in better days on the water.

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