How to Fish Tidal rivers

The tidal sections often produce the best bags and specimens in the whole river system, says tidal river expert Bill Rushmer.

Tidal rivers often have relatively ugly, steep banking to contain the highest tides, while expanses of mud or gravel are exposed at low tide. This, coupled with the need to be mobile as the tide moves, tends to make tidal rivers unpopular with many anglers — but the rewards can be great for those who persevere.

The rewards The tidal sections often produce some of the biggest bags and finest specimens in a river system. The Thames is a good example, producing bream bags to over 120 lb (55kg), dace bags in excess of 50 lb (23kg), large bags of roach and specimens too – including sea fish. And the Thames is not unique: many other tidal rivers are capable of producing similar catches.

Where to start

Buy a set of tide tables from your local tackle shop. These are essential if your fishing is not to be a hit-or-miss affair – you can use them to find the exact state of the tide at a certain time. Visit the river at all stages of the tide, making notes of any interesting fish-attracting features. Speaking to and observing other anglers in action is a good short-cut to success. Tides The height and time of the tide change according to the venue and the phases of the moon.

On some waters there are four tides a day. This is the case on the Hampshire Avon and Dorset Stour where the tide comes in, rises to a certain height (first tide), then turns and flows out again. This cycle takes about six hours before starting again on the second tide.

On most tidal rivers the tide occurs only twice a day at roughly 12-hour intervals with a straight tide up and down motion.

Whatever the venue, the tides get slightly later every day so it is possible to choose a tide (high or low) that suits you. Fish movement The state of the tide affects fish location. As it flows and ebbs the character of each swim changes constantly – slack water on an incoming tide is seldom slack water on an outgoing tide. So don’t expect to find species that prefer slack water in exactly the same spot when the tide has changed – look for newly created slack areas. At high tide the fish are often found feeding close to the banks. Times Most anglers prefer to fish on an out- going or low tide because there is less water in the river and the fish are gathered more tightly. There is also less danger of getting swamped. Evening low tides are worth trying because fish often feed when light levels are low.

In general, it is best to avoid incoming tides. The water is dirty – containing suspended silt – and is often so highly coloured that fish cannot see the bait or else lose their appetite completely.

What to look for

Having come to terms with the tidal effects, you can apply the same kind of water craft to tidal rivers that you might do for any large coloured river. However, tidal rivers do have their own distinctive features. Weed beds are always a good fish-holding feature but are much less common on tidal rivers because tide, current and water opacity do not favour their growth. If they are present they provide good cover and normally contain roach, dace and a few predators.

Moored boats are common in most tidal rivers and often attract roach and – if they run the section — grey mullet. In summer at low water, when the silt has settled, the angler is often faced with clear, bright con- ditions which roach do not like (they tend to be sensitive to light). Since there is little weed, roach can often be found in fairly high concentrations under boats – especially where there is a steady flow of deepish water. By applying this knowledge an angler can often get a good bag of roach when other anglers fishing the open water are only catching dace. Islands and bridges Bream prefer sluggish water and are sometimes found in areas of slack water and slowly moving eddies behind islands and bridge buttresses. High, powerful tides or flood water force them to seek shelter in these areas. Catches vary according to the size of the venue and area of slack water. Rivers with high tides and large slacks like the Thames have produced bags in excess of 100 lb (45kg), often with some nice perch, and there is always the chance of a surprise fish like a big carp. Naturally, pike look into the swims for an easy meal and many of these bream-feeding pike are very big.

To get the best from these areas you really need a boat – it is important to stay in touch with what’s going on in your swim. As the tide comes in it may be necessary to move the boat closer to the island or buttress to stay in the slack water. Marina entrances are not as affected by the tides as other slack water areas, and appear to hold similar stocks but on a more regular basis.

Fast gravel runs tend to be the main dace holding areas. Depending on the venue, you can sometimes find barbel as well – especially if there is any weed cover nearby. Roach like gravel runs too, but on bright days some cover is often crucial. Trees Fallen trees and overhanging trees offer good cover to such predators as perch and chub.

Salt water penetration In summer this can be a problem – particularly on the lower reaches of a tidal river. High tides combined with low flow rates bring salt water farther upstream and with it come the sea species. On the Thames, flounder and bass are found as far upstream as Teddington (the point at which the river becomes non-tidal). You may be surprised to catch grey mullet too but they are regular visitors to many tidal rivers and can produce excellent sport (they are great fighters on freshwater river tackle).


When it comes to selecting tactics, water craft is important on any water but on tidal rivers it is critical. Strong turbulence and undercurrents make it difficult to fish with light tackle. This is particularly true of the deeper swims when the tide is moving. In general, it is best to fish slightly heavier than you would on the non-tidal sections – the exception being when fishing for dace in the more gravelly runs.

Traditional methods like trotting bread can often score over the more conventional trotted maggot. Water in tidal rivers is often fairly dirty and turbulent with nasty undercurrents. In these conditions heavy tackle and highly visible baits such as bread work best — especially on such rivers as the Hampshire Avon, the Arun and Adur (both in Sussex), the Dorset Stour, the Thames and the tidal Severn.