The tide is the single most important feature sea anglers need to consider for consistently successful fishing. It governs everything from the most obvious aspects of the sport to the most subtle.
At one end of the spectrum it dictates when there is enough water to fish or launch a boat. At the other, it is the major factor controlling where, when and in what way the fish feed.
What the tide does
To the novice, the tide dictates the height of the water and the direction in which it flows. But to the thinking angler, that is only part of the story. Far more important is the way fish react to the state of the tide, how the tide affects bait presentation and the interaction between both of these.
However, the way fish react to the tide itself depends on many factors. Water clarity, wind direction, the time of day, barometric pressure, the kind of food available and so on, all influence the fish in some way.
The subject is so complicated that anyone claiming to understand it fully has probably failed to grasp the complexity of the problem. The more you learn about it, the more you realise there is to learn.
Fortunately, even a basic understanding is of great benefit. It allows you to avoid the unproductive times, and helps you catch more during the time you spend fishing.
Some easy aspects
Certain tidal effects are fairly easy to understand. On some rocky shore marks, for example, you only have access to deep water at certain states of the tide.
On open beaches, fish usually move in on the flood and retreat with the ebb. This is the only way they can take advantage of the rich feeding in places that dry out at low tide, although they often do this even when there is enough water throughout the tide.
However, this is only part of the story. The fish may only appear at a certain mark on spring or neap tides, or may arrive at different times depending on the size of the tide. Some knowledge of these movements is a great advantage.
For example, fishing for smooth hounds at one spot on a creek may produce two periods of activity. It can be tempting to think that this is when the smoothies come on the feed but it’s more likely that they’re moving up and down with the tide.
Fish several spots and note the size as well as the state of the tide when you get bites at each spot. This means you build up a picture of the fishes’ movements on each type of tide. You can then choose to move several times to intercept them, or stay where you are and fish for flounders and eels until the smoothies return.
It’s also important from the boat. Cod, among others, may feed in deep gulleys and on shallower banks. Quite often the cod are in the gulleys while the tide is slack, but move up the bank when it starts to run.
You might have to move up the bank in stages to stay with them. You may even have to move along the bank to keep ahead of the big concentrations of fish. It sounds complicated, but if you discover the exact movements of your local fish populations the effort is repaid by fish in the boat.
Up or down?
Spare some thought as to where fish feed in the water. Under normal conditions, whiting, for example, tend to feed on the bottom when the tide is running hard, and so a flowing trace often works best.
However, when the tide slackens, whiting often rise up in the water. This is when a paternoster can be deadly. Whiting are often at their most suicidal over slack water, but remember that many other species are harder to catch.
When the tide is running hard, cod can react to a large bait on the bottom, but the same tactics usually work far less well over slack water. Have the fish stopped feeding? Are they feeding in a different way? Or have they lifted up in the water?
The answer is probably a combination of the three, depending on the location. A change of tactics is certainly called for. In clear water a pirk may tempt a cod when the big static bait fails. In coloured water a smaller bait fished on, or just above, the bottom sometimes produces a few fish.
Ebb or flood?
Some mysteries of the tide are not easily solved at all, but a little thought may point you in the right direction. Why do some marks produce on the flood, while others give the best sport on the ebb?
It may be that the fish are more numerous on a mark at certain tidal states. But there are some cases, especially when boat fishing, when that isn’t the whole story.
At some places and states of the tide, anglers fail dismally while trawlers in the same area take big catches. It seems the fish haven’t disappeared at all—the anglers just aren’t presenting their baits in the right way. There is little point in persisting with a method which isn’t working at that state of the tide.
In the short term, try to learn the states of the tide at which your local marks fish best, moving between them to maximize your sport. The alternative is to solve the problem at a particular mark. Sometimes a minor adjustment in tackle, presentation or bait can have amazing results.
How often have you watched an angler remain Ashless for most of the day, while others around him are catching, only to see him turn the tables at the last minute? He then takes several good fish, while his companions catch nothing.
This happens too often for it to be coincidence every time. The real reason is probably a difference in bait presentation. A change in the tide and the fishes’ behaviour suddenly makes a previously unattractive rig unbeatable. The trick is to work out when these changes take place, and keep one step ahead of the fish.
Sometimes the tide makes it easy for you. When it concentrates food in a small area, birds and fish can provide physical clues to what is happening. The tide races which occur when a breakwater or headland restricts the tide, between offshore rocks, or where tides meet, are prime examples.
While the tide is slack, you won’t see much but as the tide picks up, the predators gather… Their quarry is the sandeels and whitebait swept along in the tide – the speed of the tide making it harder for the small fish to avoid the predators.
Pollack lurk in the deeper water, sweeping upward as the small fish are carried over them. Closer to the surface, a shoal of mackerel smashes into the tightly packed prey in a feeding frenzy, while bass make the mackerel their quarry.
If chased to the surface, the small fish attract a mass of seabirds — an angler’s beacon. Gannets plunging into a seething mass of fish is a truly breathtaking sight – especially when it leads to a shoal of big bass!