The anglers to my right were about to call it quits. One had hooked his plug on his reel and was chatting with his friends, while the other two cast half-heartedly. The new moon, and its supersized tides, had brought several nights of good fishing, and I had seen this trio every time I’d been out. They were probably there on the night I slept through my alarm, too. But it was a Sunday night, the tide was dying, and the spring run was waning while the Buck Moon was waxing. If nothing happened in the next 10 minutes, I’d have the beach to myself at slack tide.
Years ago, I might have helped them along by stopping fishing and heading for the parking lot, betting that my apparent giving up would be contagious. But surfcasting subterfuge is a young man’s game, and at some point in my middle 30s, I realized that the true competition in surf fishing is against oneself and the fish. Crowds of fishermen—like the tides, wind, and moon phase—are just another condition to be considered when deciding where to go and when to get there.
I continued to cast with a purpose. The big-fish window I hoped would open might open only a crack, and only for an instant, so any cessation of fishing activities could cause me to miss it.
Among tuna fishermen, the productivity of slack tide is no secret. Tuna, unlike stripers, seem to dislike fighting the current, so they feed most heavily during the switch. While fishing for giant tuna off Chatham, Massachusetts, in July 2020, a malfunctioning livewell and pesky blue shark left us baitless during the prime slack-tide window. When it arrived, we watched boats all around us get tight with giant tuna as the fish we’d been marking all morning began to feed with reckless abandon. Boats who landed their fish quickly were able to deploy a second bait and hook up again. We ran off in search of bait, but by the time we returned with a few frisky mackerel, the current had picked up and the tuna had gone.
For the most part, the most productive striper tides run counter to the most productive tuna tides, with bass feeding heavily at peak tide and shutting down at slack. This even extends to the moon phases, as tuna captains prefer the neap tides of the first and last quarter moons over the spring tides of the new and full moons.
All this is to say that slack tide is not generally regarded as a prime time to catch stripers and, honestly, it isn’t. Faster stages of the tide produce more consistent fishing with stripers than slack, but slack can produce the largest fish of the trip.
Lures and Baits for Slack Tide
When packing plugs and jigs for slack tide, choose slow-sinking or floating lures that don’t require a fast retrieve or strong current to swim naturally. Large soft plastics like the Gravity Tackle Eel or Z-Man HeroZ fished weightless or on lightly weighted swimbait hooks are excellent choices. Surface-swimming metal lips also draw big slack-tide bites as do slow-sinking and floating glidebaits. However, the best choice for fooling a slack-tide monster is to keep it real.
Stripers feeding in current have to make a fast decision about whether to strike a lure or let it pass, but when the current slows, a big bass can, and will, give your lure the hairy eyeball. A live eel or chunk of bunker can be the best slack-tide offering of all. Even a bass that’s full after feeding throughout the tide will find room for a fresh chunk or lively eel.
One of the running theories on why slack tide produces the biggest fish is that larger stripers are more calculating in how they expend their energy, so they wait for the tide to slow before they begin to feed. I’ve never liked the “big, lazy bass” theories. You need only watch a 40-pounder erupt through 4 knots of Cape Cod Canal current to annihilate a Magic Swimmer to realize that big bass have no issues running down baitfish in fast-moving water.
I think slack tide regularly produces the largest fish because that’s the only time they see your lure. Striped bass hierarchy runs according to size, so the biggest bass get the best ambush points. These are often so far into the structure or tight to the bottom that it’s difficult to effectively present a lure to the fish under these circumstances. Slack tide brings a shuffling of the deck, however. The fish leaves its ambush point to go to its favored spot for the next tide and, finally, that plug you’ve been throwing all night swims through its field of vision.
I wasn’t rooting for those fishermen to leave because I didn’t want them to see, and expose, my “secret” slack-tide window—I just wanted my plug to be the only one in the water when the big fish swam past.
They did leave, and I kept casting until I noticed my lure sweeping in the opposite direction, but the big bite never came. That’s the nature of the slack-tide window, and the reason you often have it to yourself: most slack tides pass without a hit, but, for the surfcasters who refuse to slack off at slack tide, the biggest fish of the season, and maybe their lives, will be the eventual reward.