A few years back I was fishing a big-current striper spot that had been producing good fish for a few weeks. The fish were hanging on an edge where the current was a bit slower, and they hunkered down on the bottom at peak current, which made them tough to catch. One night, it was a bit breezy with the wind against the current, which made for some tough conditions, but I stuck it out, knowing that eventually those fish would turn on. I picked at them in the middle of the outgoing tide, but with the strong current and wind, I couldn’t stay in the productive area.
Then it happened: the current slowed, the wind held me exactly where I wanted to be, and I was finally able to drift a big Hogy right through the fish. After hanging a couple, I checked the clock; it was 2 a.m. and about time to head home, but the conditions were too perfect to leave. On one of my dozen “last casts,” I felt a thud that indicated a solid eat and immediately came tight with a fish that was quickly pulling me downstream. Using the current, that fish dragged me a long way from where it had eaten my offering. Eventually I had the 48-inch bass kayak-side, but after a quick picture and release, I noticed I was a half mile from where I’d hooked up. It was easier to head back to the launch than to fight the current to get back to my spot, so it was time to go.
In the salt, it doesn’t matter what your target species is—the tides matter, and they make a substantial difference in how and when fish put on the feedbag. Most of us have a few locations that are particularly tide-dependent. If you’re there on the right tide, the fish are on, but when the tide isn’t right, you’re wasting time. However, most areas that produce on a specific tide have a spot where the fish hold on the opposite tide nearby.
In the Northeast, many of our local species of fish follow a similar pattern: they are least active at slack tide and during peak water movement. Slack tide usually occurs at the predicted low- or high-tide time, and peak water movement usually occurs halfway between the predicted tides. The currents are caused by tidal changes, and the size of the tide has a big impact on the speed of the current. As the current speeds up or slows down, the fish become more active; peak feeds often happen right before (or after) low or high tide. There are many spots that are exceptions to these rules, and that’s what makes striper fishing equally fun and challenging.
Many of my biggest stripers have come on the slack tide, usually after a strong bite moving toward the slack. When the bite is good, the fish are smaller, but when the tide slacks and the bite stops, that one monster comes in and eats your bait.
Most fish bite best on a moving tide. Fish such as fluke and winter flounder are notorious for striking only in moving water. For these species, time your trips to coincide with when the tide is moving.
Slow-moving and slack water give you an opportunity to present baits in areas that you can’t in a hard-running tide. Bridge pilings and reefs, for example, are much easier to fish in low or slack current. Many kayak anglers take advantage of the slowing tide by slipping up to a bridge and dropping a bait down for tautog or walking a bucktail along the edge of the pilings for fluke. The hour around slack tide is a good time to change tactics and hang some fish during an otherwise slow hour of fishing.
There are also many spots that don’t align with the tide charts, meaning that when the charts show the tide is high or low, there is still a current running. These spots are golden, as they usually are productive when the bite in other areas slows as the tide slacks out. These types of currents are very localized and are a big part of understanding your home waters. Pay close attention to water movement and how it aligns with the tide charts when you are out there.
Tides are especially challenging for kayakers. Most of us have at least one location where we would never fish at peak tide because the currents are too strong. I’m always cautious about fishing in new areas, but more than once I have found myself fighting against strong currents because I neglected to time the tide. It is always smart to check in with the locals before launching in a new spot. Even if they are secretive about where you will find fish, they will always tell you the dangerous spots to avoid.
Unlike shore fishermen, we’re not stuck in one spot; we can pedal around looking for the best action and try a bunch of different areas. Learn your local waters and figure out which direction the currents flow on the incoming and outgoing tides. Once you understand them, combine that with the local structure, and identify the spots where current meets structure. These are the areas that will hold various species of predatory fish that are ready to feed.
Understanding the currents will also help you choose your launch sites. Check the tide charts before you go so you don’t have to fight the current. It is always a nice change of pace to ride the tide out, then have it change so you can ride it back in.
Start keeping a log of your trips, noting where you fished and the tide direction. After a season or two, you will have a local map of tide-specific locations where you had success.
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