On The Hook: Apportioning the tide

Bill Walsh
Len Gibson, fishing with guide Patrick Blake catching a big amberjack near Rookery Bay.

Suppose all of us who fish forget all we know about saltwater fishing except for one factor, which one would you choose? Would it be cast netting skills? Or maybe the various techniques for snook? Both of those would be valuable remembrances that took countless hours to develop.

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There are endless learning experiences in working the salt and all of them steeped in hours of experience. But, this week, I’m going to try and convince you that, in the salt, simply understanding how fish react to the tide is the key factor and this little article will try and lay it out for you.

The tidal factor divided into segments has ahold of fishing activity mainly in the backwaters and nearshore and diminishes somewhat as you move further offshore. 

 My teacher was a customer some years back that showed me how. I’ll refer to him as “George.” George was an engineer by trade and an angler by passion. He lived in a world where .0001 variance on a micrometer makes the difference on the tolerance of a shaft bearing and applies the same micro management to his saltwater fishing.

Out of the blocks, when he was here and wanted a trip on the briny, he wouldn’t call and ask for a morning or afternoon trip he would announce a tide change timing “Captain, how about a 10:50 AM start next Thursday for a five-hour trip”. What he’s done is scan the online tide tables for Marco Island and pick a robust tide day with the commencement time at a specific change of tide timing.

On the day he picked as our example, that timing was an hour after dead low tide time with a just above average predicted tidal strength on the following incoming water. His theory was that the tide, although running in or out is never at the same strength.

Our appointed day that early spring week dawned bright and pleasant with seasonal temperatures, winds and devoid of any chance of precipitation. That start timing was critical to George’s theory; low tide had occurred just after 9 a.m. at the Marco River and then goes through a slack water period of 15 to 30 minutes where there is zero tidal water movement and then (if we’re lucky) the new tide will begin to inch in very slowly and is virtually impossible to pin down exactly, so George’s choice of a 10:30 start gave him lots of leeway.

His computer program also provided hourly tidal water speeds, so he could tell the slowest to fastest water hours and that, folks, is how he built his strategy.

The predictions for the early incoming tidal water that day was very weak (slow). George directed me to the edges of Capri Pass over by Sandollar Island which would have the best of that early tidal strength. And with tipped jigs, sure enough we ran into some nice size scrappy pompano and they hit the ice chest for dinner.

George kept checking his watch and the smartphone screen. Suddenly, he announced, “Let’s go, take me to some mangrove snapper beds close by; we want to be there just as this tide strength arrives.” We move north to Rookery Bay post haste and set up just off Henderson Creek. By Jove, the snapper action is just as he predicted; small fish as the water starts to roll in and the snaps go to 12” as the tidal flow matures. A couple of 12” beauties hits the ice.

I’m beginning to think this a fishing trip on steroids, George announces that the tide has reached max speed and will be pushing max water for the next two hours, “take us to a spot well off these points and toward the coves and cuts where the snapper and fellow predators have tucked themselves away.”


And away we go hightailing it up the Marco River and up into the cuts and crannies of Addison Bay. We choose a little-known tributary that meanders towards an aptly named “Unknown Bay” and set up on some, now, fast moving tidal water setting tight to the mangrove edges.

George is right again. The snappers are there, not quite as aggressive as they were on the points but still striking hard and providing great action. We even get into some 6-8-pound black drum which stretches the endurance factor pulling their bulk through the strong tidal current. We land a couple and decide to keep one. George strongly suggests that on the table they can’t be distinguished from the revered blackened redfish.

At this point of this trip, I don’t argue. A nice six-pound black drum hits the ice.

George speaks again after checking his tidal program and watch. “We are now in the final tidal phase and need to make one final move. We are entering the final hour of this tide and the fish will be returning to those first points we worked mid-morning.”

“You’re kidding,” I blurted after a midday romp through most of the fishing spots I knew.

George knew he had me in the “Tidal Time Vanguard Mode” by this time and reassured me that this would be the final segment of this adventure.

We run back to the Capri Pass as the water flow is slowing dramatically and sure enough George has another winner. We land another late afternoon pompano and with that turn the boat to the barn.

George is smiling like he just found another great job for his computer and slide rule.

Bottom line; all of us on the water can learn something great about segmenting the tide. Thanks, George.

Capt. Bill Walsh owns a charter fishing business and holds a U.S. Coast Guard license. Send comments to dawnpatrolmarco@cs.com.