Despite all that has been written, and all of the times the topic has been addressed at seminars, confusion still reigns when it comes to tides and currents. It was an email followed by a phone call a few days later from two Fisherman readers questioning the accuracy of our tide tables that inspired me to revisit this topic. Add in some misconceptions concerning how fishing success relates to these key factors in the surf game, and the subject continues to beg for attention.
The most perplexing aspect of this issue is the number of experienced casters who fail to differentiate between tides and currents, despite some of them having as much as 10 or 20 years under their wader belts. Tide tables, which are the universal guide by which most anglers (boat and surf) plan their fishing around, refer to the rise and fall, or vertical movement of water levels. The reality is that much of the fishing we do revolves around the horizontal movement of the water, which is current.
I am always amazed at the number of anglers who refer to tide tables as a reference for moving water. I know because I continue to hear from and meet folks such as the two gentlemen referred to above, complaining that our tide tables are “off.” Reading a high tide for noon, and expecting the “current” to be moving in until noon, just isn’t going to happen at most fishing locations. The difference between high tide (peak water level) and high slack (when incoming water stops) can be as much as three hours in some areas. Long Island’s Fire Island Inlet is a prime example. In this area, the difference between high tide and high slack is generally two hours and 45 minutes, meaning that if high tide is at noon, the incoming current will not slack off until 2:45 p.m. You do need to keep in mind though that current times can fluctuate due to such factors as excessive wind, extreme tides, coastal storms and lunar phases.
That differential between tide and current remains pretty consistent, so that once you calculate that difference for the areas you fish, you will be able to figure high or low slack times based upon the times of high or low tide. If you fish around inlets, harbor entrances, main channels, or bridges, you are fishing the current in most cases. Along open beach areas with little current flow, tide becomes the critical factor. Tide is also a major factor when low water is required to access a particular stretch of water like a main channel, or to make your way through a slough to an outer bar.
A generally accepted belief among many surf fishermen is that you need good current flow for stripers to feed. While it is true that good current flow generates rips and eddies which stripers use to feed, I’ve caught many big stripers around the current turns when water movement is minimal. In areas where big stripers gather in deep water rips out of range of surfcasters, those same fish often work their way into the shallows and along rocky shorelines probing for the likes of crabs, bergalls, blackfish and other potential “easy” meals when the current slackens and the rips dissipate. Big bass are lazy and will exert as little energy as is required to fill their stomachs.
With the exception of those places where a strong rip is the key to holding fish, I prefer that hour, sometimes two, on either side of slack water for most of my fishing. But even in places where a rip is a key factor in holding fish to an area, there are exceptions. The rip below the Montauk Lighthouse has been a striper magnet for decades, and many casters, including some very savvy surfmen, would amble off the rocks as the current slackened, often leaving me alone or with minimal company to fish the last hour of the incoming current. I can’t begin to tell you how many quality fish came off those rocks during that last hour.
Even where tide is the primary factor, that hour revolving around the end of the rising tide, and the beginning of the dropping tide has proven to be very productive for me at a number of oceanfront locations on Long Island and Cape Cod. Some spots have been equally productive within a short time frame at the bottom turn of the tide.
I’m a firm believer that there are no absolutes when it comes to the fishing game, and that is particularly true of surf fishing. I can recall scores of big bass taken by myself and others around the slack water turn and tide changes over the years, so to disregard those stages is blatantly foolish. If you are of that school, you may want to reconsider your approach, and by all means, be clear on the difference between tides and current.