Fish the Tide – Not the Clock
As we chug through the tail-end of Summer, a lot of water moves in and out of Tampa Bay. In terms of the tides, we will see some of the highest of the year and although the winter low tides are lower – they still get pretty low. What does that mean? A lot of water gets moved around and when specifically targeting our bay species, it’s important to understand a few things about fishing the tides and current if you want to be successful at targeting any given species.
For the purpose of this article, we are going to use targeting Gag Grouper as the example. Like any other species, we have many different techniques, areas, depths, baits, tackle, and other resources to help us in bringing the slabs over the rails. However, to be consistently successful you better get good at fishing the tide and not the clock. Learning how to read the water to adjust your fishing tactics, rig, bait, and even location is key. So, what does that mean? To make it simple, lets break it down into 3 different categories in terms of tidal current – Slack, Moderate, & Strong (regardless of incoming or outgoing).
Since it is the most ideal for Grouper fishing in the bay, let’s cover the “slack” tide first. This is the period during the tidal transition from incoming/outgoing where the current will be at a minimum. This is the best time to target Grouper for a few different reasons. For one, this is when they will be most active and likely to be roaming around whatever structure they are living on. With the bay being relatively shallow, this is extremely important in getting fish to the boat. The further you can get them to bite away from structure, the better. Secondly, since there is little current it will not require a lot of weight – if any, to get your bait in the strike zone. If you are on the troll, this is when your lures will run the best your boat will track “true” in the water enabling you to target ledges, channel edges, or rock piles more precisely. Most of the popular mitigation sites we fish on are giant rubble piles. The key is to fish as vertical as possible to use least amount of line possible yet still be in the strike zone. The slack tide makes this possible.
Now let’s talk about the “moderate” stages of the tidal cycle where the current isn’t moving the fastest but it’s definitely going to take some weight or a very large live bait to get to the bottom. In general, this is +/- 1 hour or so before and after slack tide. At times, this can be “magic” part of the day. Especially on those blistery hot days, Grouper will prefer a little water moving to get them eating. You will notice your chum starting to move at a good pace away from your boat and depending on where I am fishing, I would gauge this tide by a 1/2 to 1 oz sinker to get to the bottom. It shouldn’t take more than 8-10 sec for your bait to get to the bottom and if you are having to add more than 1 oz of lead to make that happen – its time to move or switch gears. If you are not getting snagged on the bottom, one thing you can do is re-adjust your boat a few paces up current of your target area to allow more time for your bait to get to the bottom. Just be careful, this is where you start to flirt with danger. Just remember the more line you need to let out to get in the strike zone is more time the Grouper has to find a rock on the way in. The stronger the current, the more help they have in getting to wherever they want to go.
That brings us to the last portion of the tide cycle that we will call “strong”. Honestly, this is the most unpredictable. In theory, this is hypothetically the middle to end of either the outgoing or incoming tide. However, it can be greatly affected by weather. This is the point in the tide where the current is strongest. You will see an obvious “rip” or current break behind the back of your boat, around channel markers, bridge pilings, buoys, etc. Your chum will fly out the back of your boat and will be out of sight in a matter of seconds. Any free-lined bait will struggle to break the surface tension and get down without a substantial amount of weight. Now is the time to pack it in. For me, Grouper fishing is shut down. I’m not saying that you can’t or won’t catch fish. You can and you will. It’s just not ideal or practical for me. It normally turns into a tangled mess behind the back of the boat or baits are getting drug into the structure. Basically, it’s a lot more hassle than it’s worth. Head inshore and play with some Snook and Redfish on the light tackle gear instead. That’s ideal for the strong tides!
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