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Get a chart, learn tides, catch fish


© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 9, 2001

The caller was sincere.

"When is the best time to go fishing?" she asked.

I thought about it, but before I could answer, she clarified her question:

"We don't want to waste our time if we are not going to catch anything."

Few people want to fish without catching anything, but it can be a bit difficult to predict the appearance of fish from a desk in downtown St. Petersburg. I resorted to the most common denominator of successful anglers:

"Look at the tides, ma'am. Just look at the tides."

There is nothing a saltwater angler can do to increase success more, apart from buying fillets at a fish market, than knowing the tides.

Fish feed on moving water. Snook, redfish, trout, even offshore species such as grouper and king mackerel are affected by tides.

The folks at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have done their best to furnish fishermen with tide tables. But anglers should remember these are only predictions.

"The chart says it is supposed to be low but I am looking out my window and I still see water," a caller said recently. "You need to run a correction."

I thought about the man's statement, mulling the explanation and it's complexities. Tampa Bay is a relatively shallow body of water, and strong winds can influence tide by as much as a foot. It may look as if the tide isn't changing because the wind has stacked water against the shoreline.

All fine and well, the man said, but what should he tell the men who were there to fix his sea wall?

I had no response.

If the caller had been a fisherman, I would have told him there are several things to consider when deciding where and when to fish. These include the sun, the moon, the time of day, the tide, the terrain, the water temperature, the depth and the salinity.

There is no magic formula.

Most anglers agree that fish feed most actively with a changing tide, but not all tides are created equal. The amount of water flow, or height of the changing tide, is critical. An 8-inch tide will not move as much water (and bait) across a grass flat as a 2-foot tide.

So, if you want to catch fish, pick a day with a strong tide. Then fish an hour after high tide (as the water begins to drop) or an hour after low tide (as the water begins to rise). The more water that moves through an area, the more likely that predators will be there to pick off bait.

The best bet is to look at the tide chart on Friday's Outdoors page. This chart shows the highs and lows and which tides have the strongest flow.

"So pick a good, strong tide," I told the female caller. "That's when the fish will be biting."

She thanked me and said she was going into her garage to grab the newspaper out of the recycle box so she could find a good, strong, fish-feeding tide.

"That's the ticket," I said. "Unless of course, there is a full or new moon. Then all bets are off."

She wanted to learn more, but I told her that it would just have to wait for another day and another column.

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