How to

The nature of tides

FOR me fishing isn’t easy, and it certainly isn’t simple! There are very few situations where you turn up blindly, blissfully unaware of your surroundings and cast in and catch a fish. More often it is a very complex business based on your knowledge of the tides, local factors, the weather and the time of day. My mind constantly ticks over with plans and options for my next days off. I’ve learnt a lot about tides in over 50 years of fishing. They fascinate me. Like most serious fishos I have apps on my phone, Facebook full of local reports and an awareness of what is going on in my local waters through talking to mates. The information is never ending. Perhaps we are information over loaded! All this information is used to strategize and plan the next fishing trip.

VIDEO: How tides work

My main problem lately is constant appalling weather with seemingly never- ending south easterlies. I was also out of action for six weeks after undergoing quite major surgery where I couldn’t drive, and I couldn’t fish. This drove me completely loopy with pent up frustration due to a lack of fishing trips. I’d just moved into a new house and my boats were now on pontoons ready to go with maybe ten minutes notice. Huge seas, tidal wave alerts and big tides all rolled one into the other. But if you know your tides and your local estuaries even in bad weather it may be possible to hatch a good plan. I had a severe case of cabin fever!

Mud crabs are one of my favourite foods. A few weeks back, when it was still blowing hard at 30 knots, there was big morning high tides peaking at around two metres. Strange as it may seem, catching big male mud crabs is very tide dependent in most local rivers on the Gold Coast. While technically crabbing isn’t fishing, the same principles apply. I had a plan! The Pimpama River is one of my favourite crabbing rivers, but in the last two years, probably because of the extensive housing development in the river’s catchment, the crabbing was poor. But there were plenty of pictures on the dreaded FB of big numbers of crabs, and it looked like the crabs had made a resurgence. For another unknown reason, male crabs behave differently to female crabs when it comes to moving upstream on the tide. They tend to move on a very specific part of the tide.

The Pimpama River is a pretty place with grassy banks and plenty of wildlife. It also holds a healthy population of feral pigs in its surrounding swamps. The downside is that it is also a shallow slime filled bog with narrow channels and mud that will suck your leg in if you are stupid enough to try and push your boat off if you get stuck on a mud bank. Such places are loved by crabs! If you fell in, I’m pretty sure they would eat you! On a big run-in tide, an hour after the turn, the water flows hard over the mud, and the small channels, around a metre deep, often see hundreds of crabs on the move upstream. For unknown reasons this is the only time on the tide where male mud crabs seem to outnumber female crabs. In Queensland female crabs must be returned, and a bag limit of seven crabs per person applies with a boat limit of 14 crabs. Male mud crabs must be at least 15cm across the shell, which is a solid crab. Sometimes you’ll catch over 50 crabs but only have one or two keepers. On this day we set 8 pots baited with mullet in a small side channel. As the tide pushed up over the flats, I was confident of success, and on checking them 40 minutes later, we had seven beautiful big male crabs. On the second check we had several dozen crabs, but none were legal size, and most were female. The male crabs had already moved upstream. I first discovered this strange anomaly in male crab migration ten or so years ago and it has repeated itself many times. I don’t know why it happens, or how it happens, but it is a repeated pattern that gets me a lot of crabs, enough to potentially cause gout! What I want to emphasise is that I learnt this pattern over quite a few years by keeping careful note of the tides that were successful, and once you find a pattern it tends to repeat itself. This strange correlation between tides and male crab movement is one of the many odd things I’ve found over the years when it comes to the behaviour of marine creatures.

In coastal estuaries with species such as flathead it can be relatively easy to interpret why certain tides produce plenty of fish, as the intertidal zones and run off channels are much easier to understand.

At the other end of the scale, out well wide of the continental shelf, tides still matter when it comes to fish activity. I like fishing for blue marlin from my- six metre centre console and over the years we’ve caught a lot of these great fish. The bit I can’t understand is why in often 400 metres of water with two knots of current on a wide blue ocean seemingly devoid of life, blue marlin always seem to bite in the hour around a tide change. How does a marlin notice that the water is a bit deeper? I’ve repeatedly seen over a dozen boats trolling on some of the recognised grounds for hours on end with maybe one or two strikes between them, and in the hour around the tide change every boat hooks up in a flurry of activity that generally fades back an hour or so later. How do gigantic fish in incredibly deep water even notice a tide change? It is another example of the more we know, the less we know! When it comes to tides it is often possible to work out a pattern of tide related behaviour with certain species but working out the “why” it happens is often difficult. With marlin it seems they move towards the surface on the change of tide, which may happen as the prey they chase moves as well. We know that for blue marlin tide can be a major factor. We just don’t know why it is! This pattern of blue marlin strikes coming on tide changes seems to hold true all along the Australian coastline.

In coastal estuaries with species such as flathead it can be relatively easy to interpret why certain tides produce plenty of fish, as the intertidal zones and run off channels are much easier to understand. Predators that hunt by ambush in shallow water are always affected by tidal flow. The interesting thing that happens on offshore grounds the that the same tidal patterns occur, where fish tend to feed actively around the change of the tide. In most cases we have no idea why this happens. It is fascinating to look at how these patterns repeat themselves on offshore species such as snapper and mackerel. In most offshore grounds the current doesn’t change with a change of tide and unlike the estuaries it is hard to notice any perceivable difference in water quality, flow or wave action.

Spanish mackerel migrate south along the Queensland Coast in summer and generally appear on my local reefs in early January. These excellent eating fish are a very popular target species and can be caught by several methods. Once again, however, the bites are often related to a change in tide. Mackerel are most active in the hours around dawn, and if there is a coinciding high tide it often coincides with a hot bite. These fish can be ferocious or fickle. When they are fickle trolling a live bait from a down rigger on high tide at dawn should be a reliable way to get a few bites. Each area varies when it comes to working out the optimal conditions for mackerel. It is important to keep a diary and mark the tides and moon phases on both successful and unsuccessful trips. Sometimes a high tide around 8 to 9am sees the dawn bite period extended as the low light bite time extends to the tide change. Not many mackerel are caught in the middle of the day.

Barramundi in tidal rivers feed according to the tide, but in yet another strange anomaly, big barramundi in inland impoundments often become very active in the hour around a tide change, even though there is no perceptible tidal variation in a dam. I had a lot of doubts on this initially, but a lot of experienced impoundment anglers have noticed this, and my own catches also tend to corelate this as much more than a coincidence. Fish seem to have an inbuilt sense of tidal movement even when there is no apparent tide! Obviously tidal movement is controlled by the moon, and impoundment barramundi’s activity varies according to the lunar cycle and the prevailing conditions.

What all the above shows me is that our superficial understanding of how marine creatures behave when it comes to the movement of tides is rudimentary at best. Like the mud crabs in my local river or big blue marlin wide of the continental shelf, we really have little idea why these creatures do what they do. The more you learn, the more the realisation that we are only scratching the surface when it comes to understanding the feeding behaviour of fish. This has been the basis by which many cultures have put there observations together to teach people the best times to fish. Maori fishing charts are a good example of this.

The next important variable that greatly effects fish activity is time of day. Fish activity for many species is most intense in low light conditions around dawn and dusk, and this is a time where they actively feed as the low light conditions make them less visible to their prey. A lot of species that are ambush predators use the cover of darkness to silhouette their prey from underneath against the night sky. The transition from the dark of night to daylight often sees baitfish feeding actively, exposing themselves to predators. I’ve found when fishing the closer reefs that arriving before dawn and berleying hard often attracts quite big bait schools around the boat, and the predators arrive with just the faintest hint of light. Typical species that feed in low light conditions include snapper, mulloway, mackerel and barramundi. Despite low light, these predators are still quite adept at finding lures on the blackest nights. In hard fished areas reefs may seem empty of any reasonable fish during office hours, yet they continue to produce good catches at dawn, dusk and into the night. This can be further enhanced when there is a tide change an hour or so after dark.

Tides, moons, sunrise and sunsets are all predictable, so you can plan trips well ahead of time to optimise these variables. Despite the best planning, you can never be sure of the weather. If you are planning a trip to a remote location make sure you get as much information as possible as to which tides work best. As an example, if you are visiting the Northern Territory in the build up period, try to avoid going on big spring tides. While there may be offshore options, big tides can turn the rivers to mud and in a lot of places make Barra fishing impossible with lures. Never presume that the tides you like to fish at home are the tides that will work in other areas. Tidal differentials vary greatly from place to place and a big tide in the Kimberley’s may have a ten-metre change in just a few hours. These tides can be scary!

I’ve been an avid watcher of the tides for many decades and find I am constantly learning. It is important to record the tides and conditions that you have fished on all your trips, as this will, in time, let you work out predicable patterns of fish behaviour that will increase your future success. 

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