TIDAL WATER BASSIN'
by Jim Porter
In 30 years of bass fishing, the most predictably and consistently productive waters this author has found have always been in tidal areas.
Now, many of you may find that opening statement pretty strong, especially those who are not familiar with tidal waters. However, it is quite true. I have been lucky enough to fish for largemouth bass all over the World and, possibly with the exception of some private phosphate pits in Florida, tidal waters stand tall as the overall best.
Let me give you some characteristics of tidal water bassin' to start thinking about and then we'll discuss the subject in depth:
No matter what type of water you may fish, there is one `rule' which remains constant: Moving water draws feeding bass like a magnet. In the shallow, grass-bowl lakes of Florida, any flowing canal, or run-off water from sustained rains, is a sure place to locate bass. In more Northern reservoirs, the junctions of feeder creeks and tributaries provide excellent feeding areas for the fish. River fishermen know all too well that certain locations with specific current-related characteristics continually hold bass schools. Tidal waters, with their near-constant state of motion, are no exception, only better!
- With the exception of short periods of time at both maximum high and low tide conditions, tidal waters are
in continual motion.
- The constantly moving currents preclude
stratification of the water by temperature or oxygen level.
- The oxygen content is nearly always excellent.
- The shallow zones are always cooler in Summer and warmer in Winter than a body of still water would be.
- The fluctuating direction of tidal flows creates structure features not found in non-tidal rivers and lakes.
- The resident bass are much more heavy-bodied and stronger than their still-water cousins.
- The waters are very fertile and normally clean.
- The bass are extremely predictable as to location and feeding patterns.
- Tidal water bass are generally found at the same depths year-round, though their responses will be slower
during the colder months.
When the angler evaluates the topography and special features of tidal areas, he will find the opportunities for locating bass numerous. For discussion purposes, we will divide tidal waters into three zones: coastal flats and bays; confined tributaries; and, inland marshes.
Working our way in from the source of tidal influence, the ocean, we first note the coastal flats and bays. These may be rather large expanses, such as Pamlico Sound in North Carolina, or smaller areas, where a river empties directly into the ocean. In either case, the general terrain is normally shallow, grass-filled flats, with limited variation of depth. The area near the entrance of the tributaries will usually be very shallow, due to the build-up of silt, while the depth will increase further out into the bay.
These bays and flats will be brackish waters, with an increasing degree of salinity as one approaches closer to the actual ocean. Bass have been found to be very tolerant of a goodly amount of salt in their water, so how close to the actual ocean they may be found must be determined for each specific area. A good rule of thumb is that the rear one-half of the bay should support bass.
In addition to the natural vegetation, certain man-made features will be found in these locations. Among these are sea walls, piers, boat houses, bridges and associated rip-rap, barge and boat mooring areas, and duck blinds.
The tidal water bass of the bays and flats will orient to water flow, first, and objects, second. Moving water brings food and bass know that very well. Accordingly, groups of bass will be found where the current if flowing, yet in a location that allows them to remain just out of its effects. Because of this, any area of constriction, such as the passageway under a bridge or a open zone between heavy weed growth can be real 'hot-spots'. No matter which way the tidal current is moving through a constriction, the bass will normally be on the down-current side and holding in an area of eddy water. Look for the back-flow of an eddy and work the edge of it thoroughly.
This leads to one of the important rules for fishing tidal water- `bass will virtually never be found in the same locations on both outgoing and incoming tides.' Similar locations, yes; the same locations, no. This must be fully understood so that time is not wasted fishing yesterday's 'hot spot', when the tidal conditions are different today. A bass loves moving water and the food it brings, but he must have an adjacent, protected area to hold out of the force of the flow.
Areas of open water grass can be exceptionally good, but, again, the angler should apply the principles of reading current flow. In addition, attention should be paid to depth. Moving water is `bulk' material. As such, it tends to flow with greater force within, and along, a channel or area of increased depth. In the tidal bays and flats, these `channels' may be very subtle and noted by nothing more than a foot or so of depth variation. Should you locate a slightly deeper area within the vast expanse of weed growth, note closely its boundaries and the relationship to the weed beds. The bass will use the weeds for cover and concealment, as well as a shield against the current flow. Normally, expect to find them in the down-current edge of the weeds closest to the strongest current.
Duck blinds and old mooring pilings are favorite fishing locations for most tidal water anglers. They are also favored by bass, since they are some of the few open water objects the fish have to relate to. Bass are nearly always found around these locations, but the best will still be determined by reading the adjacent current flow. Duck blinds always have an opening in the center, accessible from one end of the blind, or from the rear. In addition to its perimeter, be sure to fish within the blind, itself. In warm weather, be especially cautious of snakes sunning on the grass, limbs and poles of duck blinds.
A `confined tributary' is any creek, stream or river which is effected by the tidal fluctuations. Bass populations in these waters are usually very high and extremely predictable as to location, again by reading the current flow and the adjacent shielding ambush areas.
A tidal tributary has some interesting characteristics which differ from its non-tidal cousins. First, the alternating direction of the changing tidal flows has a tendency to create deep holes in areas where the bottom composition is soft. Accordingly, the tributary may have an average depth of 10-15 feet, but have deep areas of up to 50 and 60 feet. Where, in a non-tidal tributary the inside bends of a channel turn are usually shallow and have a bar, the tidal counterpart usually has a deep hole on the inside bend. However, there may be a bar below and/or above that hole. These bars, or the bank area upstream or downstream from the hole, serve are current breaks for holding and feeding bass. Which ones hold fish are defined by the direction of the tidal currents at the time. Nearly always, the downstream current break is the one to fish.
The outside bends of the tributary may also have a deep area, depending on the sharpness of that bend. However, there is an oddity to these outside turns. Most seem to have a shallow shelf which runs out for a distance before dropping off into the deep water. The tidal current will generally maintain itself within the deeper confines of the channel, and the bass hold on the shallow shelf in the slight eddy that is created.
Another interesting, and important, characteristic of a tidal tributary has to do with the mouths of feeder creeks and other major drainages into it. In non-tidal situations, feeder creeks usually have a defined channel which extends a distance out into the adjoining tributary, with a bar on the down-stream side. Since `down-stream' changes four times a day in tidal waters, the currents never allow this bar to fully form. If one is noted, it will usually be very small.
In addition, the protruding channel also is also absent.What is usually found is that, at the place where the feeder creek flow intersects the main tributary flow, a washout will occur, resulting in a hole with a steep drop-off. Bass will gather along the top lip of this drop on outgoing tides and for short periods when the maximum high and low tide conditions are reached.
The further upstream one goes in the tributary, the less the tidal influence will be. Consequently, these characteristic features we have mentioned will gradually diminish.
The `inland marsh' areas are those back-waters off the confined tributary. These usually have a feeder creek or main drainage channel flowing through their midst and will have numerous small drainage ditches and channels intersecting all along its course. At high tide, virtually all the marsh will be flooded, while at low tide possibly only the drainage channels will contain water. When the marsh is flooded, the bass will seek food out in the thick cover growth. In most cases, the marsh flats, themselves, are inaccessible. However, when the waters begin to fall, the bass instinctively move towards deeper water and will normally return to the drainage channels. For that reason, falling and low tide conditions are always prime times to be in the marsh areas.
Moving waters are being constantly mixed. Accordingly, there is very little, if any, stratification by temperature level or oxygen content. This fact is very much in the favor of the angler, in that it normally precludes bass from taking up deep water positions in tidal areas. In fact, the year-round depth pattern on any given body of tidal water remains generally constant. The one major difference in cold and hot weather fish positioning is that the bass will not be found in the shallow cover zones during the colder months. The cold causes the food chain to vacate the shallows and move to open water areas. The bass, of course, follow.
We have already mentioned the feeder creeks and drainage channels in regards to where they converge with the main tributary. In addition to that drop-off and hole at the mouth, there are a couple of other features to be noted. As the creek or channel intersects the tributary, its waters, and the accompanying silt it carries, will encounter the resistance of the tributary flow at incoming and high tide conditions. This causes a build-up of the slit just inside the mouth and creates a shallow area. Just behind the shallow slit bar, the waters will start to deepen again and this is an excellent place to find schools of bass. First, it provides a current shield on the incoming tide. Second, it traps limbs and other debris drifting out on a falling water condition and often creates what tidal anglers refer to as `log jams'.
Lure selections for tidal waters follow the same criteria as for any other location. First, key the lure to the depth of water to be fished. Experience has shown that the vast majority of tidal water bass are caught, year-round, in ten feet, or less, of water. Second, consider the most probable retrieve speed, based on the season and water temperature. Temper both of these criteria with consideration of the lure's ability to be worked in the cover (grass, logs, duck blinds, etc.) of the area being addressed.
A third criteria is purely seasonal, and that is lure size. During the colder months, always go with small lures to insure maximum response.
While I am definitely not an advocate of lure color being relevant in catching bass, it does appear that some color selections work better in the brackish, stained tidal waters. The darker colored plastic worms and jigs always appear to do better. Black and purple get the top nods. This would seem reasonable, in that the aquatic life usually takes on the basic color of its surroundings. In crank
plugs, reflective chrome finishes are the top producers. White, yellow, and chartreuse are usually chosen by the spinner bait anglers. These brighter colors would seem to be a bit out of line with the rationale for the worm selection. However, fast moving lures basically trigger `impulse' strikes and they need to be seen and attract attention.
Actual lure presentation in tidal areas is about the same as for any other type of water. However, a point to note is the direction of the retrieve in relation to the current flow. Fish will always face into the oncoming current. Therefore, always present the lure upstream and retrieve down the current. Cross-current retrieves are also acceptable, if the cast is made upstream of where the bass are most likely to be holding. In other words, keep the lure out in front of the bass's field of vision.
There is a plastic worm variation which should be noted. Because the bottom of tidal water areas is often coated with bothersome decaying vegetation and a fine, hair-like grass, a constantly moving, `swimming' retrieve may be required. This
can be done with a lightly-weighted, Texas-rigged lure, with the slip sinker securely `pegged' with a toothpick. Another variation is rig a `ribbon-tail' worm with a small split shot just ahead of it, and a swivel inserted into the line above the shot. The object is to make a very slow retrieve, while keeping the lure just off the bottom. This is an extremely deadly lure in the drainage channels of the marshes during a falling tide. In fact, the swimming worm is possibly the best tidal water lure ever devised. It's that good, believe me.
One specific fact the angler will immediately note about tidal water bass is their unusually high level of stamina and strength. Undoubtedly, this muscularity comes from living in an environment of constant current. Lots of exercise obviously builds strong bodies. Another physical characteristic of these bass is their short, chunky body form. Biologists indicate that while their bodies will be solid and quite strong, much of their normal growth potential is consumed by expending enegry compensating for that current flow. As a result, tidal bass over eight pounds are very rare.
Outside of lure color, the single most debated topic among tidal water anglers is the tidal condition which is
most productive. The arguments cover the entire spectrum-
high, low, rising, and falling. The fact is, they are all good times to fish. The tidal condition has absolutely nothing to do with WHEN a bass will feed, only with WHERE he will be found.
The same fishing `truism' applies to both tidal and non-tidal waters: "Catching bass is easy; finding him is the hard part." But, once the angler learns to effectively read tidal topography and moving tidal currents, the `finding' aspect will become reasonably easy, too..
Selecting tidal water lures means paying attention to the primary factors of depth and speed, while also matching them to the type of cover being fished to preclude snagging and tangling. Smaller lures are more productive in the colder months. Dark-colored soft plastic lures, reflective-finish crank plugs, and bright-colored spinner baits always seem to be best. Below is a "fisherman's choice" of recommended lures.
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