May 20, 2016
Shallow bays, estuaries and tidal flats, where most inshore fishing is done, are very fragile environments. When things are right, the fishing can be on fire. But if a big rain flushes a delta system out with fresh, muddy water or if a big wind trashes a flat with waves and turbid water, that hot bite can smolder in a hurry.
Here are six weather and water conditions to monitor when planning a trip to the salt.
Start with stability
Stability is the foundation of fishing the shallow salt. Saltwater fishing is not always about what the weather is going to be, but rather what the weather has been. If no major weather fronts or storms have impacted an area for a couple of weeks, you’re off on the right foot.
In short, stability means predictability. The more stable everything is, the easier it is to predict what the fish are going to do day in and day out.
Getting in a good flow
Since so many good inshore fishing areas are in delta and estuary systems where an influx of freshwater is critical, flow simply has to do with the amount of freshwater pouring into a system. Again, these bay complexes are fragile. Too much freshwater pouring into a system carrying mud or dark tannin causes problems. Yet, too little freshwater in drought conditions can be a negative too.
The healthy balance is a moderate flow of freshwater into the system. To monitor river and creek flows at the coast, check NOAA’s Advanced Hydrological Prediction Service: http://water.weather.gov. This incredible resource lets you check water levels and flow values at any given time to see if things have been high, low or moderate.
Abide by the tide
Another critical form of flow in the inshore game is tides. Opinions abound about tides and they vary greatly by location. I’ve fished 6-foot tide swings in the Carolinas and 6-inch tide swings in places along the Gulf. But no matter where you are, one thing you can count on: The more tidal flow there is, the better the fishing will be.
If the normal tide swing is 3 feet and it’s only going to change by a foot, fishing will usually not be as great as a full 3-foot tide swing. It’s all about tidal flush and water movement. More water moves on steeper tide swings and as a result the fishing is much better than flat tide fluctuations.
This is where the interplay of stability, moderate flow and tides are so critical to fishing success. When conditions are stable and inflows are normal, tides will “follow” a tide chart to the inch and to the minute. Okay, so maybe it’s not that exact, but the point is, tide predictions are far more accurate when conditions are stable and this is the key to unlocking the door to shallow flats.
Accurate tide predictions are crucial to following the fish as they move on tide cycles. If the wind is pushing in from the south at 20 knots, it might hold up the outgoing tide. If there has been 10 inches of rain inland and it’s flooding the delta with incoming flow, you might not see a normal low tide for a few days. These weather occurrences can throw big wrenches into the tide cycles, thereby stifling the predictability of fish. That’s why conditions, inflow and tides need to meet a happy medium for great fishing.
Water temperature is not as big of an issue with saltwater fishing as it is with freshwater. There is not a certain water temperature trigging movement of fish to the bank to spawn as with many freshwater species.
In saltwater, anything in the 62- to 82-degree range finds most inshore species cooperative with the middle 75-degree range being wide open. What you lose at the high and low ends of this range is the full spectrum of lures you might like to throw.
For instance, topwaters, a favorite of many anglers, start to lose their appeal below 62 degrees and above 85 degrees. Once temperatures go beyond 62 or 82 degrees on either end, your lure selection will become more specialized. I’ve caught redfish and trout in water temperatures as low as 55 degrees, but it usually requires fishing light-weighted lures very slowly – while shivering.
As for the upper end in the peak of summer, you are limited to the early morning hours. Once the sun starts baking the flats in the afternoon and the water temperature gets above 85 – it gets tough. A big high tide in the afternoon can be a savior, bringing in an influx of cooler water. The best-case scenario in the dog days of summer is a morning high tide that prolongs the morning bite.
Every locale has it premium water color, from “delta green” to “iced tea” tannin to clear water grass flats. When fresh muddy water from rivers or turbidity from wind and wave action on muddy flats discolors the normal color, it’s probably best to move to protected areas to find better water color.
Playing the wind
What’s the best wind for inshore fishing? One that silently pushes your boat down good stretches of water! A nice 5-knot breeze blowing parallel to long stretches of prime area, allowing you to drift with minimal noise, constitutes a pretty decent poling partner.
Persistent winds of 20 knots or more for several days can blow up your best areas. Shallow flats are usually sensitive to wind and can get turbid or muddy with just a little chop, which can shut a bite down.
If you have stable weather, moderate inflow, clean water, normal water temperatures and good tide swings to create flow, the inshore fish are biting somewhere!