At first blush, it looked like we had arrived too early. The Tampa Bay flat had been laid barren by the combination of a strong full moon tide and the north wind of a late fall cold front.
However, Capt. Geoff Page had a plan that involved leveraging these fall-winter scenarios known as “negative low tides.” Essentially the full and new moons always bring the strongest water flow, but this time of year sees lower levels anyway, so moon tides really rip the water off a spot. Throw in a north wind and the tide falls lower and stays out longer.
On this day, we found football fields of sea grass lying in damp mats on muddy bottom. The tide had fallen so hard and fast that live shrimp were left wiggling and flipping on the grass – much to the delight of opportunistic sea gulls.
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Not too worry, though; Page was well aware of the day's tide schedule and he knew that this had created an opportunity to catch some of the redfish that would eagerly awaiting the tidal door.
“You get there ahead of the tide and you can get into position to pick off those redfish as they move in,” Page said. “They want to be up there on that flat feeding, so they'll stage right off the edges in those deeper bowls until the water gets deep enough for them to move around on the flat.”
While I explored the exposed sea bottom, Page and fishing pal Jean Paul Hernandez stepped out of the flats skiff and waded perimeter waters. They found the occasional redfish foraging out in this deeper water, but once the tide started reclaiming the high ground, Page knew it was time to take up a specific position on the edge of a prominent bowl.
Here, he said, he had previously found redfish gathering like eager shoppers awaiting a store's Black Friday opening. The window of opportunity was narrow, as this was only a staging area for the reds' mad dash onto the soon-to-be-flooded flat.
Once the fish scattered, he'd have to hunt them down one at a time. In the bowl, proximity and feeding competition would likely create a target-rich opportunity.
Just like clockwork, the reds started piling into their staging bowl right as the water started inching over the adjacent flat. The fish feel even the slightest of water movement and as the tide gains steam, they know it's chow time.
To maximize their opportunity, Page and Hernandez knelt at the bowl's edge to minimize their profiles and avoid spooking the fish. (Neoprene waders repelled the water's chill.) As expected, the window was indeed small, but both anglers connected with redfish and Page's biggest – a 27-incher – was joined by at least a dozen more big fish that slipped past as the water level increased.
A few points to consider when you encounter extreme low tides:
Contour and Composition - Thick versus sparse grass, oyster colonies or scattered shell clumps, hard sand or soft mud – all of these elements influence how and where fish will congregate. You may catch sporadic glimpses during higher tide stages, but unobstructed views only come during low water periods. Look for run-outs, troughs and drains and you'll learn how the fish approach and retreat.
Food Sources – Crabs, shrimp, snails, blood worms; all offer forage for redfish and other predators, so note size and coloration so you can select the right artificials. Also, watch for mullet activity around the flat as this signals a good opportunity for big-time topwater action.
Obstructions - Low water not only shows you good things; it also reveals plenty of bad things. Things that are very hard. Things that go “bump” when you hit them. Things that you really need to avoid.
Depending on where you fish, that could be stumps, oyster bars, truck tires or the rocky protrusions of Florida’s true complexion. The latter become more prevalent north of the Tampa Bay region. Areas like Hernando Beach, Bayport and Homosassa are littered with limestone outcroppings that will knock the prop right off your engine.
For this reason, as well as those of positive nature, make notes and shoot photos or video of your low-tide findings. Referencing this invaluable information will undoubtedly benefit your fishing efforts during higher tide stages.