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Chase the Moon for Winter Inshore Success

One of the keys to catching redfish and seatrout in winter is understanding how the fish and tides behave during various moon phases.

Chase the Moon for Winter Inshore Success

Giant redfish often hang around ocean jetties and passes during winter, and can be caught on all sorts of live baitfish as well as large jigs bounced along bottom. (Photo courtesy of St. Croix)


Most of us fish when we can, not just when conditions are ideal. But if you’re planning an inshore fishing trip to the Southeast coast this winter, it can pay to schedule your excursion during the prime periods around the new and full moons—and avoid the half-moon periods in between. That’s because the tide movements will be greatest on the three days on either side of the “strong” moon periods, when the gravitational force of the moon combines with the gravitational force of the sun to create the highest high tides and lowest lows of each month. Tides are most pronounced in winter, and the fish take full advantage of them.

Extreme tides have multiple benefits for coastal anglers in winter. First is that on the maximum highs, reds and trout can swim far into backcountry creeks and bayous in the lowland marshes, a migration they frequently make in chilly weather because the water in the creeks is usually several degrees warmer than the water on the flats and in open bays. From Georgia to North Carolina, the push into the shallowest creeks is also driven by predatory dolphin that have learned to chase the fish into the backcountry in winter—the warm-blooded dolphins can readily run down the cold-slowed reds and trout, sometimes even driving them up onto mud beaches in their pursuit.

fishing under a bridge
Bridges, which create a constriction in tidal flow, are often great fishing spots on strong moon tides. (Photo courtesy of St. Croix)

Secondly, when these big tides go out, the ebb creates feeding spots everywhere there’s a constriction: where smaller creeks flow into larger creeks, where the water flows over an oyster bar or through a causeway bridge and around inlets. The locations are easily picked out, especially if you do a bit of Google Earth surveillance in advance.

Combine that with a look at an inshore nautical chart of the area you want to fish, which will show depths in most areas, and you can plan to go where the fish are most likely to be during the strong moon periods.

The Wind Effect

Wind can often be a big factor on tides. A strong wind blowing for an extended period can stack up water on exposed shores, pushing tides considerably higher. Conversely, a strong wind blowing away from land can reverse the tide flow. In areas with moderate flow like the Florida Panhandle, a north wind can mean almost no perceptible tide movement.

In shallow areas like the east shore of Tampa Bay, a roaring wind out of the east sometimes blows the water completely off the flats, resulting in miles of exposed bottom, stranded seagrass and crabs scuttling between puddles. Should you happen to be fishing one of these extreme lows, just look for the remaining “puddles.” Sometimes a sand hole only 3 feet deep will be chock full of sea trout, redfish and sheepshead because there’s nowhere else for them to go.

Cold fronts can bollix our best-laid plans, and it’s usually wise to avoid fishing on the day of or the day after a big front roars in out of the northwest. However, should a strong tide period fall on the days just prior to a front, fishing can be fantastic.

After the front, as that wind backs around to the northeast and then the east and slows to a gentle zephyr, and the sun comes out bright, you might also find that action rapidly picks up, with some fish prowling up on shallow mud flats to sun.

Extreme Tidal Flows

Where there’s a lot of tide change, there are strong currents at the peak flows. This can mean gamefish look for seams and eddies to avoid having to fight the rapid flow as they wait for bait to come rushing out.

Pretty much anywhere north of Florida, tides are more pronounced, and changes of 4 to 8 feet are common in the strong spring tide periods. This means lots of current and lots of great angling opportunities if you put yourself where the flow is strong. You’ll need a heavier artificial lure or a weight on your live bait to keep your offering in the strike zone, usually within 2 or 3 feet of the target.

Eddies often form around bridge pilings on the down-tide side, as well as below large oyster bars or on points formed by marsh grass, mangroves and other vegetation. Cast above where the water starts to swirl and let the flow carry your bait or lure to the eddy and you’ll soon find action.

The deep inlet at Masonboro Inlet at the south end of Wrightsville Beach, N.C., is a known hot spot for both trout and reds during the prime moon periods, particularly during the coldest part of winter. In South Carolina, Little River Inlet jetties are similarly productive in winter as long as the winds are from the west or northwest and the water is reasonably clear. And the water around the shipping docks of Savannah, Ga., dredged to at least 38 feet in most areas, can also hold lots of fish when things get particularly cold. Again, it’s a task for good sonar to find the schools.

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In Florida waters, the big rivers of the northeast part of the state—the St. Mary’s and the St. Johns—fish like the coast farther north, with fish often ganging up in the deepest water and best located by sonar during the chilliest days.

South of Cape Canaveral and all the way around the peninsula to the Alabama line, the fishing changes as the water turns clearer and there are fewer large rivers. It’s mostly bay and estuary fishing, and the classic winter tactic of finding deep holes and creeks in the backcountry applies.

two men fishing
A silent approach in a shallow-draft skiff gives anglers a good shot at trout and reds feeding at the mouth of tidal creeks as tides pour out. (Photo courtesy of Z-Man Fishing)

The Right Baits and Lures

Live shrimp is hard to beat in winter when fish metabolism is slow. Tail-hook a shrimp on a 2/0 short-shank live bait hook and fish it free-lined on a light-action, 7-foot spinning rod in extreme shallows. Add a couple of split shot when dropping shrimp into holes.

Among artificials, shrimp imitations like the classic D.O.A. Shrimp, Vudu Shrimp and Savage Gear 3D RTF Shrimp are hard to beat. Fish them like the real thing by throwing them up-current and letting them drift close to bridge pilings, docks, riprap shore and points and anywhere smaller creeks drop into larger flows. It takes very little rod movement to make a plastic shrimp look edible.

When fish are in deeper water, like the cuts around inlets during extreme cold, a 1/4-ounce or heavier jig with a 3-inch soft-plastic grub tail will do the job. Let it sink all the way to bottom and fish it in slowly with short hops since the fish won’t be nearly as aggressive as they are in summer.

Of course, if you look for fish in the deepest inlet cuts during the coldest days of winter, the water may be 20 feet deep or more. You’ll need to up your weights to get down to bottom where the fish will hold for as long as the extreme cold persists.

two fishermen
Oyster bars with deep water nearby are great on low tides, as well as when the water covers them again on high tides. (Photo courtesy of Z-Man Fishing)

Chasing a Tide

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) tide predictions show the progression of a tide as it enters and leaves an estuary or rises and falls along a beach.

On the day this article was written, for example, the first high tide at Egmont Key, on the outer edge of Tampa Bay, was at 11:41 a.m. and was 2.92 feet above mean sea level (MSL). The first low tide at Egmont was at 7:08 p.m. and was 0.66 feet below mean sea level.

Twelve miles inside the bay at Port Manatee, the first high tide was at 12:57 p.m. and 2.93 feet above MSL; the low was at 8:54 p.m. and .3 feet below MSL. Therefore, it takes the “hump” of the high tide about an hour to travel the 12 miles inland, and if you want to fish the peak of the tide, you move with it.

By chasing the tide, you can fish the high tide or the extreme fall (often the best bet) at a series of spots over a full afternoon of angling. Just keep an eye on the rate of flow around any constrictions like a mangrove point, dock or bridge piling, and when the water quits moving, head to the next location where the tide will be running strong when you arrive.

Why Tide Height Varies

  • Numerous factors impact the intensity of tides from place to place.
Moon
Full and new moons bring the highest high tides and lowest low tides, as well as the strongest currents, each month. This is especially true in winter. (Shutterstock image)

You’d think that since the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico are all one big, connected body of water, tide heights would be the same everywhere. But that’s not the case at all.

The highest tides in the world can be found in Canada at the Bay of Fundy, which separates New Brunswick from Nova Scotia. Tides there sometimes reach more than 50 feet. On low tide the water retreats up to a half mile, setting large commercial fishing boats on bottom until the tide returns.

The highest tides in the United States can be found near Anchorage, Alaska, with tidal ranges that average around 30 feet. Conversely, tides on Pensacola Beach, Fla., are sometimes measured in inches rather than feet.

The shape and geometry of a coastline play a major role in these extreme tides. Basically, narrow bays create higher tides, while broad flats and shallow beaches allow for less dramatic rise and fall.

Storm systems also shift large quantities of water around and affect the tides dramatically. In the “No Name Storm” of 1993, sustained 70 mph winds out of the northwest pushed 8 to 10 feet of water miles inland along Florida’s west coast, flooding hundreds of homes and drowning some unfortunate residents. The same thing occurs regularly with hurricanes.

Oddly, high tides occur at the same time on the side of Earth facing the moon, and to a lesser extent on the side facing away from the moon. Scientists say this is the result of the Earth itself being bulged slightly toward the moon. The low-tide areas are on the sides—at a right angle, more or less­—to the direction of pull. As the planet rotates, the tides come and go, the water always bulging toward the gravity of the moon and sun.


  • This article was featured in the February 2024 issue of Game & Fish magazine. Click to subscribe.



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