Keep it simple," Robert Lee advises about fishing tidal waters, "or you'll get confused real easy."
Bass fishermen are wise to pay attention when Lee talks about tidal bass strategies. The young California pro has three BASS wins to his credit, and all three came on the tidal waters of California's legendary San Joaquin Delta. In one of those events, Lee amassed a three day total weight of 78 pounds, 3 ounces, which was a BASS record at the time, and remains second on the books for a three day event.
Tidal fisheries tend to overwhelm anglers, and it's easy to understand why.
Current can flow in two opposite directions, and water levels commonly fluctuate several feet with every tide cycle. Salinity, which affects forage species and bass habitat, can vary according to past weeks' weather patterns, and in some locations, wind conditions can override tidal cycles.
Complicating things further, many tidal fisheries spread over thousands of acres and may include multiple main river channels, forks off those channels, hidden lakes, tidal creeks, backwater sloughs, canals and more. The San Joaquin Delta, for example, actually includes the lower ends of four major rivers.
Lee begins with one basic rule, which his entire tidal waters strategy almost always revolves around: "When the water comes up, the fish move up. When the water goes back down, the fish move back down."
In tidal water tournaments, Lee always likes to find a group of fish and stay in one main area, following the fish up and down with the changing tides.
He fishes "reaction baits," including topwater lures, spinnerbaits and crankbaits, through the upper half of each tidal cycle, throwing them around vegetation and flooded shoreline cover. As the water goes down, he drops back to deeper channels and fishes with worms, jigs and deeper running crankbaits.
"Water fluctuations affect everything on waters that connect with the ocean," said Shaw Grigsby, who grew up fishing tidal rivers along Florida's Gulf Coast and who has fished virtually every major tidal system in the country. "The stage and direction of the tide are things you really pay attention to, and you plan everything based on the tides."
Grigsby noted that one day's great location and pattern — with the bass holding in shallow lily pads — may not do a bit of good at the same time a few days later. "Those pads may not even have water under them then," he said.
Running down the Suwannee to fish some canals for tidal bass last year, Grigsby pointed out pads along the way that were essentially high and dry. He said that those same spots would have fish in them when the tide came up. Later in the afternoon, after the tide flooded those flats, he flipped the same pads and pulled several nice bass from the area.
Tidal waters aren't difficult, according to Grigsby. In fact, bass become very predictable once fishermen figure out how bass behave according to conditions. "Because the tides control everything, fish in these systems are far less affected by fronts than are fish in reservoirs," he said.
However, fishermen cannot just cast at everything that looks like bass cover and expect to catch fish consistently. Tidal fluctuations affect not only which cover the bass will use, but also how they will relate to that cover and how aggressively they will feed.
"When the water's down, the fish will be near more vertical edges, which have deeper water on them," Grigsby explained. "When it's flowing out of small creeks, they'll sit just out of that current. When the tide changes directions, they'll move to the opposite sides of points. Those are the types of little things you have to pay attention to."
Grigsby also suggested that anglers break vast tidal fisheries into categories, such as main rivers, creeks, canals, sloughs and such to help the patterning process. "Tidal fish are very pattern-oriented," Grigsby said, "so you have to eliminate areas where you don't catch fish."
Grigsby has learned what cover should hold fish and how they should relate to it, based on conditions, so if he doesn't get hit in likely places on main river banks, he typically moves fairly quickly to creeks, canals or some other area.
Louisiana BASS pro Sam Swett, who cut his angling teeth fishing the Louisiana Delta, plans his entire day based on when and where the tides will be at what stage. As he dissects coastal bass fisheries, Swett looks at tidal waters more in terms of "incoming vs. outgoing" rather than "high vs. low."
Given the option, Swett would prefer to fish outgoing tides, but since a pro doesn't have that choice on tournament day, he has learned the best ways to approach tidal waters no matter which way the water is flowing.
"High to low is generally best," Swett reiterates. "High tides flood the backwaters of a system. As the water goes back out, I focus on ditches, canals and feeder creeks that drain those backwaters, fishing in the current created by those areas flowing into the river."
Swett generally throws small, shallow diving crankbaits, like a Bomber Shallow-A or an Excalibur Fat Free Guppy, or soft plastics in these areas. He Texas rigs the plastics, generally using a Yum Crawbug or Ribbontail worm, and uses a light enough weight so that the current will move the bait a bit every time he lifts it off the bottom.
"The bass are looking for food being swept out in that current," he said.
For rising tides, Swett prefers steep banks, often along the main river. "When the water is going up, those fish seem to get right against the steepest banks they can find," he said.
Swett also looks for steep banks in the very backs of any sloughs he can get into. "I go as far back as I can, and look for those steep banks. It's not that the bass aren't on the flatter areas, too. They are. You just can't get far enough back to fish them."
For either location, Swett typically turns to topwaters or jerkbaits for fishing the rising water. He pointed toward an Excalibur Super Spook and a Pop'n Image as good topwater picks, and a Rebel Holographic Minnow or Excalibur Ghost Minnow as his preferred jerkbaits.
The most difficult time, most tidal anglers agree, is during "slack tides," when the tides are turning around and there are no defined currents.
"Nothing holds fish in any particular place during that time," Swett said. "So, they roam a lot and don't concentrate at all."
To contend with roaming fish, Swett moves quickly during slack tides, covering a lot of bank and a variety of shoreline types with fast moving baits. Some of the same crankbaits he likes at other times come into play now, but he also makes a lot of casts with a Cordell Super Spot.
Throughout the tides, all three pros fish a lot of crankbaits in tidal waters. Grigsby pointed toward Strike King Series 1 SX, Series 1 and Series 3 crankbaits as being the puzzle pieces needed for almost all tidal situations, with the latter running the deepest and being best suited for low water fishing. He likes a lot of red or blue, both of which imitate crustaceans.
Grigsby also spends a lot of time pitching a spinnerbait in tidal waters, usually throwing a small bait and sticking with Colorado blades. He leans toward a 1/4- or 3/16-ounce Strike King Elite and a French Quarter, which has four Colorado blades, as great spinnerbaits for tidal waters.
"I love them with Colorado blades. I think the round blades remind the fish of the backs of little crabs," Grigsby said. For the same reason, he likes spinnerbait color patterns that have a lot of blue and purple in them.
Robert Lee noted that he tries to imitate crawfish with almost everything he throws. "I really think that in most tidal fisheries, bass key on crawfish 90 percent of the year. Big fish really key on crawfish. That's why I throw a lot of jigs and crawfish-colored crankbaits," he said.
A final, important consideration about tidal waters is that while all have certain common denominators, every system is unique. Some consist basically of a river and its forks, creeks and canals. Others spread across massive marshy deltas. Additionally, anglers have to determine how far upstream the tides affect the system, and how strong those tides are.
The San Joaquin Delta and most major river systems along the Atlantic coast have strong tidal flows, and the water moves in and out twice per day. Some of those fluctuate only a couple of feet; others vary several feet with every swing of the tides.
The Hudson River has strikingly strong tides and normal fluctuations of 5 or 6 feet, Grigsby pointed out. "I was fishing down a series of poles on the Hudson as the tide was coming in, pitchin' to fish positioned beside some poles. I came to the end of the row and turned the boat around, and the poles weren't there anymore."
Gulf of Mexico deltas, by way of contrast, have tides that typically fluctuate less than a foot, and they only go in and out once per day. The 12 hour swing is far more gradual, and sustained winds blowing off the ocean can actually overpower the tides and keep the water from ever going out. Similarly, a few days of strong north winds along the northern Gulf Coast can push the water right out to sea and really complicate the bass fishing.
Pros competing in tournaments generally opt for one of two basic strategies for fishing tidal waters. The first, which Lee preferred as his technique of choice, is to pick an area and adjust specific locations and techniques as the tides change. The other is to "run the tides," which refers to running from spot to spot and hitting each when the tide is best for that particular spot.
Running tides can work well on rivers that have strong tides and a lot of well-defined spots along its route. Swett pointed toward the Potomac as a good example. "You can start around D.C., fishing the best part of the outgoing tide, and then literally run down ahead of the water to fish the best part of the outgoing tide in another spot."
Grigsby said anglers often make "milk runs" on tidal rivers, hitting all their prime spots at just the right time, tide-wise. "Of course, if someone is in that spot when you want to fish it, you can be in trouble, and if your timing gets off, the whole plan might be ruined."
Lee considers running tides pretty risky, for those very reasons. "Plus, you spend too much time running from spot to spot and not enough time fishing," he said.
It's hard to argue with Lee's strategy, considering his past success on tidal waters, and it's safe to state that many eyes will be on him when the CITGO Bassmaster Tour presented by Busch Beer heads for the San Joaquin Delta this month.