High tide fishing

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High tide fishing

Targeting structure remains sound strategy during high tide

Ernest Bromley tries to grab an early morning trout during our first wade of the day along a shorelines in St. Charles Bay.

ROCKPORT — Sitting around and idly discussing the weather may be specific to old men. But when it comes to actively grousing about extreme tides the conversation welcomes all comers.

We complain when bays are too high and some folks complain when the tide is too low. And then we say nothing when it’s just right. It’s the same with wind and other factors we’re helpless to control.

But come on, man! Ridiculously high tides have persisted for weeks now. When is the last time we experienced a truly low tide? Certainly not last week when the moon circled closer to Earth than it’s been since 1948. This was both a full moon and a supermoon, a term I had not heard much until recently.

The moon won’t come that close again until Nov. 25, 2034, according to the astronomy website EarthSky.org. This means last week’s full moon was the nearest and largest supermoon in 68 years.

But even before this epic lunar event brightened the night sky, the Island University was truly an island rather than a high spot partially bound by a mud flat. Of course, if sea-level rise predictions come true — scientists predict the level will rise as much as 2 feet by the end of the 21st century — I suppose the Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi campus will become a permanent island.

I spoke with numerous scientists and old timers about this year’s unusual tide fluctuations. Actually the tide was seemingly inexplicably high for a time last year also. Most of the longtime locals said they’ve never seen anything like this in the absence of a storm or maybe the bull tides of spring and fall, which usually aren’t lasting. Some of the scientists just scratched their head or suggested tide movement is complicated.

“With dozens and dozens of tidal components, each with frequencies from a fortnight to decades, every so often they all line up just right and the tides are higher than normal,” said biologist Jim Tolan with Texas Parks & Wildlife. “Many of these tidal frequencies, even the ones with small amplitude, can line up just right and the result is what we see.”

The moon’s elevation above the equator can play a major role in our tides, according to George Ward, a research scientist with the Center for Research in Water Resources at the University of Texas. Moon phases, on the other hand, technically have no direct influence on tides in Corpus Christi or the Gulf of Mexico. Ward said It is the moon’s angle from the equatorial plane that creates the tide’s greatest ebb and flow. A higher spring tide occurs when the sun, moon and Earth are aligned, which occurs during a new and full moon. Moderate neap tides occur when the sun and moon are at right angles to each other. This effect is nominal in the Gulf of Mexico.

By the way, the term “spring tide” in this case has nothing to do with the season that follows winter, though the water level here does rise during springtime, while our highest water levels typically occur in October. Of course, this year’s highest water has extended into November, as you know.

Bay levels here generally are dominated by wind. A southerly breeze tends to raise the level of our bays, while a north wind results in a falling tide.

“I expect a lot of people are staring up at the full moon and thinking this is why water levels are high,” Ward said. “They would be wrong. The supermoon, however, does play a role in the higher water levels. This is because the moon is at perigee (nearest to Earth), so its gravitational effects are maximal for its orbit. As you know, this is the closest perigee we’ve had in nearly 70 years. But this is an add-on to the high-declination tide (moon’s angle from equator), which is an add-on to the seasonal high water of the fall, without which we wouldn’t even be talking about unusual high waters.”

Okay, the science lesson is nearly complete.

Perhaps less complicated are these historical facts from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. A friend sent me two graphs that plot the mean high and low tides for the Rockport area. Both charts, which span decades, show a steady rise in the water mean levels during low tide and high tide. The highs are getting increasingly higher and the lows also are rising over time.

While this is interesting, the information may not fully explain the high water that not only produced 6-foot waves for surfers near Bob Hall Pier a couple of weeks ago when the Trade Winds in the gulf strengthened, but also submerged reefs and spoil islands throughout the Coastal Bend, scattering fish and disrupting fishing patterns for some anglers.

I visited with Capt. Jay “The Professor” Watkins for some answers. I wasn’t seeking reasons for the high water, but rather insight into angling methods to help combat the lingering bull tide. Thankfully, he wanted to show me rather than tell me.

“Truthfully, the reason for this high tide isn’t nearly as important as figuring out a plan for success,” Watkins said. “That goes for all the conditions we face on the bay.”

Watkins approaches angling with an analytical mindset. He looks at the constants and he looks at the variables to come up with a plan. Each day and every season is a little different, though some reliable patterns exist. Watkins’ arsenal includes many approaches representing a variety of methods.

Granted, many of the arrows in Watkins’ quiver may appear to most of us to be very similar. But I’ve learned over many years there is success in subtly. Watkins operates within these subtleties because he notices the nuances better than most of us. And I rarely doubt what his mind’s eye sees. More importantly, Watkins rarely doubts his own perceptions. If he does harbor doubt, he hides it well.

Some of the few constants of our bays involve structure, which Watkins defines as reefs, sand bars, shorelines, seagrass and the edges where seagrass ends and a sand or mud bottom begins. The tide rises and falls, but generally these reliable elements don’t move much, though seagass may come and go seasonally and bottom contours shift.

Baitfish instinctively seek shelter and cover to keep from being eaten while seeking nourishment. Obviously, predators forage around structure because that’s also where they find food. And if you’ve ever swam a bait over a sand pocket surrounded by seagrass you know trout and redfish use certain structure as cover for ambushing prey.

Under normal or stable conditions, this rule of structure is fairly reliable, Watkins believes. But take away the food source and the rule falls apart. A substantial rise or fall of tide may force baitfish off their usual haunts, Watkins tells me.

Figuring out the threshold that triggers baitfish movement can be tricky, he said. And it’s difficult to know or predict the length of time that an extreme tide must persist before baitfish return to certain structure. But they will return eventually. And the predators will follow. These are certainties but certainly not constants in changing conditions.

This information alone may not be much help if we happen to be fishing in the meantime. But Watkins suggests the information remains useful to anglers willing to endure a process of elimination during their search for fish. Yes, this might involve wading structure that is deeper than we’re accustom to fishing. Your personal tolerance will determine the depth of your search.

In the Rockport area, many stretches of shorelines along the barrier islands that usually are knee-deep have been waist- to belly-deep. But after the initial push of tide, baitfish and predators returned to the seagrass edges and guts along Matagorda and San Jose islands. We tried fishing the deeper grass, without much success. Mullet and other baitfish seemed concentrated along a narrow swatch not far from shore. It helped that these were windward shorelines, which Watkins imagines creates a wall to concentrate baitfish pushed by wind-driven current.

We also found this along the shorelines of St. Charles Bay. It was there we noticed a distinct physical separation between redfish and trout, with very little overlap. There seemed to be an imaginary line separating the two species. We found nearly all our reds within a few feet of the cordgrass or spartina-fringed shoreline, while trout were mostly in a waist-deep tide some distance from shore.

It’s likely each were targeting different food sources. But they seemed to chase and attack our Bass Assassin Sea Shad lures with equal aggression. We used the magic grass color.

One of the common angler misconceptions is that extreme high water attracts mostly redfish into back lakes that normally are super skinny. This may be true for black drum, but for some unknown reason a sudden push of tide tends to force baitfish and predators out of the back lakes, at least temporarily.

When the surge settles and the water level stabilizes, they seem to return. A possible exception to this occurs during the first couple of days after a major tidal influx. I’ve seen redfish worm their way into cordgrass marshes and mangroves. Most folks who witness this believe these fish are scouring the freshly flooded, dense vegetation in search of food. I’m guessing they’re after snails, fiddler crabs and insects that are normally out of reach.

By the time Professor Watkins demonstrated his theories for me and fellow pupil Ernest Bromley, of San Antonio, the high water had been stable for at least two weeks. And he’d already tested the flooded seagrass beds of the back lakes of San Jose Island. He believes the exchange of water in these marshy areas becomes more pronounced the closer they are to Cedar Bayou.

Watkins concludes this greater flow invites greater ease of predation, especially for trout. So he’s been wading the transparent tide that flows over thick seagrass and catching specks up to five pounds or better along with aggressive smaller fish.

“Now that Cedar Bayou is open and flowing, I’ve noticed a tremendous increase in the number and the predictability of trout in our shallow back lakes, especially in thick seagrass,” Watkins said. “I think it’s the water movement. Those fish are hiding in the grass and ambushing the baitfish carried by the current when the tide changes.”

These opportunistic predators seem to prefer a fast-twitching surface plug or a MirrOlure Provoker ripped just above the vegetation on a steady retrieve. You may have to retrain your hands not to bounce your bait in the usual manner. I did, with some effort. It worked, though this time our efforts did not produce a five-pounder. But the numbers were there.

Lastly we targeted the narrow perpendicular cuts on the backside of San Jose. Many of these have been carved more deeply by months of extreme tidal movement and flooding rains. If you’re looking for a flatfish to end the day, target these guts during a falling tide. Of course, this presumes the tide will fall someday.

David Sikes’ Outdoors columns appear Thursday and Sunday. Contact David at 361-886-3616 or david.sikes@caller.com.

David Sikes (@davidoutdoors) | Twitter

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