All too often I hear “experts” suggest that high tide is the best tide for surf fishing. Granted, this is pretty solid advice and good surf fishing basics. But there’s a lot more to understanding the best tides for surf fishing than simply fishing the high. There’s an interplay between the tide and a beach’s profile, prevailing weather conditions, and ecosystem. And it’s a complex dance that should relegate the high tide imperative to a loose rule of thumb only.
I’ve spent 40 years specializing in surf fishing, and there’s still plenty to learn. But I thoroughly understand that the best tides for surf fishing differ with location and conditions. It’s not about the “best tide” per se, but more the best stage of the tidal cycle relative to location, conditions, and target species.
Let’s unpack this crazy tide thing, and pull out some valuable tools you can use for more consistent results on your surf fishing trips.
Why Is High Tide Often Considered Best For Surf Fishing
When we say “high tide” most anglers are referring to the top quarter of the run-in and run-out. It’s approximately 6 hours of high-water fishing with great fishing potential, with the exception of slack water. (More on slack water later).
Constantly changing seabed contours such as depressions, troughs, holes, and channels/seams, fill up with water. Think of these structures as fish food halls at mealtime. They can be interconnected, cul-de-sacs, or isolated holes that form fish meccas. It’s where fish will congregate to hunt and feed.
With high water, fish that have been hanging in the deeper water behind the last lines of breakers now have access to abundant feeding opportunities closer to shore, right up to the shore break.
Parts of the beach that were dry at low tide are now completely submerged. And as the tide moves up the beach, more sand-dwelling fish food such as worms and sand fleas, are now accessible. This attracts bait fish and smaller fish, which in turn attracts bigger predatory fish.
It’s a pretty rudimentary explanation of the benefits of fishing high tide, but accurate, nonetheless. Put simply, the high tide delivers hungry fish to broader, more abundant feeding grounds, while providing plenty of cover and ambush locations.
But we’re not really fishing a high or low tide. We’re fishing an incoming or outgoing tide with variable extremes on either end - depending on the sun and moon phase. And each beach or surf break, while not necessarily unique in structure, has its own Goldilocks fishing times in the tidal cycle. These can be as fluid as they are predictable, depending on conditions.
Employing solid surf basics when fishing the top half of the tide will see you catch fish in the surf. But catching more fish and better fish more often only comes by learning the rhythm of a particular beach. A tide must be considered in concert with all the other influences that inform fish feeding behavior in the surf.
We’ll avoid the scientific explanations here, and discuss tide types in terms of fishing application. Put simply, we have an incoming tide and an outgoing tide. There’s a difference of 12 hours and 25 minutes between each high tide. The height of the high and low is determined by the moon phase and is also location specific. For example, high tides in parts of Alaska are extreme, averaging 30 feet. Conversely, parts of Texas are lucky to reach 1 foot.
Spring And Neap Tides
Each month will have spring tides and neap tides. Spring tides deliver the extreme limit of highs and lows for a location. A spring tide, at times, has a king tide which is a slang term we use for an exceptional high often experienced during new and full moons. Neap tides deliver the lowest variation between high and low tides - the lowest highs and the highest lows.
Florida keys, for example, have a pretty gentle difference between highs and lows. A spring tide can see a difference between high and low of 2.4 feet. A neap tide will see even less of a difference of only 1 foot. They’re all good for fishing, so long as you avoid slack water.
Slack water or the slack tide is a period of very slow-moving water as the tide reaches either peak and transitions - incoming to outgoing, outgoing to incoming. Slack tides are usually around an hour on either side of the change, but this time varies from place to place. Slack tides prove to us that fish prefer water movement.
In terms of surf fishing productivity, it’s really only the slack tide that turns fish off the bite. While it’s possible you can catch fish during this period, fish activity is definitely at its very lowest. It’s only a couple of hours, so set your rods and take a break.
A low tide during a spring tide is a brilliant time for exploration on a beach. As the tide is particularly low, you have access to parts of the sea bed to observe structures not usually visible. You also have the ability to cast baits to places you can’t usually reach. I like these times for chasing big fish and sharks at night. I’ve had little success on the beach chasing panfish at this time, but great success with monster predatory fish. It's not a thrill a minute, but the wait can be worth it.
A neap low tide will produce fish of all types. As the water does not recede to an extreme, holes and gutters will often retain enough water keeping them productive (if a little slow). There’s no real advantage to a neap high as some structures will not collect enough water to be productive. Nonetheless, a neap high will still yield good results. Fish the top half of the tide if you have a choice, but anywhere throughout the cycle can produce fish.
A receding top quarter of a spring high can bring the bite alive. Add offshore breezes and gentle wave action and you have my favorite surf fishing scenario. Fish have moved up the beach, enticed by the access they only get a few times a month. The receding tide drags back tasty morsels from the upper reaches of the beach that tend to keep hungry fish interested for longer. At times like this, fish are often right at your feet. Cast close, as a long cast may see your bait in a dead zone.
3 Tips For Making The Best Of The Tide Cycle In Your Area
I’m a fishaholic and a surf fishing tragic, so I know surf locations that have a good chance of producing fish whatever the tide. Here are 3 tips you can use for surf fishing success whatever the time or tide.
1. Land Your Bait In The Right Spot
When fishing a trough on an incoming tide, land your bait on the sandbar behind the trough you’re targetting and wind your bait over the back edge. Fish are waiting in ambush for whatever the incoming tide/current presents.
On an outgoing tide, land your bait on the front edge of the trough. This can be very close to the shore. Fish are waiting here for whatever the tide is dragging in from up the beach. It’s important you check the area 15 to 30 yards from the shore, as it can hold many fish. It’s possible to cast over them and miss the bite altogether.
Casting into seams and trough choke points can often be like fishing in a bathtub at the top half of the tide. The entire surf-dwelling food chain is concentrated just yards from your rod tip. They’re awesome fishing spots, and will often hold multiple species of fish. Fish may not enter these locations until the top half of an incoming tide - even later. But if there’s plenty of food and enough water, they may stay around while a receding tide is well into the bottom half of the cycle.
2. Target A Species
Select baits, lures, and rigs, and target a particular species of fish. It might be drum, reds, stripers, bluefish, or bonefish. Target them over the seasons in all weather and tides.
Through this experience, we get to learn the behaviors of a specific species relative to tides and conditions. When are they most active? When are they absent? What’s the best tide relative to conditions? Targeting teaches us how to hone our strategy and techniques. It makes us better anglers.
3. Learning And Reading A Beach
Learning a beach takes time - even years, depending on the size of the beach and the different fish species it attracts over the seasons. And if it’s a long beach, the lay of the land and tidal influence can vary significantly from one end of the beach to the other.
In-depth knowledge of a beach is obtained by fishing it in all tides, conditions, and seasons. You should target specific species, as well as have sessions where you hedge your bets. But once you’ve learned a beach, all you need is a weather report and a tide chart to predict the most likely target, part of the tide cycle, location, and time of day to start a session.
Reading a beach is what we do every time we hit a beach, whether it’s our local beach or the first time we’ve ever seen it. We observe:
- Where’s the tide - is it rising or falling?
- Does the beach have a steep or gentle gradient to the water's edge?
- Can you see dark patches in the water indicating troughs and holes?
- Are the troughs in casting range?
- Are there rips?
- Is there a strong or minimal current?
- What’s the water temperature?
- Are there hard structures such as rocks and reefs?
- Is there weed? Or algal blooms? (go home)
- Is it a sandy beach or stony? Is it fine or coarse sand?
- Are there man-made structures such as wave breaks or a pier?
- What are the birds doing?
- Is it a big powerful swell or gentle?
- And what direction is the swell coming from?
- Is the wind blowing offshore or onshore, is it strong or gentle?
- What direction is the wind coming from?
- What shape is the beach? Is it a bay, straight, or form out to a spit?
- Can you see bait fish? Does the beach hold worms or sand fleas?
- Are there other anglers on the beach - are they busy catching?
Ask these questions. Think critically and think creatively. And most importantly, experiment, especially with the tide cycle.
Final Thoughts On The Best Tide For Surf Fishing
Sure, the top few hours of high water is a good bet for surf fishing success. But why limit our surf sessions to a few hours only?
Any time can be a good time for surf fishing. When you understand how tides interact with all the other aspects of beach geography, and its collective influence on fish feeding patterns, you’ll catch more fish - whatever the time or tide.
*The information on this site is based on research and first-hand experience but should not be treated as medical advice. Before beginning any new activity, we recommend consulting with a physician, nutritionist or other relevant professional healthcare provider.