Coastal anglers complain when bays are swollen with tide, and again when they shrink. It’s as if we’re surprised by these natural cycles.
Understandably, extremely high bay levels in Texas are usually associated with tropical disturbances in the Gulf of Mexico. Our skinny tides typically visit seasonally in summer and winter.
Tides can equally frustrate and challenge anglers, forcing them to attempt strategies outside their comfort zones. Common refrains include—a sudden surge scatters fish, while a dramatic drop pushes them off the flats.
What’s an angler to do? Certainly, not wait until the tide returns to normal—whatever that is.
It’s odd that these conversations occupy so much time in Texas, where tides are barely rise or fall most of the time. Imagine Canadian fisherman coping with a 50-foot tidal range in the Bay of Fundi, compared to inches in Texas bays.
Along the Texas gulf coast, wind has far more influence on tide levels and movement. That’s an important distinction because around the world, it’s the moon that influences the most extreme tide fluctuations.
Yet many Texas anglers believe the myth that associates high tide with a full moon. That’s simply not true, despite last fall’s extreme high water during a rare super moon event.
According to George Ward, a research scientist with the Center for Research in Water Resources at the University of Texas, moon phases technically have no direct influence on tides in the Gulf of Mexico. “It’s the moon’s angle from the equatorial plane that creates the tide’s greatest ebb and flow,” he said.
He’s referring to the moon’s elevation above the equator. Ward said a higher spring tide occurs when the sun, moon and Earth are aligned, which happens during a new and full moon. A moderate neap tide occurs when the sun and moon are at right angles to each other. This effect, Ward said, is nominal along the Texas coast and throughout 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 in Texas does rise during springtime. Our highest water levels typically occur in October, a period that extended into November last year because of a coincidence of factors.
In mid-November, the moon circled closer to Earth than it has since 1948. This was both a full moon and a supermoon. The moon will not come that close again until 2034.
“I expect a lot of people were staring up at the full moon and thinking that was why water levels were so high,” Ward said. “They would be wrong. The supermoon, however, does play a role in our higher water levels. This is because the moon is at perigee (nearest to Earth), so its gravitational effects are maximal for its orbit.”
Ward explained that the gravitation pull was in addition to the moon distance from or angle to the equator. On top of these factors, we had additional depth from our seasonal high water and a southerly wind. A southern breeze tends to raise bay levels around Corpus Christi, while a north wind results in a falling tide.
Let’s not discount sea level rise. Historical data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration show a steady rise in our mean water levels during high and low tide. The highs are getting increasingly higher, and the lows are not falling as much each year.
Without all these factors coming together, angler conversations would not have been dominated by complaints of unusually high bay waters, he said. Although conversations involving high water persisted for weeks to coincide with last year’s unusually high water event, coastal anglers should recognize that each spring and fall will always present frustrating challenges.
Veteran Rockport guide Jay Watkins takes high water in stride, as he does most temporary interruptions regarding bay conditions. His approach is analytical when it comes to the variables he faces. Watkins simply looks at the constant aspects of fish behavior to arrive at a reliable angling plan.
Some of the most reliable constants of fish behavior involve submerged structure, regardless of how much tide rises above it. Watkins defines structure as oyster reefs, sandbars, scattered shell, shorelines, seagrass and the edges where seagrass ends and a sand or mud bottom begins. Structure also could be color changes in a bay, where a murky tide meets clear water.
With the exception of the latter, generally these reliable elements do not move much, though seagrass may come and go seasonally and bottom contours may 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. If you have ever retrieved a Saltwater Assassin over a sand pocket surrounded by seagrass you’ve probably seen a trout or redfish suddenly appear to ambush your bait. No doubt, it was hiding in the dense seagrass.
Under normal or stable conditions, the rule of structure is fairly reliable. Of course, remove the food source, and the rule falls apart. A substantial rise or fall of a tide may force baitfish off their usual haunts, at least temporarily.
Watkins said figuring out the threshold that triggers baitfish movement can be tricky. It’s difficult to know or predict with certainty the length of time high water must persist before baitfish return to any given structure. But they will return eventually, followed by predators. These are certainties with subtle variables that confound anglers in changing conditions.
A common misconception is that redfish pour into a typically shallow flat or marshy back-lake when these are inundated by extreme high water. Watkins believes mostly black drum are more likely to follow the tide into previously inaccessible areas. Perhaps the higher water allows drum to more easily root through the sand and mud for food.
For some reason, Watkins said, a sudden push of tide tends to force baitfish out of the typically shallow back-lakes of San Jose Island near Rockport. Again, they will return as conditions stabilize.
A possible exception to this occurs during the first couple of days following a major tidal influx. Redfish tend to search for food in flooded cordgrass, either along shorelines or in isolated patches.
The theory is they are hunting for creatures such as fiddler crabs and insects rendered vulnerable by the high water. Good luck getting a lure or bait into the tangled vegetation. Try luring a redfish out from the weeds with a well-placed fly along the edge.
High water poses a special challenge for waders, which is Watkins’s specialty. You’ll rarely see him in a boat unless its underway. On days when bays are swollen with a foot or more of tide, he simply wades closer to shorelines or casts his lures near the crest of oyster reefs that are normally exposed. Regardless of water depth, the gaps between reefs remain ambush points for predators when current flows through them.
One of the angling benefits of extreme high tides is the energy they produce when the water rises and falls. Although erosion is not generally considered beneficial, it is a natural process within our bays. Anglers around the Coastal Bend noticed that last year’s high water chiseled mud and sand to reshape parts of the bays. One of the more dramatic examples occurred along the backside of San Jose Island, where natural channels allow an exchange of water between the main bay and the back lakes.
The rise and fall of tides left these drains, as they often are called, deeper than they were before. The difference seems more pronounced the closer they are to the newly opened Cedar Bayou, which separates San Jose and Matagorda islands.
Watkins and others believe this dynamic will continue to alter the complex maze of back lakes, channels and marshland associated with these barrier islands that separate the bay system from the Gulf of Mexico.
It is uncertain what conditions created by the greater water exchanges provided by Cedar Bayou will combine with sea level rise and increasingly more dramatic tidal fluctuations. But Watkins was encouraged by what he saw during last year’s prolonged high water. He noticed improved angling success in the back lakes of San Jose, which became productive pools through which tide passed.
This movement improved water quality and created a bountiful predator-prey playground for anglers. He found trout up to five pounds hiding in the thick, dark shoal grass, eager to pounce on a topwater plug.
In those deeper drains on the backside of San Jose, he found flounders lining the bottoms during a falling tide. This is another benefit of higher tide, he said. Because what comes up must come down.
—story by AUTHOR