Tidal tactics
  |  First Published: September 2008

All fish use the tides to work out the best times for a feed – why shouldn’t we?

SECTION: feature




Growing up fishing the non-tidal lake systems on the NSW Central Coast was a real joy. With no water movement to consider, fishing was as simple as grabbing the canoe and hitting the water.

The only real consideration was wind. During the Summer months this simply meant fishing nice and early to beat the nor’-easterlies and heading out early was a win-win situation as I often fished in glassy conditions and had the bonus of an aggressive morning bite.

All this changed when I moved to the North Coast in the early 1990s. Gone were the still lakes, replaced by river systems that looked more like raging torrents than fishable waterways.

But, with time and plenty of forethought, fishing these fast-flowing systems became a lot easier, though I still miss the ease and convenience of those non-tidal lakes down south.


One of the most important things to remember when fishing areas with strong tidal flow is to time your outing to coincide with a tide change.

Most of the day, water will race in and race out but every six hours it has to slow, then stop, before running in the other direction.

For angling convenience, this is the time to hit the water. You should get around two hours when water movement is manageable.

While fishing the tide changes may be convenient, they may not be the best times to wet a line.

Some estuarine species, tailor and trevally for example, will often bite better mid-tide during maximum flow. These highly mobile critters enjoy the easy pickings of baitfish congregated along the current and tide lines.

Targeting these species isn’t too difficult – look for birds and rippling baitfish and have a good selection of small metal slices on hand.

Species like jewfish and big flathead also quite happily feed when the tide is in full swing, though presenting lures and baits at their depth and retaining good feel and timing for the strike can be a problem.

The combination of a well set-up drifting boat, light braid and good reaction times makes it possible to effectively fish any tidal phase for these estuary heavyweights.

Bream also enjoy plenty of run, but again many methods used to tempt them struggle with the strong flow and swirling waters.

But for every problem there usually is a solution and for many keen sport fishers it’s the combination of that well set-up boat, light braid and fast-sinking lures that consistently produce the goods mid-tide.


Out of the deeper, faster flowing sections you’ll often find large areas of tidal flats.

You need a whole new approach to fish these zones and the first thing to consider is which tidal phase to fish. On the flats, tidal stage is everything.

On the first of the run-in tide, quite often fish will queue up impatiently at the front edge of a flat.

As the water slowly creeps up on the previously dry ground, there’s a sense of new life. Yabbies are shuffling in their muddy holes, tiny baitfish and prawns are spilling onto the shin-deep flats to avoid being eaten and a procession of predators, above and below, is just as keen get on the shallows.

For anglers, being at the front edge of a tidal flat as the tide first swells before spilling over can equate to some pretty exciting fishing.

High tide in the shallows can mean a lot of searching, with fish now spread out far and wide. Long-range, random casts with bait or lures can score fish though a little scouting around with a good pair polarised sunglasses is a better option. Look for telltale signs of fish feeding (silver flashes, prawns or bait flicking, or areas where the bottom has been disturbed) and use plenty of stealth and finesse getting you lure or bait to the fish.

When the tide does start to run back, target the depressions on the flats which moving baitfish and prawns use for a rest on their way back to deep water. The channels which drain the flats also become great ambush points as the tide falls, concentrating all those critters which are fleeing the flats into easy pickings for hungry fish.

And as the falling tide starts to flow, concentrate your efforts on the edges of the drop-offs where these channels meet the main river.


It always surprises me how ocean fish can be so tide-orientated. I mean, how does a snapper know it’s high tide when it’s swimming in 70m of water?

Oceanic fish can be just as tide-orientated as their estuary cousins, although through sheer numbers there are usually some that will bite during any tidal phase.

Mackerel are very tide-orientated species. You can be fishing away, live bait kicking out the back, and have only seen only one or two fish for the morning. Then, as a tide change rolls around, more anglers begin losing baits and landing fish.

This action may last for only an hour or so, so it pays to fish fast and furious before things subside again.

The two most noticeably tide-feeding ocean fish are cobia and marlin.

You can be drifting a bait down deep with a shoal of slimy mackerel and be so bored you’re nearly asleep but as you approach a tide change, things suddenly just come to life.

I’ve seen a dozen boats all drifting a huge bait school, very little happening, waiting for the fish to show. Then, bang, three boats are hooked up, then another.

Your live bait now starts to kick and it’s taken. In five minutes the day has gone from painfully slow to eight anglers hooked up to rampaging fish.

Often within an hour or so everything slows to a crawl again.

More seasoned anglers with limited patience head out for the tide-change bite, whereas more enthusiastic holidaymakers tend to plug away all day for similar results.


Around inshore islands, tidal effect can be similar to in the estuary.

High tide gives species like blackfish, drummer and groper access to new food supplies. For blackfish, all that soft, new-growth cabbage is gold.

Drummer will have a graze on cabbage also but it’s cunjevoi, small molluscs and abalone that are more to their liking. The thought of scoring a few red crabs is all the incentive a groper needs to rise up with each swell and bulldoze through the cunje and weed.

Headlands work much the same as inshore islands with blackfish, drummer and groper often biting best during a run-in tide. Bream and tailor will also feed up as the tide pushes in, feeding on baitfish that have moved in close to avoid open-water nasties.

Tailor certainly aren’t the most graceful feeders and excess food spilt during feeding time is soon snaffled up by waiting bream. Trevally also hunt the stones on a rising tide, rubbing shoulders with aggressive tailor competing for food.

Low tide on the stones can be interesting, especially on the shallow headlands. Start looking for deeper holes and pockets, as these will become real magnets for larger predators like mulloway.

Bream are likely to be around, though they can be a touch wide and camped deep under any baitfish that may be around. Tailor will happily feed in any depth and again, the ‘crumbs’ to attract bream and other opportunistic feeders.


Those keen on fishing the open beaches need to be tide-savvy and have a good understanding of which species are likely to be around and how the tide phase affects their movements.

While I’m certainly no expert on beach fishing, I have seen enough evidence to suggest on many beaches low tide is often best when looking for mulloway and tailor. On many beaches up this way, low tide usually means bait supplies schooled up in the deeper holes and gutters close to shore.

Most of the strong sideways sweep is gone because waves have usually lost their punch on the outer banks. For anglers, this means easier fishing with reduced water movement and concentrated baitfish closer to your toes.

It really doesn’t matter where you choose to fish, having a basic understanding of tidal effect and influence on the given area with greatly improve your chances of scoring a few fish.



If you fish any sort of saltwater, you need a tide chart and you need to study it every time before you go fishing. Find out when the best tide phase is for the species you’re chasing and be on the water well in time to set up and take advantage of the conditions.

In estuaries, that peak period will be later the further upstream you travel, so don’t be afraid to consult the time differences table for each waterway that’s in the back section of the better book-type charts such as the NSW Department of Commerce NSW Tide Charts.



Did you know that the evening high tide is greater in the Winter and the morning high is bigger in the Summer? It’s all to do with the angle of the sun to the Earth’s axis and things change around the Autumn and Spring equinoxes. That seasonal shift takes place this month.

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