Best Moon and Tides for Peak Fly Fishing
Understand the tides and the effects of the moon and sun to plan more successful fishing trips.
By David Conway

Whether you’ll wade or fish from a boat, understanding the tides and other influencing factors will improve your results.   Photo by Capt. John Mauser

The fate of your fishing trips may be written in the stars, but deciphering such valuable intel requires consulting the moon first. The moon’s sway over the oceans dictates when, where and how you should fish, or even whether you ought to fish at all. Other than accurate casting, there’s no more essential skill for saltwater fly anglers than a thorough understanding of the tides. Once armed with that knowledge, planning a successful outing can be as simple as consulting the tide tables for your intended destination.

Tide fluctuations are caused by the gravitational pull of the sun and moon, and they directly impact gamefish movements and feeding habits.   Photo by Capt. John Mauser

Solunar Effects

The moon phase is the most obvious indicator of the tides you can expect. With glimpses of the moon, coastal anglers can get a sense of the tidal action in their home waters. Everybody learns early on that the full and new moon phases bring about the strongest tides, though to be clear, the gravitational forces of both the moon and the sun affect our tides.

During the full and new moon phases, with Earth aligned with the sun and moon, the sun has extra gravitational pull on the oceans, adding to the extreme highs and lows of tides (spring tides). A week later, with the sun and moon no longer aligned with Earth, the sun’s gravitational pull weakens the moon’s, creating more moderate tides (neap tides). These more moderate tides occur on the first and third quarters of the moon’s monthly cycle.

Other celestial factors have an impact on the tides throughout the course of the year, and some anglers use solunar tables to predict fish activity based on the position of the sun and moon in relation to the Earth’s. Luckily, anglers don’t need to know astronomy to access key tidal information. The combined effect of the sun and moon’s gravitational forces is already calculated into those handy predictions in tide charts.

The height and strength of the tide determines where gamefish like snook and tarpon will wait in ambush.

Tidal Influence on Fish

Along with the timing of tides, anglers should learn how their target species behave at the different stages. Knowing the feeding and travel habits on a particular tidal stage and current (the water flow produced by the strength or weakness of the tide as it rises and falls) greatly increases chances of success.

A strong tidal current can push forage off protective structure and into open waters, and it can also force predatory fish to leave their hangout to find shelter from the brunt of a powerful flow. The strongest currents of the incoming tide (flood) and outgoing tide (ebb) usually come before or close to the top of the high and the bottom of the low tide, and they often trigger peak periods of activity and feeding for inshore gamefish like bonefish, permit, snook and tarpon.

Slack tides, or slack water, when the flow is neither strong nor fast, comes between the flood and ebb tides. Each of these tide phases also produces predictable behavioral patterns in coastal species that anglers can count on to plan their day’s fishing. Some species, after all, have an easier time moving about and foraging when they don’t have to fight a strong current.

Extreme low tides expose bottom structure like these oyster bars, helping anglers pinpoint where fish will stage once the water rises.

Highs and Lows

In many locations, the height of the tides may limit opportunities or afford new ones. Low water restricts passage in some locales, and it may also increase hazards as rocks, oyster bars, sandbars and other submerged structures become exposed or lay too close to the surface for safe navigation.

On the flip side, extreme low tides — when bottom features, sunken structure and channels become temporarily well defined — may provide an opportunity to accurately assess the topography of an area and pinpoint key spots with the most potential.

Anadromous species like this steelhead usually wait for the highest of high tides to enter coastal rivers.

With powerful currents funneling through inlets, past the jetties and into bays and coastal rivers, high tides could present some navigational concerns. But extreme high tides also create phenomenal opportunities in almost every fishery. For instance, anglers targeting anadromous species like steelhead know they can expect chromers fresh from the ocean to make a push up various rivers then. In the Carolinas, extreme high tides flood certain marshes, producing fantastic sight-fishing opportunities.

The highest high tides, often called flood tides, create terrific opportunities to sight fish for tailing redfish and other skinny-water targets.   Photo by Capt. John Mauser

Flood-Tide Tailers

Capt. John Mauser of Tailing Tide Guide Service, based in Swansboro, North Carolina, focuses on fly fishing along the Crystal Coast region, from Cape Lookout to New River, for a variety of inshore and nearshore gamefish that includes redfish, striped bass, seatrout, false albacore and others.

“I fish a lot of creek systems and bays in the salt marshes of North Carolina, mostly I sight fish for redfish around spartina grass shorelines and over bottoms that range from mud to sand to eel grass and oyster bars,” Mauser says. “I fish water from six inches to six feet deep, so the tide plays a huge role in our access, the movement of fish, and our fishing techniques.”

When the tide floods the marshes in the Carolinas, wading and boating anglers alike take full advantage.   Photo by Capt. John Mauser

One of Mauser’s favorite plays is hunting for tailing reds in the grass, an entirely tide-dependent fishery.

“During the full and new moons, we get extremely high flood tides that cover the spartina grass shorelines,” he says. “We only get a few of these tides each month, so we try to take advantage of each to chase tailers in the grass.”

Mauser uses Tide Charts, a tide app by 7th Gear, but stresses that it takes time on the water to dependably know the ins and outs of local tides, especially in backcountry waters.

“The tides in the creeks and bays that I fish can be delayed as much as two hours from the nearest tide station the app is referencing,” he says. “Through trial and error, I've learned those variances so I can accurately calculate the tide stages in a given area.”

Other Influencing Factors

Although the tides play a major role in how Mauser plans his trips, they’re definitely not the whole story.

“When sight fishing for redfish, I’ll always look at wind direction and speed to determine where to fish. Time of day also affects the bite,” he says. “We fish early and late during the summer. The water is cooler then, and the fish are more active. During the winter, we fish in the middle of the day so the sun can warm up the cold water on the flats. In a perfect scenario, we'll be fishing when the right tide, time of day and winds all line up.”

“Although tide charts are a great starting point,” Mauser cautions, “a few days of steady winds can either add or take away several inches of water depth in the marshes. We have been pleasantly surprised by unexpected flood tides and have also had trips ruined by extreme negative-tide heights.”

Tide charts, readily available online, can make it easier to plan a trip when water levels and flow will be most conducive to good fishing.   Photo Andrew McNeece

Tide Charts

That pros like Mauser rely on tide charts (for some, tide watches) should indicate their importance for the rest of us, especially for anglers traveling to fish away from our home waters.

Most online tide charts, including those from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) available on the website, list tides for a range of specific locations within each of the numerous geographic vicinities covered.

Some tide tables, especially those you might find printed, will state high and low tides for a certain tidal station and also provide time differentials —in hours and minutes— for several locations nearby, leaving the minor calculations to you.

Learning to predict the tidal stages you will encounter throughout the day will greatly increase your chances to hook up.   Photo by Capt. John Mauser

Depth Thoughts

On most tide charts, including NOAA’s, the base elevation used as a reference to measure heights and depths (called datum) is Mean Lower Low Water (MLLW), which is the average height of the lowest tide recorded at a tide station during the most recent 19-year recording period, and it provides anglers with a point of reference to gauge chances for access, safe navigation and, to a certain extent, finding fish.

Additionally, the greater the differential between subsequent high and low tides, the greater the volume of water that will be flowing. Many charts illustrate this differential with the graphic element of a wave showing the changing height of the tide across the time and date range. The steepest arc of the wave indicates the strongest tidal current, whether rising or falling, which is very useful information to determine where and when to fish.

Alternately, anglers can usually get a good tide chart for their general fishing area from a local marina or fly shop and ask about the time differentials for the specific areas they plan to fish. As Mauser points out, the delay in tide changes between two nearby locations, say between a barrier island and a nearby back bay, or at different spots in a maze of marshes and channels, can be significant and not always evident on tide tables.

Knowing the height and strength of the tide you can expect will help you gauge a spot’s accessibility and stay safe.

Safety Always First

Be exceedingly careful of mistiming rising and falling tides, not only when boating but also when wading, especially on solo trips to remote locations. Miscalculations can leave you either stranded or flooded, and fast.

Also, the effect of a rising or falling tide on a species’ behavior may vary from place to place within the same body of water. Such intricate, local knowledge of a fishery is the forte of guides and experienced locals, as only time on the water can teach it.

As a traveling angler, once you get to know the basic tide-influenced behaviors of your target species, you can line up your travel dates to coincide with the best tides in the waters you’ll fish. Of course, it’s not always so easy due to work schedules, but in trying to triangulate trip dates with tides and species availability, the greater emphasis you place on tidal phases, the better your chances for success.

David Conway

David Conway is the author of Fishing Key West and the Lower Keys and the forthcoming Sport House: Fishing, Fighting & Fatherhood. Well versed in a wide range of angling and boating topics, he has been a regular contributor to a number of fishing magazines and journals where his essays and articles have appeared for more than 20 years.