A Primer on the Best Tides for Bonefish

In the ocean, the moon is at the controls. Pockmarks and all, the moon is the king. His subjects range from the smallest invertebrates to the largest fish and all the creatures in between. 

On a spring tide, life is both better and worse for the bonefish. On the falling tide, they run around like Chicken Little. You can almost hear them say “the tide is falling”... “the tide is falling”. In the first moments of the rising flood, bonefish act the part of the Mad Hatter. They dash about chasing an appointment of which only they know the whereabouts. You can almost hear them mutter “I’m late, I’m late... I’m late for a very important date”.

Their cockiness on a newly turned spring tide drives them into absurdly shallow areas. All too soon, this surety is replaced with a paranoia brought on by the quickly receding waters. To make a mistake on a falling spring tide is to die. It takes only one miscalculation for a silver bullet to be left high and dry... now only fodder to be picked over by the blue crabs and seagulls. Life for a bonefish is a nervous repetition of fear and hunger-driven aggression. 

I am often asked what is the best tide profile to choose for a bonefish trip. The simple answer is, “The best tides happen when you can go.” In other words, whenever it is possible to escape from the demands of family and work is great time to go. Bonefish eat whenever they can and on all phases of the tide and moon. It is also axiomatic that if you aren’t there, you sure as hell can’t catch them.... so anytime is better than none. Having said that, there are better tides than others. I often tell anglers that it can be tough to pick the best tides due to the variables of wind, barometric pressure and weather, but I can definitely pick a bad tide, so let’s start there. 

To me, a bad tide is a morning high on a new or full moon (spring tide). With this profile, you start the day on a half full tide. This profile also offers a big volume tide due to the moon phase assuring that the fishing will not be great until it falls a bit by midafternoon. This tide profile means that you may have an hour or two in the morning when it is ideal, then not again until the afternoon. There are not many good fishable hours on this tide profile. Since the tide is approximately one hour later each day, your morning fishing will improve each day of a five or six day trip with these tides, but you will still have a full tide during the heart of your day even as the tide size begin to diminish (volume or lack thereof of high and low tides) as you come off the spring tides. 

Conversely, my favorite tide is a midmorning low on a neap tide (the periods between full or new moons offer more moderate tides). This way you are always fishing both sides of the low (falling and rising) and the tides are not huge so the good fishing is stretched out over a longer period of time. Neap tides offer a simple solution to the issue of tides and water volume. With neap tides, there is less water and bonefish simply have fewer places to go. Simply put, with less water, there is less area you have to search to find them. Also on a neap tide, bonefish can’t get way up in the mangroves where they become virtually unreachable. But on neap tides, they can often be seen at high tide cruising just inside the mangrove fringe. Here, they weave in an out using the roots not only as protection, but also as a place to find food. This is an an ideal situation during a high tide. Usually slack low tide on a neap tide is slow fishing, but maybe the only time it is slow during your day. 
OK, so now let’s complicate things a bit. When I am asked what I look for when I pick a tide, I answer my first criteria is the timing of the low. I want a low tide during the heart of my day so I need my trip to start with a morning low. Remember the low is approximately one hour later each day. If this well-timed low happens on a spring tide so be it. I’d rather have a fishable low (low during my fishing day) than a perfect moon phase with a morning high.  Unfortunately, when picking tides, rarely do moon phase and the timing of the low align perfectly. In other words, most months don’t offer a morning low AND a neap tide. It seems to always be a compromise between moon phase and tide levels. Maybe a well-timed low might straddle a spring tide etc. so again the first thing I look for is the timing of the low.

Neap tides tend to spread the good fishing out over a longer period of time while big spring tides have a tendency to compress the good fishing (and sometimes better fishing) into a shorter time period.  The change from slack low to a rising tide can be superb fishing on a spring tide, but the fish want to move and aggressively charge with the rising water onto the shallows knowing they have a big push behind them. At times like this, you want to make sure you are not looking one direction when the fish have already gone behind you. Bonefish can be quite reckless on a spring tide. They want to get to a tasty flat ahead of their competition, one that might have been high and dry only a few minutes ago. They are not quite so aggressive on a neap tide as they do not have that big push of water behind them to work with.

Conversely on a falling spring tide, fish are in a big hurry to get off the flats so they are not left high and dry. Again, you can be looking up a creek or on the edge of a flat waiting for them to come out and/or off and the fishing can be spectacular... but, before you know it, they are gone. On a neap tide, fish are more relaxed and almost casually exit flooded areas knowing it won’t get too low or at least get too low too fast. 

I try to see tides as a bonefish sees them. For example and as I mentioned before, the spring tides offer the bonefish both greater bounty and increased peril. The feeding grounds made available by these extreme moon phase tides drives them to be ever more adventuresome. Bonefish now push hard towards newly flooded flats that may have been completely out of the water for a week or two or even more. The pickings are good here and the bonefish want to reach these areas first for the bounty they offer.  All too soon though their predatory instincts get a heaping dose of reality as the predators catch up to them when the water deepens just a bit. This fear of being eaten soon gives way to the relief they feel as they reach the safe confines of the mangroves roots when the flood reaches its apex. This doesn’t last long either for once the tide turns, the security a bonefish must feel all snug in the mangroves is replaced by a nagging fear of being left high and dry when the tide turns. They leave the mangroves with nonchalance, but soon increase their pace until eventually they are in a full-out retreat. Eventually, they leave the shallows entirely. All that is left at slack low is to mill about nervously on the edges and in the channels. Once again, they are dogged by ‘cudas and sharks. This exposure will only change when the next tide cycle begins and they can briefly get some relief in newly created shallow water. Now having survived another tide cycle, they can once again begin to sate their hunger as they move to regain their mangrove sanctuaries and hidey holes and the safety they provide. And so it goes for the children of the tides, the bonefish.

The last thing I’ll mention about tides is something many anglers hear and wonder about. Many have been told by others to avoid full moon tides because bonefish are able to feed at night on a full moon. They are told the bonefish will not be hungry during the day. I think this is a bit of a wive’s tail and although they may feed at night if given the opportunity, they will certainly still feed during the day. Therefore, I don’t avoid full moons as long as I have a morning low early in my trip. The good fishing is compressed as discussed earlier, but I don’t think bonefish will choose moonlight to feed in over sunlight or especially in exclusion to. It just makes no sense especially since some shark species are more active at night. I do think spring tides are tough to fish at high tide as the bonefish are way up in the mangroves or schooled up (if no mangroves are available) usually on the downwind side of islands or in hard to reach  “potholes” in creeks. Here they school up to avoid predators like sharks and cudas.
I would be happy to discuss tides with anyone planning a trip. just give me a call and I’ll let you know whether I think your proposed dates are thumbs up or help you select good dates!