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Written By: Cal Kellogg, May 27, 2014
The most influential natural factor impacting how, when and where Delta fish feed, including stripers and sturgeon are tidal fluctuations. All Delta anglers are aware that the Delta waters rise and fall with the daily movements of the tide, but I’ll bet many of them don’t have a firm understanding of how the tidal process works.
The gravitational forces both the sun and moon exert on the earth cause tidal movements. Measurable tidal movements occur in the earth’s oceans, bays and large rivers that connect to oceans and bays. Tides occur in lakes as well, but since even large lakes contain only a minute fraction of the water mass of the ocean, the tidal fluctuations are so small that they are barely measurable.
As we all know, the moon is much smaller than the sun. That means that the sun exerts much more gravitational pull than the moon, but that’s only part of the story. The sun is about 93,000,000 miles from earth, while the moon is only about 240,000 miles away. The net result of this arrangement is that in terms of actual gravitational pull exerted on the earth, the smaller moon has a much stronger influence than the sun, due to its closer proximity.
In basic terms there are two high tides and two low tides every 24 hours. A high tide takes place when the moon is directly overhead and low tide occurs when the moon is aligned with the horizon. Yet there is more to the equation than this. Tides are not constant in the amount they rise and fall. Some tides are weak, meaning there is less rise or drop between high tide and low tide and correspondingly less current. Other tides are strong, meaning there is a great deal of rise or drop between high and low tide and correspondingly more current flow.
These variations in movement are based on the daily position of the moon and its relationship with the position of the sun. For example, each lunar month the sun, moon and earth line up in a straight line. At that point the sun and moon basically combine their gravitational forces and it is at these times when the largest strongest tides take place. At times when the sun is overhead at the same time the moon is on the horizon or if the moon is overhead and the sun is near the horizon, their gravitational pulls exert opposite effects on the earth and as a result tidal movements are greatly decreased.
So what does this all mean in practical terms to striper and sturgeon anglers plying Delta waters? First of all in terms of bait fishing for stripers, good size, but not overly large tides offer the best action. I’ve encountered the best bass fishing when the tidal movement ranges from 4 to 5 feet. Can you encounter good striper fishing during smaller tides and larger tides? Absolutely, but you’ll have to tweak your game plan to accommodate the amount of water flow you encounter.
When dealing with smaller tides and weaker currents, it often pays to fish in deeper water where the current will be maximized. Conversely when confronted with a large 5 plus foot tide and ripping current you’ll find the best results by moving in tight to the shoreline where the current will be minimized.
Sturgeon seem to feed the best during relatively strong tides of 4.5 feet or more. I don’t think anyone is certain why this is the case. Perhaps, stronger currents blow the silt away and expose more yummy morsels for the grazing sturgeon. Once again as with striper fishing, if the tidal current is slower than you’d like it to be you can move into deep water to find the maximum amount of current. On days that feature the largest tides, you might consider moving into shallower water that you ordinarily wouldn’t fish.
No matter what species of Delta fish you are pursuing you can always count on the best fishing to occur during the first and last hour and a half of any given tide. The fish sense the slowing or speeding up of the current and this causes them to bite.
A lot of anglers ask me a couple of different questions about tides. First they ask me if I like to fish outgoing or incoming tides better. I’ve done very well on both stripers and sturgeon during both tides. However if I had to choose one tide over another, I’d lean toward the outgo. I think the outgoing tide tends to concentrate the fish and whenever fish are concentrated they are easier to find and catch.
The second question they ask me is if I continue fishing during the slack tide and the answer is yes. The bite is seldom red hot at slack tide, but you can still hook some good fish. The biggest challenge of fishing during the slack tide is the fact that there is no current to keep the boat stable and your gear out behind the boat properly.
One trick you can employ to keep your boat stable when fishing in areas that feature soft tule lined banks is to pull the anchor and nose the boat into the tules. Since there is no current at slack tide you can cast your lines out and they will stay where they land until the current starts moving. When that happens you can move back off the shore and drop the anchor again.
If you are fishing well off shore in the main river, you’ll just have to do the best you can during the slack tide, or you can motor upstream or down stream a couple miles and set up in an area where the next tide has already started or where the current tide has yet to stop moving.
A final point about tides also concerns the weather or more specifically the wind. If you are fishing on a day when a fairly brisk wind is blowing, you’ve got to factor in the direction of the tide and wind when you choose a location to fish. If the tide is flowing in the opposite direction the wind is blowing the boat is going to swing back and forth all the time or at best it will set at a sharp angle in relation to the current. You can put out a drift sock or a couple five gallon buckets tethered to ropes. The drift sock or buckets will catch the current and help keep the boat straight, but if the wind is strong or if the tide is weak it is usually best to seek out a sheltered area. This will save you a lot of frustration in the long run.
The weather is an important factor when it comes to fishing in the Delta, although I’ve got to say that based on my observations, stripers are far more influenced by the weather than sturgeon. When I’m chasing sturgeon I don’t give the weather too much consideration, but when stripers are on the menu I spend more time thinking about how the weather will influence the action on the day I’ll be fishing.
So what are the worst possible weather related scenarios for the striper angler? That’s a pretty easy question to answer, since there are two main situations that can make for really tough fishing. The first is an abrupt change in water temperature and the second is fishing immediately after a low pressure area passes.
When the water temperature changes quickly it severely impacts the metabolism of stripers and many other fish because they are cold blooded. The worst temperature changes are those that lower the temperature even if the temperature remains within the comfort zone of the bass.
Low-pressure areas are a double-edged sword for Delta striper anglers. As a low approaches striper fishing is often highly productive.
When the relative pressure the stripers feel decreases (when a low is approaching) they feel more energetic and are able to move about more easily. This increased activity increases the metabolism of the bass and they feed. This in part explains why the striper fishing can be very productive as a low moves in.
When the low peaks and then begins to pass the fishing typically becomes tough. This is a direct result of the barometric pressure increasing. As the barometric pressure goes up the relative pressure the bass feel also increases. This increase makes the fish feel less energetic, they move less, their metabolism slows and they feed less.
In the simplest terms stripers that are feeding are a whole lot easier to catch than those that are not feeding. A dropping barometer prompts them to feed while an increasing barometer encourages them to stop feeding. This explains why we anglers experience good fishing as a storm approaches and poor fishing after it passes.
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