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The purpose of this article is to give you an idea of where to find game fish in the relative vastness of the ocean and its surrounding waters and to explain the importance of tides to any saltwater fishing. The ocean is a huge area with much of the water devoid of fish. Where are the fish and why? Read on.

Randy Jones leading clients across the shallow flats of Monomoy, Cape Cod. photo John Halnon

What is tide and current? Tide is the vertical movement of water. Current is the horizontal movement of water. In a 24-hour period there are 2 high and 2 low tides. When the tide is rising, it’s known as flooding. When the tide is falling, it’s known as ebbing. When there is no horizontal or vertical movement of the water, the tide is slack.

What creates or causes them? It’s the gravitational pull between the sun and moon on the earth’s atmosphere. This creates tides and currents. Because the moon is closer than the sun, it has more of an effect on our tides. Therefore, we have to pay special attention to the different phases of the moon.

Full / New moons create spring tides that mean higher high tides, lower low tides and faster currents. Opposite moon phases mean lower high tides, higher low tides and slower currents. The exaggerated full and new moons normally create better fishing conditions.

Why are tides and currents so important to understand? Here’s the bottom line — fish are easier to catch when they are feeding and it’s the tide and currents that dictate this. This means the tide and current will concentrate the bait and the movement of water will initiate and stimulate feeding activity. As the water begins to move, smaller baitfish are at the mercy of the current and get confused in the turbulent water. Larger game fish have an advantage because they are equipped to feed in this turbulent water. As such, moving water is often best for fishing.

I highly recommend a tide log book (known as tide tables in the United Kingdom ) for anyone interested in understanding tides and currents more thoroughly for your area. This book is my bible. It’s what I use to plan each and every fishing day.

Let’s take tides and currents a step further. The fastest part of either tide is normally 2 hours before the high and 2 hours before the low. Most areas fish the best during this time period, but not all. The fastest of either is the falling tide; normally this is the better of the two. As water begins to push in or out, it starts out moving slowly, then gradually increases in speed until reaching a crescendo. During this peak the fish normally feed voraciously. Taking very little time to inspect their next meal for scent and realism. This is similar to trout feeding in the fast water. These tides can almost be too easy.

I’m not embarrassed to say that after fly guiding in Vermont for trout for 12 years I was intimidated by the saltwater environment at first. Where are the fish and why? How? After reading Striper Moon by Kenny Abriems and Inshore Saltwater Fly-Fishing by Lou Tabory, I realized the similarities between the two and found my doubts less warranted. With fly-fishing the main ingredients are basically the same. Presentation.


Same as freshwater, but throw in the double haul for good measure and easier casting! Mostly we are stripping streamers through the water.

Instead of entomology it’s baitology: Much easier to understand than 1000 types of caddis, stones, mayflies, etc. Matching the hatch? Try 3 profiles in thin, medium and wide. A few specialty flies (surface flies, squid, crabs and shrimp). Use brighter colours in the spring and more natural colours in the later part of the summer. Simple.


Several basic types — beaches, flats, marshes, estuaries, rock structures, jetties, bays and rips. Once you’ve learned the basic ingredients, its as simple as saying “Fish On”

Let’s discuss tides, currents and their relationship to structure, so we can all catch more fish. When water is moving and coming into contact with rocks, points of land, holes, islands, jetties, rises in the bottom, channels etc there is a natural tendency for the water to speed up. It has to compress or concentrate its flow (speed up) to get over, around or into a piece of structure, just like in a trout stream. This increased water flow or speed draws the attention of predators. We all know if a predator has to expel more energy to get food than it takes in, it will surely die. That’s why predators normally use this structure to hide behind (like trout ) and allow the currents to bring their food to them. Baitfish are at a disadvantage as they are unable to swim away or navigate easily with these faster currents, sometimes being tumbled. These areas are one of the easiest places to catch.

BIG bass are easiest to catch when they are feeding actively. What initiates this? Most of the time it’s the speed of the current moving the bait over, around or into structure. The faster the current the more aggressively they will feed and the easier they are to catch! During the course of a day most flats will have fish on them, but I try to only fish the ones that have moving water.

This equation works ninety percent of the time.

Moving water + structure = a compressed water flow.

Compressed water flow + baitfish = predators.

Take some time and study current movement. Seek out moving water and you will be rewarded. The only time this equation will not work is if there has been a strong wind for several days that will blow the bait out. Water temps. are too cold or warm. (55 — 65 deg. best — like trout) Too much noise created by anglers or boats. The following areas are all ideal locations to find your quarry. The best way (for the most part) to learn and understand these area’s is to look at them at low tide.

The purpose of this article is to give you an idea of where to find game fish in the relative vastness of the ocean and its surrounding waters and to explain the importance of tides to any saltwater fishing. The ocean is a huge area with much of the water devoid of fish. Where are the fish and why? Read on.


One of the easiest pieces of structure to catch fish. Rips are formed by bars of sand or rock that rise up to below the surface, combined with current. Points of land also create them. Severe changes in depth with tide and current create turbulent water. The increase in water flow as it moves over or around this structure is a main stay in consistent hook-ups. Bait is swept over structure as the water flow is concentrated. This leaves bait confused, unable to swim against this faster current. It leaves them easy prey.

Rips occur when tide is coming in or out and can be found in any type of habitat. Fish really key in on these and make them a regular stop in search for a meal. Normally casting across the rip line and retrieving your fly as it cross’s into deeper water will work. This imitates the natural bait being swept over the rip. Sometimes letting your fly swing and go deeper into the water will also produce great results. The speed and depth of water would determine the type of fly line you would use.

Marshes and estuaries

A marsh system is a relatively flat, low-lying portion of the coastline. Hidden behind beaches and harbours. These marsh systems tend to have a lot of water movement and tidal flow. Mud bottoms warm up the quickest and are the very first place we find them in the spring. Starting on the South side of Cape Cod moving east. We talk about marsh systems in regards to fishing because they are very rich in food and nutrients. These areas are a nursery ground for many saltwater species including plankton, shellfish, chubs, grass shrimp, crabs, sand lances, silver sides, herring, cinder worms etc. As such, game fish love these areas and are an ideal habitat for bass and blues looking for an easy meal. Normally as the water heats up as the summer progresses they will move out and into areas that have a cold water influence.

Fish can be found in a marsh almost all the time, depending on its size. Many times fishing high up in the system at high tide and working your way down on the drop will keep you in the general area that the fish are travelling. Fish near the mouth at low tide and work up with the incoming. If your marsh system is smaller in nature than most, fish will leave as the tide recedes and hold in an area with deep water accessible, most likely at the mouth or just outside it. Normally you will have current flowing out of the marsh at this time and the fish will be feeding on the bait that is swept out. This would be a prime area to fish. If your marsh is large then look for fish to hold and feed within this area. They will have plenty of deep water and feel safe to remain in the system to feed through the entire tide.

When the water is moving the fish are feeding. Marsh systems can be very long and meander endlessly, like a freshwater stream. So, how do we locate fish? What do we look for? Well, the key word is structure. Structure can be anything that helps shelter fish or bait. It could be rocks, deep holes, rips, ledges, channels, undercut banks, logs, depressions, sand bars or the channel itself. Fish it like you would a river. Look at your favourite marsh at low tide and it will open up all of its secrets.

Rock Structures and Jetties

Jetties are normally located at the entrance to harbours, marsh systems or along the coast to try and protect it. Jetties and other rock structures (rocky coastline) are home too many baitfish. They feel safe and comfortable being able to blend in with the surrounding structure. Our quarry understands this and keys in on this type of habitat for this and other reasons.

At low tide, does your beach have many rocks exposed? If so, then this could be a prime area to fish at the high. It will have bait fish and predators mixed within all of the rocks that are now covered. Throw in waves crashing over the rocks, tumbling the bait and this makes them an easy target for predators.

When on a jetty, try fanning your casts. Work close to the jetty then further out. If your at the tip of the jetty (12 o’clock) look for water being swept (concentrated) around the tip of it. The fish will always be at the 1 o’clock position if the current is sweeping the bait in the current from left to right. This would be another form of a rip. The jetty forms a point and the current from the shoreline to the tip of the jetty is being compressed around the tip. The bait gets swept along for the ride and the predators will be waiting for an easy meal.


A large expanse of shallows, consisting of mud, eelgrass or sand. Its high noon, blue-bird sky, light coloured sand, incoming tide, cool breeze blowing, standing in 2 — 3 feet of crystal clear water in June, July and August. Girls in grass skirts surround you (just kidding). Sound like the Caribbean?

Here on Cape Cod, we have miles and miles of light coloured sand flats and crystal clear water that makes sight casting to 5 — 25 pound stripers the order of the day. This is probably the most exciting type of fly-fishing you will ever do. They’re cruising the flats eating crabs, shrimp, silversides and sand lances, and just waiting for your perfectly cast fly. Sometimes you need to burn up the water with a fast retrieve and at other times using a dead drift with the current is all that is needed. All methods will require distance, speed and accuracy in your casting skills.

photo John Halnon

We have some of the finest destination flats fishing in the world right here on Cape Cod. Seeing hundreds of fish in a tide is the norm. Stripers and blues come to this area in search of food. As the sand flat becomes covered with water the baitfish move up onto the flat through troughs, sluice ways and channels to escape the predators. Approximately 2 hours before high water the predators come up onto the flat following these same troughs (like roads) in search of food. This would be a good place to stand and sight cast to them.

Sun and no wind make for optimal sight fishing conditions as they cruise the flat. At high tide many times you will find them in 6 inches of water tight to the shore, again, this is where their next meal is hiding. So this would be an additional area to prospect during that stage of the tide.

As the water starts to recede, the larger fish will leave that area and depart from the flat using similar channels and sluiceways to those they came up on. This is another prime spot to fish. Normally they will hold, waiting in ambush in the deeper water for the baitfish to get flushed off the flat. My next move would be to stand close to the edge of the flat and cast my fly into the creek that is flowing off the flat. I’d allow my fly to swing and sink, imitating a baitfish being washed off the flat.

This is one of many basic feeding patterns that never changes and consistently repeats itself, tide after tide.


Beaches are one of the most difficult areas to understand and read. Mother Natures’ signature clues can sometimes be very subtle and a keen eye and knowledge of what to look for is imperative to being a proficient reader of where the fish are at and why.

What to look for? Converging currents, slope of beach, tidal flow, wash, waves, sand bars, ocean holes, dips, slots, troughs, spill zones, wind direction, points, channels from bays, rips, rocks and coves. These are areas that all hold fish. The best way to learn a beach is to first look at it at low tide.

Slope of beach

A gradual sloping beach is probably a better beach to take the kids to then to fish. Normally if the slope of the beach is steep then it continues at that angle subsurface. These are preferred areas to fish due to its depth and fish holding capabilities.


The wash is the area where the wave crashes onto the beach and where the water receding off the beach meets. This white water turbulence is often at your feet and often over looked as a fish holding habitat. Fish can and do feed in this turbulent area where the bait is being tumbled and confused, making it an easy target for a predator.

The purpose of this article is to give you an idea of where to find game fish in the relative vastness of the ocean and its surrounding waters and to explain the importance of tides to any saltwater fishing. The ocean is a huge area with much of the water devoid of fish. Where are the fish and why? Read on.

Sand Bars

These come in many shapes and sizes and normally how the current, wave action relate to the bar is the key ingredient to understand where the fish will be holding.

If you see a point off a beach it will normally continue out under the surface. Combine a current on the dropping or incoming tide moving across it and you will very likely have a rip. Look for most fish to be feeding on the down tide side.

If a sand bar were 50 feet off the shore running parallel to it with waves crashing over it then I would look for the fish to be holding between the beach and the bar. They will feed on the bait as it’s picked up by the wave and tossed over the bar. Casting into the wave as it’s ready to break and allowing the wave to crash on your fly, then imparting a darting action will often result in a strike.

There will be times where you will be able to stand on these bars and cast your fly perpendicular to the wave / current direction and allow your fly to flow over the bar and into the deeper water. Imparting action to your fly or simply letting it dead drift will often result in a strike.

Channels from a Bay or Estuary

These areas are a magnet for fish. All Bays and estuaries hold bait fish. At sometime these baitfish will leave these areas or be sucked out by the tidal current. These channels are prime feeding lies for cruising, migrating, resident bass and blues. On a dropping tide the current through these channels is often extremely fast, providing a predator an easy meal. They may set up like a trout on a seam, behind a bar (rip) or maybe in a multitude of different sand holes on the bottom created by this incredibly fast concentrated current. Often sight fishing to these fish is almost comical as you can pick out the fish you want to catch. It’s just like swinging a streamer for trout. With this increased flow of water they do not have the time to study or inspect your fly for realism and are often much more opportunistic feeders, which we always like.

Ocean Holes

These are good fish holding locations due to the depth of water they hold, making the fish feel comfortable within this habitat. One of the easiest ways to find an Ocean hole is to put on a pair of polarized sunglasses and look down the beach. Look for the darkest water along the beach and you’ve just found a spot to fish.


A wave is made when it comes in contact with shallows. Often by simply reading the swells and where the wave is breaking will help you to decide where to fish. If a wave breaks on the shoreline then I know I have deep water in front of me and would be a good fishing location. If the waves start to build 200 feet out, crest and break far from shore then I probably have a point of sand or shallow water bar. If I have waves breaking out to my right and left, but breaking at my feet in front of me, then I probably have an ocean hole. This is where I would fish. Even if you cannot visually see sub-surface structure, by reading the swells and breaks it will help you understand what you cannot see.

Reading Sand

Holes, bars, dips, pockets normally indicate fast moving water. A prime location to fish when the current is at it’s optimum. Soft sand equals shifting sand and in this area expect Sand Lances (called sand eels in the UK ) to be present. They normally seek out this type of sand to hide in. Throwing a Sand Lance pattern would be my first choice. Or the real thing!


Bays are comprised of everything. Flats, bars, channels, rips, marsh, beach, and rocks. Look for birds, darker deeper water, structure, current and all of the above. Read the water right and this is the result, a beautiful striped bass. 

photo John Halnon

Read the water right and this is the result, a beautiful striped bass. photo John Halnon

The best way to study these different habitats is to first start out at low tide. Go for a walk on your favourite beach. Notice the points, bars, holes and rocks. These are the areas to concentrate on and could be loaded with fish later in the tide. A careful eye and an understanding of these areas are all that is needed to become a proficient angler.

Let’s try to put it all together. As an angler, your goal is to search out and study all the above mentioned habitats and their relationship with moving water. Fish them, find out when each piece of structure fishes at its optimum. (Remember my equation?) Some will fish best at high, mid, low, incoming, outgoing, half in or half out. Others on a half or full moon, while sometimes your spots will fish best on opposite phases. Compile an assortment of spots, so you can do what I do each day before heading out. Fish each spot when it is at its optimum. Thus guaranteeing you the best chances for hooking up! You will find with time the more spots you acquire, the odds of fishing 24 -7 all summer long increase. Also, you will then be able to take wind into consideration. Casting on your back cast is easy as spreading soft butter on a warm muffin when you’re experienced. But for the new angler it’s an acquired skill. So being able to fish, casting on your forward cast can sometimes be a more pleasurable experience.

When I go fishing, I take all this and more into consideration when deciding where to go. In my opinion, fly-fishing is one of the most challenging and rewarding types of fishing you will ever experience. But to achieve proficiency you need to have a clear understanding of tides, currents and habitat you fish. Then you’ll soon be realising the best part of fly fishing —FISH ON!

Randy Jones is a full-time professional fly/spin fishing guide with over 18 years of experience. He has represented the Orvis Corporation as a guide and chief instructor at their 2 1/2 day Saltwater Fly fishing schools. During the summer, Randy can be found guiding the Monomoy Island area of Cape Cod, USA where sight casting on the flats to trophy Striped Bass is his specialty. During the Fall, Winter, and Spring Randy runs drift boat and wade trips on the world class Salmon River for Steelhead, Coho, Browns, Atlantics, and Kings. For more information email:

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