Tidal experts Terry “Big Show” Scroggins and Cliff Prince break down tidal river systems and explain how to find and catch bass.

The good thing about tidal rivers is that they tend to be fertile and full of fat bass, often yielding fast action. The bad thing is that the same systems are extremely complex, and sometimes it can seem like no one is home.

With both notions in mind, we tapped into the expertise of B.A.S.S. Elite Pros Cliff Prince and Terry “Big Show” Scroggins. Both live near the St. Johns River in northeastern Florida and consider the river’s tidal section their home waters.        

Know the Tides

“You need to know much the tide swings in the river you are fishing,” Prince said.

Some tidal waters vary only a foot or so from high to low tide, while some swing several feet. Likewise, some only go up and down once per 24-hour period, while others go through two full cycles in the same period. In any tidal system, the influence of the tide is far greater close to the saltwater than farther up the river.

Because the amount of current, water level and the amount of habitat that exists throughout the tide’s stages all impact fish locations and behavior, it’s critical to understand just how the water level changes in the particular river section you intend to fish. Of course, it’s also important to know the general tide cycle for the day, and it’s a good idea to keep a chart handy for reference.

Survey Low Water

Scroggins suggests surveying a river during low tide to see which areas lose their water when the tide is out.

“Look at the creeks and sloughs and pockets when the tide is low,” Scroggins said. “If there’s very little water in the whole slough, the fish aren’t going to live there, so you can pretty much eliminate that area.”

Fish do utilize banks and bars that turn high-and-dry during low tide. In fact some such areas get nice rips running across them and are excellent areas when the tide turns right. However, an adjacent spot must be deep enough to give the fish somewhere to back down into when the water goes out, and the broader area needs to maintain some water even at low tide.

Surveying the water when it’s down also helps you identify interesting-looking features that are hidden when the water is up, and to envision how the water moves when it’s rising or falling.

Timing is Everything

Because tidal waters flow in two directions at various speeds and the water level is constantly changing, almost all prime fish-holding spots get hot at specific times, and if you’re not there at the right time you won’t catch anything. A spot the produces well late Tuesday afternoon probably won’t produce late Friday afternoon because the stage of the tide will be substantially different.

“When you catch fish from a spot, take note of whether tide is rising or falling and how far into the tide it is,” Prince said. “Those fish are feeding in that spot at that time for a reason.”

Unfortunately, there is no all encompassing “prime tide.” It’s a spot-by-spot thing, according to when the flow from a ditch, across a bar or into an opening creates the best ambush opportunities for the fish. Some spots are only good when the tide is coming in. Others when it is going out. Still others produce well when it’s moving in either direction, but the fish position themselves differently.

Examining a spot and its structure and considering likely water flow at varying tidal stages provides an excellent starting point to helps you devise a plan. However, consistency on most tidal systems comes only through time on the water.

Find Hard Structure

Scroggins spends much of his time on the St. Johns and other tidal rivers casting to shell beds and other hard-structure features that are often hidden away from the bank. At home, most of his favorite spots have been found through many years on the river, one snagged shell at a time, because traditional sonar doesn’t really show those hard spots well in shallow water. With today’s technology, though, shell beds, sunken trees and other cover and structure are far easier to find.

“Side Imaging gives you a lot of help in finding shallow-water structure,” Scroggins said. “You can ride along and find that hard structure that you want to fish.”

Keep it Flowing

As a rule in most tidal systems, the best bite occurs when the most flow is crossing a given spot. That doesn’t necessarily mean the strongest stage of the tide (although it might). Some ditch drains or rips run the hardest at a time other than when the current in the main river is running the hardest. That said, much offshore stuff does produce best during the strongest part of a tide in that whole section of river.

Slack tide tends to be the toughest time to catch fish. Fortunately, the tide gradually works its way through a river. If the tide slows too much and the bite slows with it, Prince simply runs a mile or two up or down the river to find better flow.

Consider Fish Positioning

“In a tidal river, you always have to think about how the fish position themselves and how they are used to seeing food come toward them,” Prince said. “I try to aim casts up-current of a structure so it looks more natural.”

It’s important to remember that up-current and upstream aren’t necessarily one in the same. The water flows both ways, so morning and afternoon boat positioning might be opposite.

5 Great Baits for Tidal Waters

Scroggins and Prince always keep a handful of lures handy while fishing a tidal river system. Here are the pair’s list of “must-have” lures for this fishing.

XCalibur Xr50 Rattle Bait – Let it sink and fish it close to the bottom with lifts and drops, much like working a jig.

Bomber Fat Free Shad – Crank quickly to get it down and then swim it tight to the bottom so that it bumps and kicks off shell beds and other hard structure.

YUM Mighty Worm – Scroggins favorite set-up is this straight-tail worm on a Carolina rig.

Heddon Zara Spook – These two Floridians said that they keep a Spook handy at all times, not just when on a tidal river. Any time you see movement, by baitfish, shrimp or bass, cast past the activity and start that Spook walking.

YUM Ribbontail Worm – Use a traditional Texas-rig and fish it around visible cover.