Fishermen often use the term “fish the tide,” but there is a little confusion to what it actually means. For some fishermen, it’s a call to fish all of a moving tide, probably in same location. But more often, it’s finding the stage of the tide you want to fish and fish the same stage throughout an area.

Doing this requires that fishermen understand the tide is not at the same stage in all areas at the same time; generally the farther away you’re fishing from an inlet, the later the tide will reach the stage you’re looking for. Most tide tables list corrections to show the difference but don’t explain it.

A good figure to work with for plotting tides is that for every 8 miles you travel upstream, the tide is an hour later reaching that area – moving up or down. An ideal example is the Cape Fear River between Southport and Wilmington. The distance is roughly 25 miles, and the tide at Wilmington runs approximately 3 hours behind the tide at Southport.

Mike Lanier, a professional bass fisherman from Winnabow, uses that same estimating tool for the tidal rivers he fishes. For example, he said, the Cape Fear River upstream from Wilmington is tidal, and the tide at Lock and Dam No. 1 is approximately four hours behind the at Wilmington.

Why is this important? Many fish feed based on the stage and its direction. Speckled trout and red drum will sometimes feed on any moving tide, but they always feed on the falling tide, which forces baitfish and shrimp off of the marsh flats and into the creeks where the predators can easily reach them. 

Baitfish and shrimp have to move as the tide falls and more bank is exposed. This stage of tide will be later as you move farther from the inlet, so it is possible to fish a while, then move upriver and fish the same stage of the tide again. By fishing a while and then moving upstream, fishermen should be able to stay at the same approximate stage of the tide and fish the most productive part of the tide for several hours.

Most tidal guides show this, including the one carried in North Carolina Sportsman and under the “Weather” link on The best example is the correction around Atlantic Beach. It shows the high tide at the Harkers Island Bridge as 2 hours and 33 minutes later than the high tide on the Atlantic Beach oceanfront. The low-tide difference is 2 hours and 42 minutes.

Going west through Bogue Sound, the high tide at Spooners Creek is 2 hours and 35 minutes later than the Atlantic Beach ocean high tide, and the low-tide difference is 2 hours and 55 minutes. Places between these extremes have lesser differences; at the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries dock on US 70, the high tide is 1 hour and 20 minutes later than the ocean, and the low tide is 1 hour and 43 minutes later. 

A fisherman starting just inside Beaufort Inlet could fish the same stage of the tide in Tar Landing Bay, Hoop Pole Creek, Pelletier Creek and Spooners Creek for approximately 3 hours simply by continuing to move away from the inlet.

Understanding tides is a major key to fishing success. Some fish feed most actively from about an hour into the tide to mid-tide, and others actively feed from mid-tide to the end of the cycle. Knowing how the tide works in a river system and moving allows fishermen to extend these productive periods. Once an angler knows the productive tide stages and how to move up and down the river to remain at those tide stages, his or her catch should increase.