When to fish? Check out the sun, moon, tides

The biggest question for many in the outdoor world is simply, “When should I take the trip?” Nowhere is this better illustrated than in popular recreational areas. To see this, just watch the ebb and flow of outdoors persons along beaches or docks on the East End or along the trails of the Catskills and Adirondacks.

For anglers there are, first of all, weather considerations. On my “Fisherman’s Excuse Mug” there are numerous suggestions: too cold, too hot, muddy water, it rained, too windy or water too rough, etc. And we’ve all been faced with decisions based on weather reports.

How many times have we cancelled trips only to find that dire conditions never materialize? Conversely, how many times do we blithely assume fine weather only to arrive in deteriorating conditions? No wonder wise skippers take deposits from fishing parties under the old assumption familiar to carnival barkers, “Ya pays yer money and takes yer chances!” In other words, unless the captain calls at the very last moment, assume the trip is a “go” and prepare accordingly. Moreover, unless a party is coming from some extraordinary distance (across the country?), plans proceed. If necessary, a cancellation is made dockside.

Secondly, sun and moon positions matter. The sun-moon positions relative to the rotating earth give us our tides, those tabulated highs and lows so critical to the saltwater clan. Actually, moderation due to local shorelines and estuaries cause the empirical highs and lows to be somewhat different, and local sharpies keep an eye on the differences. Also, it’s not immediately obvious why some areas fish better on falling water just after high tide and why others fish better on rising water following a local low. At least it’s not obvious until you catch fish consistently on one particular phase. “History teaches better than mystery,” goes the saying.

Years back, my surf mentor, Bill Mueller, listed the North Shore beaches from east to west with preferred fishing periods according to tidal cycles and I’ve found that list to be pretty reliable. Yet there are days in the fall when blitzes occur on select beaches at off times. As Bill says, time and again, bait tight to the beach trumps everything else!

Do tides (or sun-moon-earth positions) count for freshwater fish, for animals, for birds, too? One school of thought certainly says so. Beginning with the solunar tables of John Alden Knight about 70 years ago, some dedicated sports kept tabs on so-called active periods, major and minor, that they felt were correlated with sun and moon positions in the sky. In a treatise entitled “Moon Up, Moon Down,” Knight popularized the theory so much that sporting magazines began to publish tables of solunar periods, and some still do. For example, sunset fishing could be particularly good around the new moon with the alignment of star, planet and satellite, called syzygy (a great word for scrabble-players). Likewise, around midnight at the time of the full moon (directly overhead) with the sun on the other side of the earth, there should be another period of wildlife activity. We never paid a lot of attention to this until we fished with Angie La Mariana, an upstate fly fisherman who absolutely swore by solunar tables. He would often remark during a day of fishing that we should be particularly alert because we were about to go into a major solunar period. Did it work? Perhaps it did. At least we fished more attentively and probably caught better that way.

For every time the fishing or hunting is lousy despite what seem like perfect conditions, there is a time when things go remarkably well under terrible ones. Thus, on many occasions, we’ve ignored conditions and gone anyway. Often this happens because we have guests who simply must go. Their time is limited and they cannot wait for conditions to improve. One pair of friends from the East End passed through the Adirondacks a couple of years ago and wanted to chase muskellunge on a rainy August day. I had to explain that we never did well in our creeks under such conditions (intermittent downpours), but we would go anyway. Somehow the water in the huge river pool we fished remained clear while we made our assault, and the muskies loved the rising water. We caught and released fish for hours!

The successes almost make up for the disappointments that come from fishing salmon in rivers that should have been prime (except that the runs hadn’t arrived) but weren’t, fishing small lakes that were reportedly loaded with fish and finding that, whatever the reason, the fishing was absolutely dead. Maybe the best philosophy is to take whatever opportunity you have and just go. Montauk Capt. John de Maio used to point out that it took “just one good hour” to make a great day of fishing, and you’ll never experience that hour unless you put a lure in the water.