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Waves, Currents, Tides and Fishing


Operating a boat through waves, especially in heavy weather, is demanding on the boat, the operator, and the passengers. When caught in rough sea conditions all on board must wear life jackets and remain mentally and physically alert. Waves, caused by the weather or wakes from other boats, will cause the boat roll (side to side motion), pitch (bow to stern motion), and yaw (swerving motion). These motions affect the handling of a boat. If they become excessive or combine, they may become uncomfortable and increase the danger of broaching (capsizing beam to the sea) or pitch-poling (being overturned so that the stern pitches forward over the bow).


When maneuvering into waves keep the seas at an angle between 10º and 20º off the bow, while being cognizant of your heading versus your intended course. Sometimes you may need to tack (zig-zag) your way back to port and calmer water.


When running before a following sea keep your heading at an angle between 0º and 15º off the bow. While maneuvering in a following sea the helmsman must stay alert and skillfully use the throttle to keep the boat on the back of the wave as often as possible. If caught surfing down the front of a wave be ready to steer and power against the tendency of the boat veer off course and broach when it hits the wave in front.  


Maneuvering in surf requires special training and should be avoided. If caught offshore when an inlet begins to break, heave to and wait for calmer conditions. In an emergency keep your boat in a trough running on lowest back side of the wave in front. Allow the wave to break ahead of the boat. Once complete increase power to run through the white water before the following wave breaks over your stern. Be aware that running through white water may cause cavitation. Never attempt to run over a wave that is in the process of breaking.​ See below for wave type illustrations.

Currents, and Tides 

Currents are caused by the combined effects of tides and winds. Tidal currents are the horizontal motion of water caused by the incoming and outgoing direction of water flow as the tides change from high to low throughout the day. Winds affect the speed of the currents. Wind blowing in the same direction as a tidal current will increase the speed of flow. Wind blowing against the tidal flow will slow the current’s speed and cause choppy seas. Currents have an impact a boat’s maneuverability. Applying more power can reduce this impact. However, at low speeds the bow can swing in the direction of the current while the boat drifts into a beam to the sea condition. The effects of current, tide and wind can cause difficulty while docking or maneuvering in close quarter situations. 



The flood and ebb of the tide has a profound influence on how fish feed and where they move. Nearly every savvy fisherman will tell you that the best fishing is an hour or two before the top of the high (flood) tide and the bottom of the low (ebb) tide.  These are the times when current is flowing well and sweeping the bait fish out from their hiding places and into the belly of predators. The best places to drop a hook are flat bottomed areas that connect or bridge together shallower and deeper water areas. Also look for areas with indications of drop-offs, ridges or deeper structure.  Fish also feed near wrecks and in rocky areas. Fishing isn't good during slack water.

Choppy Wave

Spilling Wave

Surging Wave

Plunging Wave

Image Credit: Elemental Magic, Volume I: The Art of Special Effects Animation by Joseph Gilland

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