Reading The Water (Survival 101)

Have we humans lost the basic skills we need to survive in the wild and be instinctively good fisherman? Here we will explain how we can regain those skills again.

As we grow up our survival skills are learned from our parents and our own observations. However, if you are born and bred in suburbia, where do you learn outdoor skills?

It is something that is sadly lacking by many modern day anglers, especially those – who having saved a few dollars – head north on a fishing safari. They are lost in this new environment – so far removed from the beaches, rock and surf fishing of home. Others use kayaks for offshore forays, and those people have more knowledge about the sea and fish than their land-based brothers and sisters.

Most city anglers use the services of a fishing guide to find fish and local knowledge, and leave it at that. However, some anglers tow kayaks north and head out to distant reefs, estuaries, or fish from tinnies in billabongs, pools, and estuaries. Some do just fine; others fail and swear us northern fishing scribes are a bunch of con artists.

Yet those who complain are mostly people that lack the inherited skills that set some apart from others. It matters little if those skills are born from genetics, or learned, all anglers should have a good knowledge on how to read the water they fish.

Good fishermen possess incredible know-how of finding fish – and it is not luck. Others are equal to the task of catching fish, and again it is not luck but skills acquired through learning, rather than survival, as is the case of bush Aborigines – before they had supermarkets in isolated communities. Most young Aborigines fare no better in the bush than whites nowadays.

Personal skills for finding fish are finely honed from years of experience and are second nature to those who take note. Others just go from one mistake to another blaming all and sundry for their own lack of basic knowledge.

Of course, the more time you spend on the water, the better you get, providing you take it all in and learn from the experience. If you are lucky enough to spend quality time with veterans, you have it made.

The Blue Water

The surface of the sea provides few clues to what is under it. Most of us just plot along reading a fishfinder in search of rubble or reef, drop a pick and send a baited hook after it. That method works fine for most, but where are the skills?

People hunting fish either on tidal flats or out wide need different tactics and an understanding of the fish they are hunting, their habits, and most of all how to find them.

The worst time to read the sea is when the wind is blowing froth off the waves; not a good time to be out but try telling that to a no-choice marlin boat skipper with booked clients or a adamant kayaker.

Sometimes there are dead flat periods when there is no wind or visible signs of currents, rips or movement.

Yet if you look closely, there are. Even in calm conditions, you can find rips, currents, tide lines, reef and weed bed indicators and slicks. Knowing what you see and how to read it to your advantage is what sets a good fisher apart from his peers.

The Tidal Rips

Tidal rips are like rivers of turbulent water that is more noticeable when the tide is running in or out, though movement is nearly always present. Tidal rips are formed when water is forced to run over an obstacle, submerged object, or where two currents meet. They are generally easy to spot, but I have been with boaties that avoided tidal rips because they said it is shoal ground, while any map would indicate otherwise.

Where water is noticeably rougher, or faster flowing than elsewhere it is a good indication that it is forced over a large subterranean obstacle. If it ranges out to some distance in both directions, it is probable that converging currents cause the movement.

In high tidal zones, these currents often cause pressure waves to form – no place for small boats or kayaks. Good fishermen know that rips hold and trap baitfish, which are hunted by predators they are after. There is often a lot of dissolved food in underwater upwelling, which attracts bait – or it is forced to the surface by the current, where the game fish are waiting.

Where two strong currents collide, the bait is trapped in the flow and is unable to swim out until the elements calm down. The larger game fish have no problem with strong currents and are opportunistic hunters when such conditions suddenly unveil. These currents often last for only a few minutes before they calm allowing the bait to escape.

Eye in the Sky

Fishers have another ally when searching for fish in the open water – birds. There are plenty of fish eating species that roam the oceans and hunt bait relentlessly – terns, gannets, frigate birds and cormorants.

The terns are very prevalent where bait schools are forced to the surface by upwelling currents. They roam the sea like birds of prey and their eyes are just as keen when it comes to detecting bait movement. Once bait breaks the surface, the terns attack in numbers, the cries of delight sounding in the air. Others – gannets, and cormorants, soon join in, especially when bait is on the surface.

The whitebait and herring schools in the northern waters can spread over the surface for several kilometres, the sound of the little fish breaking the surface like heavy tropical rain on a corrugated roof. Where the predators hunt them, the whole surface turns to whitewater-like conditions. Where this bait appears, there are ‘holes’ where there aren’t any predators.

If you encounter such schools, you have to move to where the killing ground is or you will miss out. While trolling through bait schools is the preferred method for game skippers hunting marlin and sailfish, small kayaks do better when stopping at the fringe of the action or using forward speed with the motor turned off to float into the fray.

Once the kayaks comes to rest, the bait often moves under it for protection. They pack as bait balls about it and in turn bring in the predators within casting distance. It is most important to use lures that closely resemble the bait in size and colour especially when tuna are the target. Others, like queenfish, dolphin fish, wahoo, trevally and mackerel are less fussy.

When trolling about rips you have to know where the bait is moving and where the game fish are attacking. Intercept where currents converge, or flow over reefs or rocks by working both sides of the conversion, and over the top of the obstruction where the bait is so often the most prevalent.

If the action is slow, work the outer edges of the rip, particularly the back where bait loiters in an attempt to avoid the tidal current rip trap. They are then easy picking for roaming pelagics. In the northern waters these rips occur often over shallow reefs where the bait is also attacked from underneath by hungry reef fish. You can’t help but feel sorry for the little buggers when you see that, though the added bonus of coral trout and others succulent reef fish is always welcome.

Rips are generally short lasting during tidal movement and you need to act quickly before the bait school vanishes. This is where the learned skills of years of similar incidents come into play. Observations – particular feeding birds and frolicking baitfish – will show you where the game fish are.

Shoals and Reefs

Where tides rush over large shoals and reefs, especially those forming the first defense against the open sea, you will encounter much upwelling and totally disorganised water at certain tide times. If the water is deep enough to troll, you find that pelagics roam these currents in search of prey. The water is often discoloured making it ideal for trolling because predators will slash at anything that comes in their line of vision in cloudy water, unlike clear water where they often fail to attack lures larger than the bait they are hunting.

Fish rarely move away from such grounds and they are productive for long periods even at slack tide. Exposed reefs, shoals, and sandbars produce fish when the tide rises. As bait waits for water to move across the exposed ground, they come under attack from the hunters. Observant fishers troll lines in close or in front of these grounds, where they experience fantastic fishing just before the tide rolls over the flats. Shore-based birds like cormorants congregate about such places waiting for the first signs of fish moving across the grounds. Only then will they move from their vantage points to commence feeding.

Once the tide begins to cover the ground, the bait moves with it and the moment is lost for the angler. Fish the fringing sea before the tide moves the bait over reefs and shoals.

Headlands and Islands

Tide lines always form about islands and headlands, giving the shore-based fisher opportune moments to catch fish in the currents when water flows in and out with the tide. Mostly the tide line appears as a texture change in the sea, but sometimes as in different colour blends, generally from disturbed shallow bottom that clouds the water.

Bait feeds and shelters here and where there is bait there are bigger fish. Many different species hang about such spots, even ocean going pelagics come close inshore when bait hangs about islands and inlets, or form large bait balls off beaches.

The eddies, formed by converging currents, hold baitfish and attract game fish the same as the ocean tidal rips do. The shore-based angler must know the right place where to toss his lure or bait, as there is often less movement by game fish, thus the angler has to be at the right place. Again, the telltale signs of water disturbance and birds are an indicator of the bait position.
Disturbance in the water is called ‘nervous’ or ‘disturbed’ water by game fishers, generally a localised patch of water that has a breeze-like disturbance like wavelets, wind-like ripples or splashes about it that indicate moving or feeding baitfish. Nervous water is often confused with currents or wind corrugations, but true bait movement always moves in one direction, often very slowly, unlike wind and current disturbance that comes and goes.


Getting away a bit from natural observations, water temperature plays an important role where currents form. Where there are conversing currents in the open sea, similar to a ‘colour change’ there is generally a temperature change present.

The change can be very subtle or very striking, especially where tannin coloured river water flows into the sea for a long distance. One of the most startling examples is the Jardine River on Cape York, which during wet season flooding forces freshwater into the sea for over 10km. Freshwater floats on saltwater, thus underneath is normal seawater.

Game fish use the darker water to ambush bait, and knowledgeable anglers troll along the colour edge in an attempt to entice a fish from its cover to strike the lure. Others zigzag back and forth along the colour edge. Both methods can be effective.

Some controversy exists on what is the better side to fish in, the clear water, or the cloudy stuff. Some fishers reckon that clear water produces more strikes, but my own observations indicated that bait moves freely in cloudy water and that game fish use it for ambush, rather than the clear stuff.

However, I have struck occasions where more game fish were piled up in the clear than in bait infested cloudy water. They nearly always bite freely under such conditions on both sides.

Where colour edges collide in the blue water, the colour change is subtler, while others are invisible to the naked eye. You need a temperature gauge that takes a surface reading to get an accurate indication of water temperature. The better the quality of the gauge, the more accurate the reading, which often differs little. Those with an alarm function are best, as it will go off when the temperature change is found. Some game skippers reckon changes as little as one-tenth of a degree make a difference but the larger and longer the change, the better because it truly indicates a real temperature change in the tidal current collision.

With the help of a GPS or plotter, trace the line of the temperature change and fish along it for best results. During very hot days in the tropics, I have always found that the cooler water produces more fish, but the opposite applies in the dry season.


Of course there is much more to fishing, but natural observations and more importantly thinking like a fish, will make catching one that much easier. It is something that many fishermen never think of, instead plodding along in the hope that their luck is in or relying on the electronics to find fish. The truly wise angler uses both.

Posted by
Arthur G. Moore

Arthur G. Moore is a veteran paddler. He has over 10 years of whitewater kayaking experience in his kitty. When he was young, he used to love kayaking in rapid III and rapid IV but as time went on, he decided to concentrate mainly on covering long distances on a standard touring kayak. He is currently working as a senior editor for Kayak Manual.

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