Finding The Offshore Bite – Pro Tools of the Trade

Sea Surface Temperature Chart South Florida

Using Satellite Data Can Dramatically Improve Offshore Fishing

The wealth of weather, atmospheric, and oceanographic data anglers have at their disposal is just staggering. Accurate weather data, sea surface temperatures, global positioning systems, and various oceanography tools provided by the U.S government and various third-party systems provide an opportunity to dial in on fish more consistently than ever before in sportfishing history.  Taking advantage of the data can be difficult, however, because there’s just so much of it!

While I was attending school at the University of Miami, I was fortunate to have friends who were active in the marine science programs. Their disciplines ranged anywhere from marine biology to oceanography – with their guidance I was able to hone a list of tools that professional marine scientists utilize regularly to understand environmental factors which influence fishing.  The most critical factors for finding fish include:

  • Sea Surface Temperature
  • Wind Speed / Wind Direction
  • Sea Swell
  • Current
  • Tide
  • Moon Phase
  • Bait Concentrations
  • Low Pressure Weather Patterns

While there are undoubtedly thousands of other elements which impact fishing, this seems to be the core set marine scientists use to understand when the “bite” is the best. It’s also enough of a start for professional fishing captains and recreational anglers alike to line up the “float plan” for the day ahead. While the importance of fishing in the right location based on the conditions can make all the difference – knowing what the conditions are in advance of your trip will help you make informed decisions about where/when the bite is likely taking place.

Using Sea Surface Temperature Data

There’s a variety of places to get sea surface temperature data, but one of my favorites is buoyweather.com. The quality of the data for the price of the service ($14.95 a month) is second to none in my opinion. When fishing offshore (or even inshore for that matter), understanding where thermoclines and temperature transitions occur can be a decisive factor in finding bait – which is almost always where gamefish can be found. Water temperature also influences where fish will be actively feeding (every species has their preference on water temperature as well).

Sea Surface Temperatures Impact on Fishing

Note the transition zone from Biscayne Bay to Offshore

The sea surface temperature tool from Buoyweather.com allows you to zoom in to the point where you can plot the temperature transition by GPS coordinates.  This is helpful in identifying where current is likely flowing and where bait may stack up.  Some baitfish, like flying fish, tend to “hug” warmer water temperatures, which is why when you’re trolling offshore – the spot where you start seeing flying fish explode out of the water is likely a decent a place to start working your spread. Warmer water also attracts krill which feed on algae and other microscopic particles that thrive on nutrient rich warm water at the suface – krill is the start of the food chain for most baitfish…and the cycle goes on from there. We’ve found the 74 degree to 75 degree water temperature to be a significant strike zone for Dorado, but that’s just an observation with no scientific basis.  Note the yellow temperature break is also the thinnest temperature line on the chart above.

Wind Speed and Wind Direction

This is the critical ingredient for kite fishing.  In the winter, strong NE winds bring bait and sailfish closer to shore.  The colder winds pushing down from the North seems to alert fish that it’s time to eat, which is why most kite fishermen in South Florida covet the wintertime NE wind. Wind direction also impacts your ability to position the boat when drift fishing – for example – north winds are terrible for sword fishing because they can stalemate your boat (or cause it to spin) when the current is pushing you north ( a mild south wind is considered best for swordfishing as it pushed you along with the current).

A Typical Wintertime Wind Pattern in South Florida

A Typical Wintertime Wind Pattern in South Florida

Understanding the direction of the wind is important because it helps to factor your drift.  If the wind will be pushing you inshore, it’s better to set up slightly deeper so you can deploy lines and work from deep to shallow. If the wind is blowing from the North, it may hold you against the current which means you won’t cover as much water when the current is weak. Wind can also be the determining factor for it being too rough to fish (we don’t venture out with customers if the wind is stronger than 20knots) – 20knot + winds from the SouthEast or South can make it challenging to even stand up in an open boat or make it offshore in the first place.

In addition to understanding large scale wind patterns, identifying the conditions in the area you’ll be fishing is paramount.  The National Data Buoy Center provides many locations where you can get real time weather conditions for free:

Weather Forecast for Fowey Rocks from the NDBC

Weather Forecast for Fowey Rocks from the NDBC

On most of our offshore fishing trips, we fish directly east or to the south of Fowey rocks, which makes this weather data invaluable for understanding what conditions we’re facing. Professional fishermen rely on buoy data like the information above to anticipate conditions and prepare accordingly.

Sea Swell Forecast

The determining factor for most fair weather (and foul weather) fishermen is the swell forecast. Swell forecasts are an important aspect of planning your day at sea.  If it’s calm in the morning but the swell forecast calls for 4 to 6 in the afternoon – it’s best to plan accordingly. While it’s nearly impossible to predict sea conditions with 100% precision, the swell forecast from buoyweather.com is superior to NOAA in my opinion. Understanding the pattern of the swells, as influenced by the wind, can help you determine what type of fishing will be most practical.  For example, kite fishing adrift with a high quality sea anchor isn’t so bad in 3 to 5 or 4 to 6 foot seas.  But trolling in those conditions, downsea direction or not, will beat you up.

Example Swell Forecast

An Example Swell Forecast

This is invaluable information when you’re planning a fishing trip. The swell forecast has everything to do with anticipating the sea conditions you’ll be up against.  Changes in wind direction and sea conditions can also serve as an indicator of what time of day may be best to fish.

Example Wave Height Chart for South Florida

Example Wave Height Chart for South Florida

Wave height charts like the one above can also be helpful in understanding the direction of the swells and how long the condition may last.  You can zoom in very close with Buoyweather to help identify where the waves are the worst – a case for inshore fishing vs offshore fishing when the swells get too large for even the most seasoned crews.

Predicting Offshore Current

Current is the decisive factor in finding fish that are actively feeding. When the current is dead…so is the bite. The last few weeks have forced us to endure dead current off Triumph Reef and Fowey Rocks which is very frustrating. While there’s nothing you can do about the conditions, understanding where current exists offshore can help you to track down weed lines, rip currents, and bodies of water where pelagics are likely hunting for food. Surprisingly, there are very few tools which help you to identify currents with any degree of accuracy. One of the best i’ve found is available for free from UM/RSMAS:

University of Miami/Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences  Eastern Florida Shelf High Frequency Radar Operations

RSMAS High Frequency Radar Used to Identify Ocean Current

The University of Miami/Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences currently operates three WERA High Frequency radars in Crandon Park on Key Biscayne, Virginia Key and John U Lloyd Park on Dania Beach. The radars at Crandon Park transmit at 16MHz, Virginia Key and Dania Beach transmit at 12MHz and provide measurement of currents on the ocean’s surface over a large area of the ocean off Miami, FL. While the radar’s accuracy can be negatively impacted by strong winds and high waves, this technology is relatively accurate.  We use this tool to identify whether current may be strong close to the coast, which is typically the best condition for excellent fishing.

Using Tidal Information to Predict Fishing

Tide is a critical factor for inshore fishing, but also plays an important role in offshore fishing as well. Bait concentrations are heavily influenced by tidal conditions, and if you make the mistake of fishing for bait during a dead tide – you will likely fail. Tide impacts reef fishing more than offshore, but factoring the tide makes a big difference when you’re planning a day of offshore fishing out of Miami.  There are dozens of tide tools available, but my absolute favorite is saltwatertides.com.

Example Tide Selection Page

Saltwatertides.com makes it easy to get several days worth of tide information for a variety of points across the South Florida region. No matter where you fish, this tool can help you to accurately identify when the tide change will take place. Knowing when the tide will rise and fall (or peak) makes all the difference in determining what time is best to fish a reef spot.

The Moon Phase and Fishing

It’s amazing to me that moon phase has so much to do with fishing in Miami. There are times when I literally feel like giving up on fishing a full moon (as we never seem to catch anything offshore during the day) but then I get surprised when the night time swordfish bite turns on and we hook multiple fish over the course of just a few hours. While the exact impact the moon has on fishing in Miami is not known, some of the more experienced Captains in the area have their favorite moon phase for targeting specific species.  For example, the full moon is typically best for targeting wahoo and snappers on the bottom.  We’ve found that the offshore bite typically slows down during a full moon because pelagic fish which feed at the surface are likely feeding all night due to improved visibility – and not very hungry during the day.

Lunar Calendar for Fishing

A Lunar Calendar from Moonconnection.com

Moonconnection.com provides one of my favorite lunar calendars (pictured above) but there are dozens of tools like this online.  Some sites even provide fishing predictions based on the moon phase, but I have never relied on them with any consistency.  Over time, if you’re meticulous about taking notes during your fishing trips, you may start to notice patterns in what you catch based on the moon phase.  I’ve noticed that when the moon is most hidden, the fishing tends to be the best – matching up the strength of the current with the moon phase (by season) is the best technique for predicting when the bite will be hot year after year.

Finding the Bait with Fishing Forecasts

The “Ace in the Hole” for many professional fishermen who make their living chartering off the coast of Miami is Roffers Ocean Fishing Forecasting Service.  Roff’s provides comprehensive charts and detailed reports on where current eddy’s exist,, where bait is stacked up, and where pelagic fish are likely to be hunting for food.  The reports are often a saving grace when the bite is slow over several weeks time and can really help to dial in on productive areas.

Example Roffs Fishing Report

Example Roffs Fishing Report

In addition to a comprehensive chart which provides detailed GPS information on current eddy’s and bait hot spots, Roff’s provides a written report to help understand where the productive fishing is likely to take place.  The accuracy of these reports is impressive – i’ve used them a few times through the years with great success.  Roff’s does all the satellite data analysis for you and provides the actionable information you need to find the bite.  While these reports aren’t a “guarantee” that fishing will be amazing in a particular area – it certainly takes the guess work out of pulling multiple data sets together on your own. Roff’s employs experts who specialize in predicting fishing based on sea surface temperatures and dozens of other factors which impact recreational and commercial fishing.  It’s reliable intelligence for professional anglers.

Low Pressure Weather Patterns and Fishing

The age old myth that fish tend to feed best before a front is absolutely true.  Changes in barometric pressure seems to trigger a feed just before a substantial weather pattern moves in.  This gives you an opportunity to maximize a tight weather window when the fishing is likely to be hot. NOAA is really the best source of this data:

Color Enhanced Weather Patten Data from NOAA

Color Enhanced Weather Patten Data from NOAA

You don’t have to be a meteorologist to understand when a front is approaching. Based on the speed at which the front is approaching, the size of the front, and the direction it’s traveling you can identify when you can get that critical few hours of fishing time in before the front pushed through. One thing to bear in mind is the severity of the front – it’s not worth risking your neck if nasty squalls are about to push through.  While the fishing may be great, putting yourself or anglers in a compromising situation outweighs any hot bite that may occur. Consequently, we’ve found the fishing to be decent just after a front pushed through as well.

 

 

 

 

Capt. Charlie Ellis

Capt. Charlie Ellis

Captain at Miami Fishing Charters LLC
Capt. Charlie Ellis of Miami, FL has 25 years experience fishing for big game species like Bluefin Tuna, Sailfish, Swordfish, and Sharks. Capt. Charlie is also an avid scuba diver, world traveler, writer, and entrepreneur.
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