The water in the sea flows for a certain number of hours in one direction; then comes almost to a standstill, and begins to flow for a certain number of hours in the opposite direction. If we are on the sea coast—on an arm of the sea, such as the Bristol Channel, as the tide comes flowing in the Channel fills up, and the water gradually rises. Sailors say the tide is flowing, which is practically equivalent to saying the water is rising.1 When it has risen to its full height the term flood tide, or high water, is used. When the tide turns and the water begins to run in the opposite direction, it is said to be not flowing, but ebbing, and the period during which the water ebbs is termed the ebb tide. Just between the end of the flood and the beginning of the ebb, or, in other words, at the turn of the tide, the speed of the tidal current gradually falls off, or eases (in nautical language), until there is no perceptible current whatever. Then the water starts ebbing in the opposite direction, slowly at first, and quickening until it reaches its full speed, falling off or slackening again as we get to the end of the ebb. In many places the tidal current is so strong that it is impossible to let down a line and keep the lead on the bottom except during the hour or so immediately before and immediately after the turn of the tide—that is to say, when the tide is slack.
The actual number of feet the water rises and falls varies every day, and will be found stated in the tide tables, which should always be bought. In the Bristol Channel the rise on some days is as much as twenty-two feet, while on others it will be as little as fifteen or sixteen feet. On some parts of the coast the rise is comparatively insignificant— five or six feet perhaps. Every fortnight we have almost the greatest variation in the rise of the water—that is to say, the highest water at the flood and the lowest water at the ebb : these are called spring tides (the term has nothing whatever to do with the spring of the year), and occur at the times of the new and full moon. The spring tide of the full moon, when the best fishing is usually obtained, is somewhat greater than the spring tide which occurs when the moon is new. Between the periods of full and new moon occur the neap tides. The tide in most places rises or flows for seven hours, then ebbs or falls for five hours; and it is not difficult to understand that if a given quantity of water has to rise twenty feet in seven hours, it will flow with much greater speed than the same quantity of water when it has only to rise fifteen feet in the same time. Therefore the currents of the spring tides are very much more rapid than those of the neap tides.
1 In some places—e.g. in the Downs—owing to the configuration of the bottom, trend of the coast, etc., curious tidal currents are formed, with the result that water continues to flow some time after it has begun to fall.
River fishermen are well aware that the incoming of fresh water caused by rain, or the rising of springs, or the melting of a glacier, as a rule brings the fish on the feed. Doubtless it stirs up their food, and, perhaps, also sharpens their appetite, as a good blow from a nor'-easter does ours. The increased current in the sea during spring tides may, therefore, account for the fact that the fish feed better then than at other times. This I lay down simply as a general rule, having met with not a few exceptions. At some places the tidal currents may be so strong during spring tides that it is almost impossible to fish at all except with drift lines near the surface. In the Solent, for instance, are very strong currents, and the fishermen of the Medina rarely attempt to catch whiting, which are plentiful off Cowes in the autumn, during the spring tides. Even in the less strong currents of the neaps, the only fishing carried on is during the two hours immediately before and after the turn of the tide. Not only are the tidal currents overwhelmingly powerful, but they bring with them at times immense quantities of floating seaweed which load the lines and offer such resistance to the water that very heavy leads are lifted off the bottom. Leaving out of consideration long lines which lie on the bottom and are heavily weighted to prevent fish from going off with them, it is mainly owing to the strong tidal currents that the sea fisherman sometimes has to use most ponderous leads on his substantial lines—stout, not more for strength than for comfort in the handling. It is always desirable to use as light leads as possible, and as the tide is at one time not running at all and a few hours later may be racing four or five knots,1 the sea angler should provide himself with leads of different weights which he can change from time to time. The professional usually neglects this refinement, and you may see him fishing with a three-pound weight in perfectly still water, where an ounce lead would suffice. The lighter the lead, within certain limits, the easier it is to feel the bite of the fish and to strike him ; and the amateur sea fisherman will often catch very many more fish than the professional, simply and solely because he uses the lightest lead possible under the circumstances.
When visiting a new place it is most desirable to learn the local peculiarities, especially with regard to the tidal currents, as soon as possible. One good fishing ground may be only approachable during neap tides ; on another very few fish will be caught except during the full run of the highest spring tides. Again, certain places may be absolutely dangerous during spring tides. For instance, the race off Caldy Island is by no means a safe place for a small boat when the tide is ebbing fast down the Bristol Channel. I was once caught there myself when fishing for mackerel. There was a very slight breeze blowing, and we were half sailing, half drifting along with the tide. I was paying little attention to the land, but, looking up, saw that we were passing it at an amazing rate, and that in front of me were moving hills of water. Before I could alter the course of our little craft we were among these said hills, and a very lively time I and a little Welsh boy who was with me had of it. The wind had suddenly lulled, and the water, though glassy and calm, was rising and falling very much after the fashion of stage billows—manufactured, I believe, by means of a strip of sheeting, the ends of which are held at the flies by two men and waved violently up and down. By great good luck a breeze at last reached us, and by its assistance we were able to get the boat close to the island, where we lowered our sails and rowed along the shore, taking advantage of every piece of slack water. About a month after this little incident I was coming home from fishing one night in a pilot's lugger. There was nothing on board in which to bring the fish up to the house except the ship's only bucket, and the pilot's nephew was about to use it for this purpose when the old man stopped him sternly and exclaimed, ' No ! not for a hundred pounds shall that bucket again go out of the boat !'