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Luke Ovgard details the science and danger behind the 'king tide' phenomenon

FLORENCE, Ore. — The rain wasn't quite pouring, but it was coming down hard. Paired with 10- or 12-mile-per-hour winds, our hoods were useless. It just blew into our faces and made us look like we were sweating and crying simultaneously.

I wiped the cold spray from my face again, licking the saltiness from the edges of my mouth. We were fishing on the lee side of rock formations on the rocky coastline, and when one of us caught a fish, the other would serve as an additional windbreak, huddling slightly over the other's slightly numb hands to keep rain off the phone screen. A quick picture or two would tide us over, and we'd release the little fish back into its natural habitat. We'd caught buffalo, fluffy, padded and sharpnose sculpin, as well as high cockscomb, but the night before, I'd come across snailfish for the first time, and I was holding out hope.

When I spotted the snailfish, we were both huddled over a pool the size of a king-sized bed, trying our hand at fishing the king tides.

My friend, Amy Hart, had wanted to try her hand at fishing, and she was doing quite well.

"Amy!" I whisper-shouted, "There's another snailfish!"

Cold hands guided a tiny piece of mussel on an equally tiny hook into the adorable face of the squishy little fish. It inhaled, and Amy became the second person to catch this species of fish on hook and line, courtesy of the king tides.

COURTESY PHOTO: LUKE OVGARD - I caught my first ringtail snailfish during the day after walking through a tidepool and seeing it burst out into the open. I followed it until it stopped and fed it a bit of mussel, which it readily bit. Later that night, and the following night with Amy, all of the snailfish we caught bit after dark.

King tides

My time on social media comes in waves. I'll have days where I spend almost no time online, but they are rare. It ebbs and flows, but I spend the most time online when the weather is poor and darkness falls early, a terrible time we in the industry refer to as "winter."

Often, it's just a way to waste minutes — okay, hours — of my life that could be better spent trying to find love or enriching my mind. On occasion, though, social media offers great value. Usually, it comes in the form of a particularly funny tweet, a breathtaking Instagram model visiting the beach and sharing her new swimsuit with the world or a new YouTube video I fortuitously discover when something in my house breaks.

Last week, it came when I began seeing the phrase "king tides" pop up on my Twitter feed. The completely unscientific term refers to the highest tidal swings of the season, the highest highs and lowest lows.

Caution No. 1: the next few paragraphs are oversimplified for relevance.

Caution No. 2: king tides can be very dangerous.

If the moon didn't exist, tides would be greatly reduced. We'd still have them, but they'd be negligible. The push and pull that constantly churns the seas would be mostly absent, and we'd have to rely on wind and ocean currents to stir sediment and refresh the depths. Assuming we didn't have tides, the ocean would always be flush at sea level, with an elevation of 0.0 feet.

High and low tides are measured as points where the sea level rises or falls in relation to that 0.0-foot mark. In theory, low tide should be close to 0.0 feet while high tide is somewhere above that mark.

When the tides swing hardest, it creates a pendulum effect. The highest tides require more momentum and power to climb higher than they usually do above that 0.0-foot mark. As the increased volume of water falls, it, in turn, generates more force and power. As a wave collapses on itself, it falls back further into the ocean with more force, exposing more land to water. This happens on a larger scale when the extra-high tide retreats back to the sea and is replaced by the extra-low tide.

Tides work in a 4-part cycle each day, following the high-low-high-low pattern that is separated by about six hours. If the first high tide cycle is really high, as it was this weekend, then the second low tide cycle will be really low. So low, in fact, that it peels the ocean back below 0.0 feet and reveals land that is typically in the realm of wistful mermaids and their pet musical crustaceans. This phenomenon is called a minus tide.

Last weekend, Florence, Ore. saw minus tides of about -1.5 feet, which was enough to make me drop everything and get out there.

COURTESY PHOTO: LUKE OVGARD - The ringtail snailfish was never officially recorded as a hook-and-line catch before last weekend, when Amy and I caught them.

King without a kingdom

There is very little information about microfishing in tidepools that I didn't write. You might have read that as a boast. It is very much a complaint. While pioneering this type of fishing has been awesome, it is also often frustrating with so few resources at my disposal. Most of my research has to be primary. There are numerous instances where I catch or see something and then spend days trying to figure out what it was. Days with an unanswered question is an almost eternal period of time in the Internet Age, but resources like Fishbrain, iNaturalist and several Facebook forums have at least helped me scout and then connect with biologists.

You'll remember that "fish" can refer to a single fish or multiple fish of the same species while "fishes" refers to fish of multiple species in the plural.

If that distinction is trivial to you, don't fret. Most women I've dated would agree.

Many of the fishes I catch and write stories about are niche. Okay, most of them. From Croatian gobies to Hawaiian reef eels to hot springs cichlids, the underappreciated things that go glug in the night can find a home with me. Some are so niche that the collective knowledge in print and online can fit onto a single sheet. Most small snailfish fall into this category.

There are half a dozen species of snailfish that can theoretically be found in shallow water and don't grow larger than your hand, but they're not studied well or often.


Amy and I found nine snailfish last weekend and combined to catch five of them. It was quite the feat. Identifying them, however, proved more of a feat. I had to wade through available data about slimy, slipskin, ringtail and tidepool snailfish. I'll save you the minutiae and hair-splitting I endured, but I was finally able to say that with 90 percent confidence, we'd caught ringtail snailfish.

The rarity of nearshore snailfish combined with their lack of commercial value, sport value or table value mean they're unlikely to surge in popularity, but maybe they can help contribute to the popularity of the surge — especially when those surges are downright royal.COURTESY PHOTO: LUKE OVGARD - Most snailfish species have modified pelvic fin that forms a suction-cup like disk that enables them to stick to rocks even as the surf pounds overhead. Some species of gobies and clingfish also have this adaptation.

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