Summer rainstorms often bring high, muddy water, leaving anglers to wait for the water to clear before they carry on bass fishing. Why wait? The fish are still there, just waiting for someone who knows how to tickle their fancy. Try these tips when the water is murky and all will be as clear as mud.
Muddy Water is Great for Bass Fishing
Most anglers I talk to are frustrated at best by muddy water. Some just avoid it altogether, but the entire food chain of the river is activated when the water is muddy, so the bass fishing can be great. As long as it’s safe to paddle and within your personal skill level, this often-feared scenario can be the best time to land a true trophy bass.
The best advice for kayak anglers looking to up their game in muddy water is: “Don’t fight mother nature. Flow with her.” Fishing muddy water is about taking advantage of what’s available and using it to drive your success.
The Perfect Speed for Muddy Water
When the river is pumping, have a fast presentation that you can fish on the move. Spinnerbaits, crankbaits and rattle traps are excellent muddy water baits because they can be fished on the go. The combination of speed and vibration make them great choices when underwater visibility is low.
I prefer spinnerbaits most often because they are less likely to snag, and that’s a big deal in higher flows. Getting hung up is frustrating enough in regular conditions, but in higher flows it can wreak havoc and result in an unplanned swim.
If you are able to pull into a larger eddy and slow down, you’ll want a second presentation that can be worked low and slow. My favorite bottom dragging bait for river bass is a soft plastic crawfish. Go bigger in the muddy water to increase the profile of the bait, so it will be easier for bass to see.
One of my favorite muddy water baits is a big crawfish imitation. High water creates a lot of turbulence, which dislodges small creatures that crawfish like to eat. Crawfish become more active as a result, so bass tend to key in on crawfish forage when the river is rising.
Best Bait Color When the Water Turns Brown
Using big, dark baits is standard operating procedure in muddy water. Bass are primarily sight feeders and a big, dark silhouette makes it easier for them to get a visual on the bait. Colors like black, dark brown and dark green are standard fare for the muddy water angler.
Don’t stop at merely presenting a dark-colored bait. Go the next step and add a touch of light contrast to your dark bait. I spent many years hunting deer in the dense, dark woods of rural Pennsylvania. Often a flicker of the deer’s white tail or the flash of a light-colored horn was enough to draw my attention to an otherwise camouflaged deer.
Bass are no different. They are predators on a hunt, fine tuned to even the most subtle cues that will allow them to zero in on their prey. A laminated crawfish with a dark top and contrasting lighter bottom color will create a flicker that can pique the attention of a bass. A black spinnerbait with a streak of chartreuse in the skirt will do the same.
While we’re on the subject of dark and light, don’t forget this time-tested strategy. When the river is muddy you can often locate tributaries that may be flowing clear. When you do, fish the line where the clear water meets the muddy water. Smallmouth bass and largemouth bass are ambush predators and they will often hold in the clear water waiting to ambush disoriented and unsuspecting prey coming out of the muddy water. Working your bait from the dark mud to the light will take full advantage of the position and instincts of your target.
The Right High-Water Retrieve
It helps to get stationary when you can in high flows. Pull into an eddy and work it from top to bottom with fast-moving baits, then slow it down and throw a bottom dragger. The fast bait will pick up the biters and the slower bait will entice those less aggressive fish looking for an easy meal. You can often pick up multiple fish using this strategy.
Park on small islands if they are safe and available. Pepper the front of islands with casts first—the most aggressive, hungry bass often wait there for food to come to them. Water will slow down as it stacks up in front of small river islands, providing an excellent ambush position for hungry high-water river bass.
Go with the flow. Sometimes you won’t have the option of getting stationary, so initiate your short game when you’re on the go. High water pushes fish to the river banks because a lot of mid-river structure is blown out.
Target pockets of calm water along the bank with short casts. Small pockets cause by root wads, chunk rock or just an irregularly shaped bank can hold big bass. When you’re fishing on the move keep your head on a swivel—sweepers and strainers are abundant in higher flows.
Safety First, Especially in Muddy Water
High flows can be dangerous. In no way am I advocating hopping on a river that’s dangerously flooded or beyond your comfort level. Above all, realistically assess your ability. Listen to your inner voice. If you are concerned about negotiating a flow, that’s probably an indication that you should stay off the river until the water levels drop further.
The local livery may be a great contact point when you assess the viability of a muddy water fishing trip. They are often in tune with local water levels, with a good idea of what is safe for recreational purposes. It goes without saying that you should always wear a PFD. It’s also no time to explore new water or do a solo trip. Always paddle with an experienced buddy and file a float plan.
This big smallmouth bass was caught off the front of a partially submerged grass island in muddy water. | Feature photo: Juan Veruete