Juan Veruete with a big muddy water smallmouth bass caught off the front of a partially submerged grass island. Photos: Courtesy Juan Veruete
Juan Veruete with a big muddy water smallmouth bass caught off the front of a partially submerged grass island.

Summer rain storms often bring high muddy water. The past several weeks here in the north east we’ve experienced a constant barrage of thunderstorms. Rivers are flowing high and many anglers are hitting the lakes waiting for the water to clear and get back to normal summer levels.

Most anglers that email me or speak to me at seminars are frustrated by muddy water at best. Some just avoid it all together. The truth of the matter is that as long as the river is safe to paddle and within your personal skill level, this often feared scenario can be the best time to land a true trophy bass because the entire food chain of the river is activated.

The best advice I can give 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. It’s what I call the Yin and Yang of fishing muddy water.

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 that can be fished on the go. The combination of speed and vibration make them great choices in muddy water.

I prefer spinnerbaits most often because they are less “snaggy” and that’s a big deal in higher flows. Getting hung up is frustrating enough but it can wreak havoc on you in higher flows resulting in an unintended 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. 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. As a result, crawfish become more active so bass  tend to key on crawfish forage when the river is rising.

Juan Veruete's go-to muddy water baits, a 4 inch "Bubba Craw" and Winco's Custom spinnerbait.

Bait Color For When The Water Turns Brown

Using big dark baits is standard operating procedure in muddy water. Bass are primarily sight feeders. A big dark silhouette makes it easier for a bass 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 of color that can get the bass’s attention. 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. Locate tributaries that may be flowing clear. Fish the line where the clear water meets the muddy water. Smallmouth bass and largemouth bass are ambush predators. Bass 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 fish’s position and instincts.

When possible get stationary on small mid-river islands to cover water more thoroughly.

The Right High Water Retrieve

Get stationary when you can in high flows. Pull into an eddy. Work eddys from top to bottom with a 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.

If safe and available, park on small islands. Pepper the front of  islands with casts first. The most aggressive hungry bass often take up that post waiting for food to come to them. Water will slow down as is 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 stationery. When you’re on the go, Initiate your short game. High water pushes fish to the river banks because a lot of mid river structure is blown out.

Target calm water pockets along the bank with short casts. Small pockets cause by root wads, chunk rock or just an irregular 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.

Stay safe in muddy water conditions by using these tips and paying attention.

Remember, Safety First

High flows can be dangerous. In no way am I advocating hopping on a river that’s ripping on it’s way to flood stage or even beyond your comfort level.  Above all, realistically assess your ability. Listen to your inner voice. If you are concerned about negotiating a flow, then that’s probably an indication that you should stay off the river until the water levels drop further.

As you’re assessing a trip, the local livery may be a great contact point. They are often very in tune with water levels that are 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.

Juan Veruete is an American Canoe Association certified kayak instructor and a licensed fishing guide in Pennsylvania. He conducts kayak fishing classes and guided trips on the Susquehanna and Juniata rivers through his business Kayak Fish PA, LLC.


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