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Fish long enough and it’s bound to happen. The perfect trip goes awry with the inflow of sediment into an otherwise pristine paradise. Chocolate milk, brown gravy and molasses are all fine on the breakfast table, but they can turn an angler’s stomach upside down when describing his favorite fishing spot being overrun with dirty water. During spring, rainy tournaments can go from a blowout to a washout in one evening.
Last year, Associate Editor Curtis Niedermier and I headed to Arkansas to fish and support a benefit tournament for the Disabled American Veterans, Department of Arkansas group (ardav.org).
We were fishing Lake Dardanelle in April, a prime time on a great lake. The fishing reports said it was taking 20-plus-pound limits to win at the time. Our practice yielded the same conclusion. We were on a tremendous flipping bite. We only set the hook on four fish and landed 17 pounds, while shaking off every other bite. Twenty bites each day was easy by searching out the cleanest water we could find in the flooded, muddy river fishery.
Come tournament time, however, our world got rocked. The two nights before the tournament, it poured down rain – the kind that makes the electricity flicker and the yard turn into a rice paddy field.
Tournament morning, we ran to our best area only to find it was an orangish-brown mess of mud. We spent the first hour flipping and managed only one small keeper. Our confidence was gone from our areas, and previous success robbed us of our flexibility and decision-making ability to adapt to the changed conditions. In other words, we were hardheaded and didn’t change with the new conditions.
The event has since taught us a valuable lesson. And we quizzed pros on the Walmart FLW Tour who deal with these circumstances all the time and coaxed them into sharing their tips for facing these conditions head-on.
Pro angler and owner of Lake Fork Trophy Lures, Mark Pack of Mineola, Texas, won the Walmart Open on Beaver Lake in 2008 by relying on his past experiences with flooded, muddy fisheries in the spring. Meanwhile, BP pro Ray Scheide of Dover, Ark., has spent more than 20 years fishing the muddy and fluctuating fisheries in Oklahoma and Arkansas, spending considerable time experimenting with solutions to overnight muddy conditions. Both provided valuable lessons every angler should know for this fishing situation.
Significance of impact
The key to coping with this situation is to realize how dramatic the influx of mud into the fishery will be and to what degree it will impact the bass. Both Pack and Scheide agreed highland reservoirs and otherwise clear fisheries will receive greater impact than river systems and lowland, red mud and clay bank fisheries. But they varied slightly on the impact on the bass.
“I think it actually makes the bass feel ill, initially,” Scheide said. “Just like weather changes can make us feel sick, I think they just get in a negative mood until it starts stabilizing somewhat to the new water clarity.”
He has learned, however, the bass in certain sections of a fishery might not be as affected by new mud as others.
“The fish will quit feeding by sight and have to rely more on vibration and water displacement to feed,” Pack said. “But they will still eat. It also will cause them to group up more and go to shallower areas.”
Anglers must recognize things have changed and then cater to bass’ impaired ability to find or even want food.
Scheide finds bass in the deeper sections of a lake are less impacted because the mud is typically not as intrusive in those parts.
“If new mud comes into my area and the fish aren’t reacting anymore, then I’ll run down the lake to the lower end near the dam and start looking for fish there,” he said. “The water is usually less affected down there.”
The deeper water on the lower end of the lake dissipates the mud quicker, and the fish get acclimated faster than the bass on the river end of the lake, where the inflow of mud is the most severe. But despite being at the deeper end of the lake, Scheide still targets really shallow water. Pack also looks for shallow feeding bass.
“If I’m on a lake, like Table Rock,” Pack said, “that is normally very clear, and heavy rains muddy up the water during prespawn, what happens is the very back of those pockets and coves will get dirtied up. The stain will draw the shad and bass to the back end of coves – especially largemouths. That’s when you can catch them on a spinnerbait or a crankbait in shallow water.”
Other locations to look for postspawn bass in newly mudded fisheries are flats with very hard bottoms. Pack proved this was the winning strategy at Beaver Lake. He knew from past experiences on Beaver Lake that when bass were postspawn and the lake flooded, he could find them on hard points and flats near the main lake. In fact, some of his best fishing was over flooded parking lots.
“The shad like those very hard bottoms when spawning,” Pack said. “When they pile up on those parking lots, the bass will move in and the fishing can be incredible. The last day of the Walmart Open last year, I caught 35 keepers. That’s not real common on Beaver Lake, but I had four or five good hard flats. Every one of them had good fish.”
Dirty bag of tricks
Figuring out where to get bites also depends a little on the lure selection. Both anglers agreed that if finesse and flipping were getting the bites before the mud, those techniques will need altering to keep getting bites. The flipping bite still works, even in dirtier water, but anglers have to realize that precise proximity to cover is paramount now.
“When the water muds up and the bass can’t see the prey as well, they will nose up to the base of a stump or log and just feel around for their prey,” Scheide said. “It’s my favorite way to fish, because you can fish shallow and get close to the targets. But I will also use a spinnerbait with big Colorado blades to cover shallow water quickly. Then if I get a bite in an area, I will come back through it with a jig and fish slower.”
In a Walmart Bass Fishing League event in 2000, Scheide encountered new mud that blew out his areas and killed the bite. So he picked up a double-bladed Colorado spinnerbait and went to work. In a few hours, he only managed to boat three bass, but they weighed more than 9 pounds. He finished the event in seventh place. Since then, he’s learned a few key lures will produce better than others under those changing conditions.
Pack also agreed lure selection gets narrowed down in new mud. “You’re looking for something that displaces a lot of water or has a good vibration,” he said.
Because Pack fishes shallow in these situations, he keeps the lure selection simple. He prefers a 3/8-ounce black-and-red or black-and-chartreuse jig with a Lake Fork Hyper Worm for a trailer. He will also try a wide-wobbling, custom-made balsa crankbait carved and painted by Dean Helton of East Tennessee or a Lucky Craft RC 2.5 in chartreuse with either a black or purple back.
If that doesn’t work, he’ll opt for a 3/8- or 1/2-ounce chartreuse-and-red spinnerbait with either chartreuse blades or red blades. He makes his own spinnerbaits but said the blade combinations are more important than the head shapes, something Scheide agreed with as he laid out his blade system.
“The colder and dirtier the water is, the more I like a double-bladed Colorado spinnerbait,” Scheide said. “Once it warms or goes from muddy to just stained, I will go with a single willow or a willow-and-Colorado combination. As it clears up more, I will finally go to a double willow. But for new mud, it’s hard to beat a chartreuse-and-white spinnerbait with Colorado blades.”
Scheide turns to chrome blades on sunny days in muddy water but will use chartreuse-and-white painted blades when it’s cloudy or extremely muddy. He generally opts for a War Eagle spinnerbait for its maximum vibration.
Once an angler locks and loads his arsenal, finding targets is the key to fishing shallow mud.
“I love to fish shallow brush and flooded willow trees,” Scheide said. “When it’s newly flooded muddy water, I like the greener wood. I will look for the newly covered stuff and not the old, slick lay-downs. Shallow dock posts get a lot better when the water first gets muddy as well.”
The key is to make several casts to your targets, especially if you catch a fish. The lack of visibility tends to group the bass around objects and current breaks. And when one bites, it often triggers the group to feed.
“The fish get in small areas and on select targets when mud enters a fishery,” Pack said. “If you catch a fish off of a small muddy spot, you can generally keep making the same cast and catch multiple fish in a small area.”
Find a laydown and make repeated casts to it with multiple lures to make sure all of the bass nosed up against the cover have had a chance to track it down.
But Pack has found a better bass holder in muddy water – rocks.
“The harder and rockier the bank in the area, the better,” Pack said. “On Beaver Lake, I was seeking the rocky, hard flats and points and then finding that one key pile of rocks or a boulder, and making repeated casts to catch my fish.
“In that tournament, I would cast the crankbait around and find the rock. Then, when I found it or caught a fish, I would pick up the jig and Hyper Worm, and milk the spot until they quit biting. Sometimes I could throw the crankbait back in and bang it off the rocks and get a few more bites. If not, I just went to the next spot and did it again.”
Both Pack and Scheide agreed up to 3 feet is a good depth for newly mudded water in the spring. The mud pulls the bait up to the shallows because it is typically a little warmer water. The bass don’t need to get deep to hide themselves, and there is generally more cover in shallow water.
Pack also looks for the warmest water he can find. If everywhere on the lake is 55 degrees and he finds a couple of pockets with new mud that are 60 degrees, he’s going to focus his efforts there. He also looks for current to really position the bass.
“Most of the time with new mud and runoff coming into the lake, constant current makes the fish even more active,” Pack said. “So those isolated rocky spots, stumps and laydowns are current breaks and collect bass in small areas.”
The combination of all those factors will mean an angler has probably found the right spot to focus efforts in a newly mudded fishery.
Love the mud
While heavy rains have ruined some good fortune for anglers on the nights leading up to tournaments, there is also some pay dirt to be had – pun intended.
While the bass may have been deeper and required more finesse applications to make them bite before, anglers can now power up their tackle and swing hard with the big rods. They can go hunting for the aggressive and somewhat disoriented bass that are more susceptible to large lures that displace a lot of water.
If areas are too muddy after heavy rains and fish aren’t responding to the beefed-up tactics, make a move downlake toward deeper water that might have seined the mud more while also looking for warmer waters. Look for new cover in up to 3 feet of water in those deeper pockets and be sure to make multiple casts to isolated targets.
New mud from heavy rains doesn’t have to be the end of a fishing trip. In fact, it could be just the beginning.