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by Jim Porter

The Spring rains had swollen the Tennessee River significantly and Lake Guntersville was a roiling mess of floating milfoil grass, bank debris and red clay. The rising waters caused the normal current flow of the main channel to spill over into the submerged back-water flats, bringing with it that muddy condition in which the locals said 'a possum would leave tracks'. Against better judgment, I had decided to try and catch a bass or two. But, after three fruitless hours of teaching a variety of lures how to swim back to my rod tip, I had about made up my feeble mind to call it a day and let the fish win another one.

However, on the way back to the ramp, I was blessed with one of those rare strokes of luck reserved for those who never seem to have any.

The gentleman's name was Leon McDaniel and I spied him anchored in the middle of an open flat a few hundred yards off the main river channel. Watching him as I motored by, the sympathy of a defeated comrade-in-arms prevailed. Suddenly, Leon snapped his rod up into a tight arc as a fish took his lure. A few moments later, the angler lipped a fine three pound bass. Totally amazed, I cut off the engine, dropped an anchor over into the dark, clay-stained waters and decided to play spectator for a while. Placing his catch in the livewell, Leon then performed some adjustments to his lure. Turning about in the boat, he made a long cast out to the side and slightly upstream into the current flow. With a very slow retrieve, he worked the lure along in the moving water. In a few short seconds, he boated another fish. And, then, another. And, then, another!

Realizing that I was watching, Leon McDaniel, the gentleman that he was, wave me over. By now, I was feeling true pain and did not need a second invitation. What I learned during the next hour was the most amazing thing I had ever seen in 20 years of bass angling.

Leon was fishing a jig. No, nothing special; just a half ounce lead-head jig with a bit of lime-green hair for a body. And, he was fishing it in an eight MPH current and some of the muddiest water imaginable. Too stunned to participate, I sat and watched that man catch and release 42 bass.

Muddy water has long been the nemesis of bass anglers. That it appears to make fishing difficult would be an understatement. Many think that the best solution is to throw in the towel and get home in time for the second half of the ball game. However, there ARE productive ways to take bass from even the muddiest of waters. The key is that, under conditions of reduced visibility, the fish depend a great deal more on sound, rather than sight, to detect and locate their prey. They, also, seem to prefer specific locations for holding and feeding.

Learning to effectively approach muddy water conditions usually takes a good bit of trial and error, resulting in much waste of valuable fishing time. Your writer was no exception to this rule. However, we HAVE found ways which will produce, some exceptionally well. During discussions of the subject with other experienced bass anglers, we discovered even more techniques which are valuable. By sharing these, it is hoped that you will be able to add another productive dimension to your outdoor experiences.

The story about Leon McDaniel is special in a number of ways. First, it totally, and without question, dispelled any preconceived or rumored notion that bass will not feed in muddy water. Second, it proved that no special, complex techniques are required. And, third, it demonstrated, all too well, that we anglers often defeat ourselves because we do not, or will not, adjust to the conditions.

Leon had two specific locations that he fished under high, muddy water conditions. One was the flat we told of. It had a depth of approximately six feet, with the down-current side gradually sloping to ten. Under normal conditions, there was little, if any, current flow that far from the main channel. The key to this spot was gravel and mussel shells. The bottom was hard and clean and the reverse, down-current slope provided a slight eddy water condition near the bottom. The jig was heavy enough to make its way to the bottom in the current and, with a slow, tight- line retrieve, could be felt well enough to detect a strike. The real key, however, was that the lure banged across the rough bottom like a marble rolling down the face of a wash board. Since visibility was less than zero in the reddened waters, it was obvious to even the most casual observer that the clatter of the lure allowed the bass to home in on it. (It was no fluke, as we have now used this technique in a number of waters with success).

His second 'honey hole' was also back off the main channel in a back-water flat. However, this one was slightly different. The depth was the same six feet, except there was a ditch dredged across the flat to accommodate the laying of a gas pipeline. The ditch was about 15 feet wide and ten feet deep. The current flow was exceptionally strong here and two anchors were often required to hold the boat in place. Leon would anchor about 30 feet above the ditch and cast parallel to it. The lure was then allowed to make its way downstream to the ditch and fall off into it. Again, the bottom was very hard and rough, and the jig made a good bit of noise as it washed along with the current flow. Rarely did the lure make it past the lip of that ditch, as it would be readily inhaled just before it dropped off. While Largemouths were the predominate residents of this location, Crappie, White Bass and freshwater Drum also teemed. The fish were apparently holding below the lip of the ditch, where the current eddied as it broke across the top. Again, since visibility was nil, the sound of the lure against the rough, hard bottom was used to find the lure.

Around heavy cover, such as logs and tree blow-downs, in muddy water, bass will hold very tight against the cover feature. In periods of poor visibility, this undoubtedly gives them a reference point and a sense of security. Additionally, they will be shallow, possibly trying to be near to the light so they can at least see a bit. In this situation, a bass will not move far to take a lure. Consequently, we must drag it by him as close as possible. Coupling this with the need for the lure to make some constant sound for the bass to be able to locate it, we have the exact reason that a spinner bait is the ideal lure for cover areas in highly stained waters.

I vividly recall the best spinner bait 'artist' I ever saw. His name was James Parker and he was a two-time National Champion using the blade lure. Parker had two prerequisites for a bass fishing location: shallow brush tops and the muddiest water available. Personally, at the time, I would never have fished water that stained, but the man convinced me real quick. His favorite lure was a standard size one-half ounce single spin, with a white skirt and a number five Colorado blade.

As James explained, "Bass in shallow water are active, feeding bass. However, they are also easy to spook, since they can easily see you. Highly stained water virtually eliminates that and seems to give them a false sense of security. All you have to do is locate some cover, such as brush or logs, in shallow water and, if the bass are there, they are a cinch to catch. The only secret to it is that you must fish very slowly and cover the area well. The lure almost has to bump them on the nose."

When we asked Parker about the potential of other lures in these types of areas, he replied, "In muddy water, we want to keep the lure right in against the cover at all times and shallow. Therefore, the spinner bait has to be the only logical choice, since we can exercise absolute control over it. You really can't do that with any other lure. Also, the sound factor is important and that blade makes a very seductive throb. Retrieving the spinner bait so that it rubs along the sides of the logs and limbs will also help catch the attention of the fish."

Parker advises that two other locations are also productive when the waters are muddy. These, the reader should note, parallel what we learned from Leon McDaniel.

"I like to find a rough, gravel bottom, near a drop-off and with current flow," he went on. "A spinner bait is still my first choice. I fish it slowly, trying to stay in continual contact with the bottom, but fast enough to keep the blade turning. I think the bass come directly to the sound. The strikes are not savage; in fact, they are usually very light. Most of the time I note that the spinner bait simply gets a bit 'heavy', or the blade just stops turning. I expect the bass follows the sound to its source and just tries to suck the lure in when he thinks he's close enough."

James Parker's other recommended spot is an area of rip-rap, such as might be found along the side of an adjacent highway or a bridge crossing. If there is current flow effecting the rocks, you can be sure that the bass will be there to feed on the moving water. While he was still partial to the blade bait, Parker advised that a jig and rind combination, or a slowly retrieved crank plug, also works well. "The main things," he stated, "are to keep whatever lure you are using in contact with the rocks and fish it slowly. Since the rip-rap will undoubtedly slope downwards, you may have to experiment a bit to determine the correct depth. Normally, the muddier the water, the shallower the bass will be. Also, concentrate near the edge of the current flow, just inside the eddy water line."

If the body of water has been muddied from the flow of a main river channel or other large tributary, the mouths of small feeder creeks should be evaluated. Quite often, they may still be flowing clear. If this condition is found, look for the mud line, where the clear and muddy waters converge. Bass will lie just in the edge of the stained water, no doubt for concealment, and feed into the clearer areas. These are the types of places to find the bass breaking on the surface as they chase bait fish. If the feeder creek appears muddy, but has no discernible current, venture back into it a way. Often, the rising, muddy waters of the main lake will have pushed into the creek for some distance and there may be clearer water further back.

A similar location can often be found in the back of large coves. If the stained water is being forced into the cove from the main part of the lake or river, there is a good chance that the back areas of the cove may be clear, or only murky. Bass have a natural instinct to move shallow under rising water conditions to partake of the food available in these freshly flooded areas. Look for cover, such as brush and blow-downs, and fish them hard. If the water is muddy or highly stained, use Parker's spinner bait tactics. If there happens to be a reasonable degree of clarity, a plastic worm will probably be the ticket.

Another potential muddy water location brings to mind an outstanding fishing trip on Toledo Bend Lake in East Texas. Hurricane-spawned rains had turn the majority of the lake into a virtual solid-looking mass of suspended dirt. Everything was muddy, even the feeder creeks. My partner, Rodney Williams, salvaged our day, however, when he remembered an area of flowing springs way in the back of a creek arm. Under normal conditions, the way to locate these was to slowly cruise the area and watch the surface temperature gauge. The water temperature of the spring was in the mid-50's and it would quickly fluctuate the meter reading. However, under the water conditions we were facing that day, the springs, particularly one large one, were visually discernible. The mixing of the clear and the turbid waters showed up like a lightly boiling cauldron.

Having fished these springs before (in the Winter, he said, when the springs were warmer than the surrounding waters), Rodney came up with a productive lure choice his first time out. Taking a silver and black Bagley crank plug, my friend cast across the patch of mixing water and into the far muddy area. He cranked it down hard with a fast retrieve and, when it entered the spring expulsion, he stopped it cold and let it float up. Float up it did, but the buoyant plug didn't travel far. Suddenly, he was on to a nice fish. Nearly every retrieve through the roiling water produced a strike and, on occasions, it turned out to be a nice Crappie or White Bass. (This, like the experiences with Leon McDaniel, tend to point out that when times get tough, the fish, regardless of type, seem to be drawn to similar feeding locations.)

There was a fairly large concentration of bass in this choice area so, after catching and releasing a goodly number, we began to experiment with retrieves and lure types. A vibrating crank plug, specifically a Cordell Spot with its lead slug rattle chamber, worked exceptionally well. However, as many bass took it in the muddy water as did when it came across the clearer area. Likewise, a Rebel Wee R, with a noise-making rattle chamber, took fish from the stained areas. Silent plastic worms, and the 'rattle-less' Bagley, only scored when they entered the less murky water. This reinforces the fact that the bass can, and do, find a lure based on the sound it makes.

An interesting sideline fact about muddy water bass is that they seem confused and disoriented by the lack of visibility. This is evidenced by three of their responses (or lack thereof). First, bass taken in muddy water rarely, if ever, jump. Second, they will make very short and powerful surges and generally run in small circles near the spot that they were hooked. Possibly, this is because they can't see well and don't really know which way to flee. These facts are of assistance to the angler, especially if he hooks a trophy. He doesn't have to apply too much pressure, knowing that the bass is not going to run far before he turns, and generally can expect that the fish is not going to jump and throw the lure. A third oddity is that, when released, the bass usually swims directly back to and under the boat. I would surmise that he is probably moving towards the nearest 'structure' feature he can see, that being the boat.

Muddy water bassin' is sort of a 'mind over mud' game for the angler. But, once you have that first success, it will no longer be feared.


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