Bill Huntley’s plan to showcase Wheeler Lake’s remarkable largemouth fishery in a major tournament appeared ruined after a hard rain across northern Alabama turned much of the impoundment muddy. Conditions were so bad that anglers were jokingly told to pack shovels with their tackle to dig holes in the mud so they could fish.
The morning after the rain stopped, however, Huntley and his fishing partner headed down the 68,000-acre impoundment, turned up its largest tributary, the Elk River, and then motored into a large cove with scattered stumps and laydowns. Four hours later they returned with a livewell filled with bass.
“Rule No. 1 with muddy water is not to let it discourage you, because the mud always pushes bass extremely shallow and usually tight to cover, which is the easiest scenario to fish,” he says. “The water clarity literally pointed where we needed to go.” Even though water clarity is one of the first characteristics an angler notices when they launch in the morning, few use it as a primary tool for actually locating bass. In truth, water clarity can be one of the most important elements in locating fish, especially when correlated with season.
“Overall, I use clarity to tell me the general depth bass might be using, the type of structure or cover they’ll be on, and even the type of lure to use,” explains Lake Fork guide and Women’s Bassmaster Tour competitor Lisa Craig. “I think what surprises many anglers is how shallow you can find bass in really muddy or really clear water, regardless of the water temperature.”
Top anglers like her and Huntley create and adhere to the following mental flow chart of water clarity conditions to help solve the bass location puzzle.
Visibility: At least eight feet; sometimes 20 feet or more. Typically occurs in the lower end of a lake where the water is deeper.
Tactics: “Spring and fall are the best times to fish ultra-clear water because bass will be moving shallow,” Huntley says. At other times of year, he recommends looking for slightly off-colored water, or heavy cover or vegetation that will hold fish shallow. “When it’s really clear, look for steep, fast-falling points, channels leading to spawning flats, and submerged roadbeds bass can use as staging areas before moving shallow. Fish then with a jig or deep-diving jerkbait.”
Natural patterns that mimic real baitfish and other forage typically perform better than bright, gaudy color schemes.
It’s critical to note that—contrary to what might seem logical—extremely clear water doesn’t mean shallow water is off limits. In fact, even on a lake like Powell or Mead, where most of the water looks like liquid air, you can find bass surprisingly shallow.
Topwater lures work well under these conditions before the sun climbs high, but after that switch to small plastic worms or jigs in shaded coves.
Visibility: Four to eight feet. Lower lake tributaries, particularly the mouths of these tributaries, frequently have this clarity level.
Tactics: Tie on a spinnerbait and burn it. In deeper water, especially around steeper bluff banks, drop-shot a small plastic worm.
Both extremely clear and clear water support vegetation, and you should fish it. No matter the time of year, the edges of these grasslines are good places to start looking for bass, although topwater frogs skittered over the top of the greenery have become increasingly popular and highly effective options in recent years. Veteran pro Dean Rojas keeps a plastic frog tied on year-round and doesn’t even need matted grass as an excuse to throw it; any shallow cover is a potential target.
Visibility: One to four feet. This range is most often found in the backs of upper-end creek arms in Southern reservoirs.
Tactics: The clearer end of this spectrum is considered by many to be the best overall bass water, especially if it has a slight greenish tint caused by algae growth. The algae attracts baitfish, which in turn draw bass.
“Bass live in creek arms with this kind of color and clarity year-round,” Craig says. “And in autumn other bass will migrate into these same arms from their summer haunts on the main lake to feed for the upcoming winter months. If you see baitfish as you’re heading back into a creek, you know you’re not far from bass.”
There, she fishes jigs, spinnerbaits or cranks around cover or along the channel break.
Visibility: One foot or less. If it isn’t created by sudden rainfall, these conditions usually occur in the backs of creeks, usually in the upper end of a reservoir.
Tactics: This clarity keeps bass shallow and close to cover. Even in the heat of summer, bass might be just two feet deep—or even shallower.
“When this clarity level is not normal for a given reservoir, bass move shallow and close to cover very quickly, sometimes in the course of a day,” Craig says. “The first thing I do is change to a lure that has a lot of vibration, like a big, wide-wobbling crank or a spinnerbait with a single size 5 Colorado blade, a longer skirt and a swimming trailer. I work these lures slowly because of the reduced visibility.”
Craig discovered another option during an early fall trip on Louisiana’s Red River, when heavy rains turned the water dingy. She fished a small plastic worm, rigged wacky-style, along the edge of a huge hyacinth field where the water dropped from three to 10 feet. That edge also contained a mix of stumps and laydowns; it took a lot of repeated presentations to trigger strikes, but the fish were there.
“The presentation worked because I was fishing two transition zones simultaneously: the depth change and the edge of the hyacinths,” she says. “Transition zones are always good places to fish, but I’m convinced they become more important in dingy water because so many other ambush site options are eliminated.”
Visibility: Inches. Can occur throughout a fishery, but is most acute near inflows, usually at the upper end of the lake where runoff is most intense.
Tactics: Like dingy water, it will position bass shallow and tight to cover. But in winter, it can be a virtual deal-breaker if you don’t know how to adapt.
“Cold, muddy water is just about the worst situation,” says Craig. “I cope by finding the clearest water, usually on the lower end of a lake, and fish jigs or plastics along riprap or steep bluffs.”
Huntley says water that muddies the quickest also clears the quickest, so he heads upstream or to the back of a big tributary with moving water. You may also find surprisingly clear water in a small cove or pocket.
But the main lake’s not out of the question.
“A strong, muddy inflow can actually push fish up on main-lake points,” Craig says. “That silt creates a layer of muddy water below a layer of clearer water that might be several feet deep, and bass really crowd into it.”
There, she burns jerkbaits, spinnerbaits and cranks.
Another option is fishing where incoming muddy water meets clear water. The productive portion of this transition zone normally only extends a few feet on either side of the mudline, cautions Huntley, who likes to work it with a crankbait so he can cover a large swath with each cast.
Vegetation offers another possible solution, as it slows water and silt movement. “I’ll concentrate on the inside weedline,” Craig says. “That holds the clearest water. If possible, I target a second type of cover mixed with the vegetation, such as rocks, stumps, or logs. That’s where the fish will move.”