By Don Wirth
Author Don Wirth hooked this 8-pounder when his rattling crankbait bumped off a log in 44-degree water.
Weekend anglers hate it. Even guides and pro bassers dread it.
Cold, muddy water.
It's bass fishing's one-two punch -- the toughest conditions bass anglers are likely to encounter.
And it's coming to a lake or river near you this season.
This Internet publication is based firmly in reality. We're here to bring you the facts, not sugar-coat the truth. We want you to know that cold, muddy water is no picnic -- but neither is it the end of the world. You can catch bass from it. Good ones, too.
Veteran Goodlettsville, Tenn., bass guide Jack Christian fishes for both largemouths and smallmouths year-round. He books trips as much as a year in advance, so he's learned to cope with what the elements dish out. And when cold, muddy water is on the menu, there are few bass anglers with more savvy than Jack. We asked the guide to share with us how he copes with frigid, murky water. His responses can help you score in these same tough conditions.
Basics to Remember
"To understand why fishing gets tough in cold, muddy water requires that you first understand a few basics about the bass as a living creature," Christian begins. "As a cold-blooded animal, the body temperature of the bass is the same as that of the water in which it lives. Every bass fishermen knows bass are most active in warm water. But as the water gets colder, bass get sluggish. They sit and hold more and prowl around less. Digestion takes much longer in cold water, too, so bass feed far less often than they do in warm water."
Besides being cold-blooded, the bass is primarily a sight feeder, Christian continues. "Even though it has a lateral line containing sensory organs, it mainly uses its keen sense of sight when feeding. In clear water, the bass can see a considerable distance and will forage along weedlines, points, ledges, the bottom, the shoreline and other structures, looking for a meal. It feels comfortable in its surroundings. But in muddy water, the bass can't see nearly as well and won't wander far from a home base -- usually an object like a stump or log."
When the two conditions are combined, look for the bite to be painfully slow, Christian warns. "In cold, muddy water, the bass is not only sluggish, its visibility is highly restricted. It may be able to distinguish objects only a few inches from its nose."
Therefore, expect bass under these conditions to exhibit the following behaviors, Christian explains:
They won't be actively feeding. "This will become more apparent the colder the water gets. As its metabolism slows down, its need for food diminishes considerably. Even an experienced bass angler might get only one or two bites a day in extremely cold water."
They'll be very tight to cover. "Biologists believe that when their visibility is restricted, bass 'park and hold' tight to submerged objects because these objects serve as a reference point in their low-visibility world. When they can see only a few inches, they probably feel some sense of comfort when hunkering up to a stump, log or rock, just as you'd feel more comfortable sitting in a chair in a totally darkened room than trying to walk and feel your way around in the blackness."
Jigs are probably your best bet for bass in cold, muddy conditions.
These are relatively simple concepts to grasp, yet Christian says most bass fishermen forget them when trying to fish cold, muddy water. "The most common mistakes are fishing way too fast, fishing too deep and fishing away from cover. You've got to slow down and get your lures right where the fish are, 'cause they sure aren't going to rush out and chase them down."
Developing a Game Plan
Now more than ever, a game plan can save the day, Christian believes. "The first step I'd recommend is adjusting your expectations," the guide says. "Do this before you make your first cast. If you hit the water like a whirlwind and expect bass to be slamming your baits like they were last summer or fall, you're going to be extremely disappointed. Mentally prepare yourself by coming to grips with the fact that the bite is going to be much slower than normal. Instead of setting a goal of limiting out like you might under better conditions, tell yourself you're going to coax one or two big bass into hitting." This is not an unreasonable expectation, Christian emphasizes. "For some reason, I've caught some of my biggest bass, especially largemouths, in cold, muddy water. I might get only a couple of bites all day, but they're often extremely good fish. This gives me plenty of encouragement to stay out there and fish in these conditions, even though bites seldom come easy."
Christian next recommends making the best of a bad situation. "Conditions everywhere may be bad, but some places will always be a little better than others. Now is the time to key on spots where fish are most likely to be the most catchable."
Christian listed the following as important places to try:
Runoff areas with warmer water -- "Mud has usually entered the system via runoff from tributaries, typically following a hard rain. Often the temperature of the runoff will be warmer or colder than the lake or river water. If it's warmer, this will pull a ton of forage as well as predatory species like bass into the back-ends of the flowing tributaries." A surface-temperature gauge can be the most important piece of equipment on your bass boat now, Christian emphasizes. "If the lake water is 42 degrees and the murky runoff in the back ends of the tributaries is 48, most bait and gamefish will be in the runoff. In winter, I'll fish the warmest water regardless of how muddy it is."
Shallow cover in protected coves -- "Bass will seldom be very deep when their visibility is restricted by sediment in the water. To the contrary, when mud enters the system, it often pushes bass shallower where light penetration is better. Plus, muddy water can warm up quickly on a sunny day -- provided it's not chilled by cold north winds. Coves on the north side of the lake offer the most wind protection; the chilling breezes tend to hit hardest on the opposite (south) shore. Again, your boat's surface-temp meter will show that the water on the north shore may be 5 to 7 degrees warmer than elsewhere in the lake."
Big objects inside the shallow zone -- "Bass will hold tight to stumps, big rocks, dock pilings and other large objects -- and I do mean tight. Big stumps with exposed root systems and boulder-sized rocks are especially good. I'd look for these in 5 feet of water or less."
Muddy-water bass like to hold tight to large objects in shallow water.
The shoreline -- "I don't often advocate pounding the banks for bass, but cold, muddy conditions are the exception. The shoreline offers everything a bass needs when visibility is restricted. The best banks are usually sharply undercut; avoid banks with a gradual taper. Of course, plenty of wood or rock cover is a plus."
Bluff banks -- "These can be good provided they aren't too deep. Rock often breaks off from the bluff's face and falls to the foot of the structure; bass hide around these chunks of debris. A super place to fish a crayfish-imitating jig."
Floating debris --"Bass love overhead cover, even when it's in the form of debris that gathers in pockets and eddies when the water rises after heavy rains. Look for floating debris in the warmest water you can find."
Your Fishing Approach
"When conditions are good, you can catch bass with a wide array of lures and presentations," Christian says. "But in cold, muddy water, your options are limited by the sluggish nature of the fish and its propensity to be very tight to cover."
Flipping or pitching with weedless baits like jigs and plastic worms (see below) are highly recommended presentations. "Because visibility is limited, you can move close to stumps, logs and other targets without spooking the bass. Drop the lure right in the thickest part of a brushpile or stump and work it very slowly. Often a strike feels like no more than a dull resistance, just as though you'd hooked a leaf."
Christian often finds the bite far better in mid-day than early or late. "The fish may get a little more active after the sun has had a chance to warm up the water."
Lures to Rely on in the Toughest Conditions
Here are some lures veteran guide Jack Christian recommends trying in cold, muddy water:
Grubs -- "Leadhead grubs in the 3- to 5-inch size range are surprisingly effective for bass in cold, muddy water. Use pumpkin or chartreuse colors and bump them off rocks and stumps with a slow swimming retrieve."
Hair jigs -- "I especially like these for smallmouth bass, but largemouths will hit them as well. They present a small but realistic baitfish or crawdad profile to the bass and work especially well around rocks and stumps. Dress them with a pork trailer or fish them by themselves. Try black or brown; these resemble live crayfish. I use hair jigs when the surface temperature is around 45 to 52 degrees; in slightly warmer water I may switch to a grub."
Plastic worms -- "Excellent for big bass when worked around shallow wood cover. Peg the sinker with a toothpick and flip or pitch the lure around stumps and logs. Dark colors like black or purple are more visible in muddy water."
Lipless rattling crankbaits -- "You normally think of these for the most active bass, but they'll catch big fish up shallow in cold, muddy water -- provided you slow the retrieve way, way down. Ideal for use in stumpfields shallower than 5 feet. The slope-cut head helps the lure glance off objects without hanging up."
Spider jigs -- "My favorite leadhead lures in frigid low-visibility water. They look just like a live crayfish. When a bass inhales the lure, the jig's soft tentacles writhe inside its mouth and feel alive, making the bass clamp down hard.
Plastic lizard -- "Another good choice in low-vis water. This lure has even more going for it than a plastic worm -- a long, wriggly tail and four squirmy legs to help get the bass' attention. Rig it Texas-style and flip or pitch it around shallow cover."
Jig 'n pig -- "The Godfather of cold-water bass lures. Bass will hit it when the water is below 40 degrees. Drop it around stump roots, undercut banks, etc. When it's muddy, I like a big, bulky presentation and increase the size of the pork or plastic trailer. This makes the combo both easier to spot and slower to fall."