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JEFF KNAPP: Big fish bite in dirty water

by JEFF KNAPP on August 12, 2014 10:14 AM

As I’d anticipated, my fishing guest Mike showed signs of apprehension as he first laid eyes on the Allegheny River’s murky water last weekend. He and his dad, Mike Sr., had traveled up from the South Hills of Pittsburgh to fish with me. When inquiring about a potential trip earlier in the week he’d mentioned that they didn’t have much success when fishing dirty water and that he’d hoped the Allegheny would be fairly clear by the time of their trip. I assured him that the Allegheny has been fishing well, and that even if the water was still heavily stained, that we should still have a decent day.

Eight hours later, as our trip concluded, Mike Sr. commented that the day had certainly shown them that fish can be caught in cloudy, higher-than-normal flows, adding that he couldn’t believe the average size of the smallmouth bass we’d taken that day. During the outing we boated around 35 smallmouth bass, lost several others, and added two nice walleyes and a northern pike to the catch. Many of the bass were in the 17- to 19-inch range. While it was a good day, it was a continuation of excellent fishing I’ve been experiencing all summer long on the river, during a season that’s been one of mostly high, dirty water.

Within reason, high flows and cloudy water play to the angler’s favor. And what holds true on the Allegheny is also applicable on other flowing waters, from warm-water streams like Mahoning Creek to smaller trout streams.

Here are a few tips and items related to fishing high, off-colored flows.

• One can actually expect to catch bigger fish when the flows are up and murky. For instance, larger smallmouth bass, which are tough to come by in the summer when flows are typically low and clear, are much easier to catch. I suspect they don’t feed at night nearly as often. It’s also likely that the dirty water impedes their ability to catch natural food sources such as minnows, crayfish and aquatic larvae like hellgrammites. Thus they’re less likely to pass on a potential meal, like your lure.

• Higher flows tend to concentrate fish, making them easier to find. Since the currents are stronger during high flows, gamefish are pushed to protected areas, which in many cases is right next to the bank.

• Since fish are tight to shore, accurate casting is important. All things being equal, the person that can lay casts to within inches of shore will catch more fish than someone that’s a couple feet off the mark. Many strikes will occur within a second or two of re-engaging the reel after the cast.

• This is no time for finesse fishing. Bigger, noisier lures that are easy for fish to locate get the nod. In the cast of river and stream smallmouth bass, a top offering is the spinnerbait.

I’ve really become a big fan of Terminator’s titanium-wire spinnerbait. It’s available with a dark skirt (black with red fleck) that I’ve found most effective in cloudy water.

Quarter-ounce models with gold Oklahoma-style blades have put a lot of smallmouth bass in the 18- to 21-inch range in my boat this summer.

• For waters where the bass tend to be smaller, or where trout are the target (there are a lot of trout left in the streams thanks to this summer’s high flows), a good option is an inline spinner like a Vibrax Bullet Fly with a No. 2 or 3 blade.

• Soft swimbaits like the small version of Yum’s Money Minnow and the 3 1/2-inch Lake Fork Tackle Live Magic Shad are also good stained-water options, especially for smallmouth bass and walleyes.

I’ve experienced the best hookup ratio when fishing these soft baits on an open jighead, such as Northland Tackle’s Lipstick Jig and Gopher Tackle’s Mushroom Head jig. In the cast of the Money Minnow, I use scissors to trim away a bit of the belly, making it easier for fish to get a good hold of the lure.

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