“Clear as Mud” – Years ago that was what grandma called our jibberish talk as we politicized for cookies. Today, “Clear as Mud” is a familiar term and sight for many walleye anglers, particularly in the spring and fall. This occurrence is seen everywhere from the western reservoirs to the Great Lakes. This is one of the few circumstances that inland lakes and a Great Lakes anglers experience the same water clarity issues. I’m sure the first question one has is how can muddy water be an advantage? My backyard is Lake Erie, and its nearly 10,000 square miles of water can make anyone feel overwhelmed. But like your grandma told you, when you’re given lemons, make lemonade. Muddy water becomes like an invisible fence to help anglers eliminate water without even wetting a line or even coming off plane. Instead of having thousands of miles to sort through, one instantly can eliminate more than half of the water. Make a big lake small, and a small lake even smaller. The keys are somewhat simple, know where and why this will work, as well as how color and temp changes behaviors.
Shallower bodies of water such as Lake Erie’s Western Basin and Lake Huron’s Saginaw bay are no stranger to muddy water. These large bodies of water have large sections of shallow mud basins that quickly muddy up when the winds and or current starts to roar. If you’ve spent anytime on either one of these bodies of water, you know that this is common place. For argument’s sake we’ll focus on the spring and fall, as these seasons have similar patterns. Do be aware that this pattern applies to many inland lakes and nearly all of the Great lakes, but the caveat is that it doesn’t apply to bodies of water such as the Mississippi River or bodies of water that have year-round muddy water. Fish in those types environments seem to adapt and break typical walleye behavior. FLW walleye pro John Gillman has traveled across the country and used this same muddy water philosophy, and believes the other scenario which doesn’t apply is bottom-oriented fish. “Fish on the Mississippi and other similar rivers that seem to spend an overwhelming amount of their time on bottom acclimate to the muddy conditions. The biggest factor is that due to current, these fish are facing they are belly to the bottom and rely on current to wash food by. This is why in nearly zero visibility water we’ve been so successful pounding bottom with leadcore and baits such as Shad Raps and Madeye Shads.”
HOW IT WORKS
Confidence is a large part of everything and fishing is no different. Gillman joked that this is a time of year where he would rather drive around for an hour and fish for fifteen minutes in order to have his lures in the right area. These types of mud lines may seem very defined as we drive our boats into them, but it really goes much deeper. When looking at satellite images, one can quickly see that both wind and current causes very defined mud lines, but it’s the swirls of transitional water that can be hard to pinpoint when at ground level. This is why Gillman doesn’t hesitate to drive around to look for those little sweet spots. The problem is that these water conditions change constantly. The same current that makes things look like cardboard also helps clean things up. Several years ago we spent more than an hour looking for clean water North of Kelly’s Island on Lake Erie, as most of the Western basin looked like a toilet. Excited we had found a stretch of “fishable water’ we set up. Only minutes later a large cabin cruiser leaving the island nearly ran us over. It wasn’t however the shot across the bow that angered me, it was complete mud in his wash, turned up in a seemingly clean stretch. Not everything is what it seems.
This is one time of year that driving around the lake at 30mph is very productive as we look for the mud transitions. Fish to clean of water and one is likely to not see, mark, or ultimately not catch much. This is generally the “real blue” colored water. Fish to dirty of water and all you do is make yourself sick with the number of seemingly uncatchable marks on the fish finder. This is the water we like to refer to as cardboard, due to its coloration. It’s that in-between color that is the real deal, or sweet spot if you will. This water is generally a little green under ideal conditions, to a little chalky.
How does one determine the difference from blue, green, and chalky? Last Fall, an industry rep was amazed at how I had two GPS’s, two electric engines, etc, and I more than twenty times that day (his count not mine) put the engine in neutral and looked at the big engine’s cavitation plate to determine clarity before setting up. For me it’s a control, the distance never changes and it serves as a way for other anglers to stay on the same page when discussing water clarity in different areas of the lake. Every angler seems to develop a knack for knowing what is too clean or too dirty. One key item to be aware of that will drastically alter clarity is bottom composition. Anyone that has ever fished a body of water that dirties easily knows that the rock reefs are the first to clean up. A loose mud silt bottom takes more time to clear when compared to a hard compacted mud bottom. This is also a factor in the “swirls” of clean and muddy water. On both Saginaw bay and Erie’s Western basin they have an extensive amount of rock shoals and subsequently more compacted mud bottom. This creates areas that consistently clean quicker than others, some of which defy common sense.
While water clarity is likely the most important factor, temperature is a close second. Walleyes aren’t as temperature sensitive as species such as salmon and steelhead, but in the spring and fall temperature plays a major factor for walleyes. The reason has as much to do with bait as anything, as walleyes don’t go far from the grocery store. I believe that is the biggest reason walleyes are void in the super clean “blue’ areas. No bait, no walleyes, it’s that simple. The warmer water, usually only a few degrees, concentrates baitfish. While most anglers break their “rules of thumb” from time to time, I can’t remember a time where I caught fish in the super (blue) clean water, rather it was spring or fall. This is assuming that there was some type of muddy water present, where baitfish would concentrate. Also keeping in mind the difference of green and blue water. In regards to temperature walleyes in the spring time are focused on spawning and putting on fat in the fall. In the spring time, the warmer it gets, the better the fishing. In the fall, the cooler it gets, the better the fishing. It’s these major shifts in temperature that tells fish to put the chow on, or else they may be in trouble. Sounds simple but paying more attention to this will help all of us put more fish in the boat.
Bringing it all together will help us put a better presentation in the water. The right water color and temperature combination allows for bingo. The presentation topic could likely fill a few volumes and is much more subjective than previous points, but still needs discussion. One area of presentation that isn’t so subjective is depth in the column. Gillman typically puts his baits in the top half of the water column, if not the top ten feet. A lot of this is due to the fact that many of these fish in the spring time are just post spawn and are “recovering” from the stresses it causes. The other factor is lack of productivity. In my experience, the cabin cruiser scenario speaks volumes, simply put the water down there isn’t nearly as clean as layers closer to the surface.
A little common sense, experience, and general understanding of fishing in muddy conditions will drastically improve ones success. Paying attention and understanding the stages of water clarity as well as the importance of temperature will speed up this process, keeping things from being as “clear as mud’. Next time you see a muddy lake, think of it as making lemonade.