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Fishing in Off-Color Water

Runoff, algae blooms and weather create cloudy-water challenges for the angler.

Releasing a fish in muddy water
Fish adapt to off-color water and tough conditions, and anglers who do the same can make a day. Jason Stemple

“I was hoping to fish tight to shoreline structure today,” said Capt. Ryan Kane of Southern Instinct Charters in Fort Myers, Florida. “Unfortunately, we have a red tide bloom spreading across this cove, so we’ll have to make a little adjustment. Hold on tight.”

Kane pushed the throttle forward and pointed the bow toward open water in Pine Island Sound, where a small shoal awaited a mile away. The shallow waters, he reasoned, would be clearer due to stronger tidal flow, and redfish and snook were likely to cruise the perimeter in search of crabs, shrimp and baitfish during the early-morning flood. 

Kane’s theory proved on the mark. After dropping the hook, it took less than 15 minutes to connect with our first snook of the day, and another 20 minutes to round up a pair of slot-size redfish. We had originally planned to cast soft-plastic jerkbaits for our quarry, but with visibility dulled in the 2-foot depths just beyond the edge of the bloom, our skipper switched to cut ladyfish and mullet.

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“The snook and reds may not see these baits,” he explained, “but I guarantee they’ll smell ’em. Oily baitfish work best. Their scent really carries in the current.”

Angler netting fish
When the going gets tough, think like a fish and seek out the habitat that holds the bait. Paul Doughty

Stormy Weather

Like Kane, many inshore skippers these days are increasingly dealing with murky, clouded or discolored water due to storm runoff, silt and algae blooms, or even sustained high winds can cloud the shallows.

In areas like South Florida, the inside passages of North Carolina, Texas and Louisiana marshlands, and New York’s South Shore and Long Island, making adjustments due to water clarity has become standard practice.

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Tide pulling in clean water
In bays as well as the ocean and Gulf of Mexico, tide changes often bring clean water into discolored areas. Seek out the places that clear first; the upstream edges of islands and midwater shoals washed by the clean water are likely spots, as are areas with the most current. Also, when the falling tide slows in marshy or shallow areas, the water will often clear as sediment settles. These cleaner areas will often be the first to hold fish awaiting a meal on the incoming flow. Steve Sanford

“Often, you can run from a red tide,” Kane says. “The blooms along Florida’s west coast are generally splotchy, so you seek out areas where it’s less intense. Whether dealing with blooms or discolored water due to runoff or wind, keying on a predator’s sense of smell is a good idea.”

When water gets cloudy, Kane searches out inlet mouths, where incoming tides bring increased visibility. Scouting for shallow water edged by deeper channels is another good option. “The less depth, the greater the light penetration,” he explains. “Plus, redfish and snook like to hold against sandy-shoal edges that host oyster bars and allow a quick escape to deeper channels.”

Angler standing on cooler and casting
Backwaters and other areas with slow tidal flow may hold clearer water than the main channels. Jason Stemple

Seasonal Upsets

Capt. Joey Leggio patrols Long Island and New York’s western South Shore, where a brown-and-rust tide poses a frequent challenge during summer, and silty waters are the rule after a hard, onshore blow. Like Kane, he relies on scent to draw strikes when visibility is poor.

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Leggio, who charters out of East Rockaway Inlet, explains: “You need to prepare for multiple scenarios before heading out. I was in a striped bass tournament a couple of years ago, and couldn’t buy a bite in the heavily silted
waters courtesy of strong winds the previous night. I switched from bunker spoons to soaking bunker chunks on the bottom and won the contest with a 27-pounder.”

Cloudy water in the water column
Cloudy water conditions don’t always run from the surface to the bottom, but may stratify depending on current flow and water temperature, among other factors. When discoloration lies deep, concentrate on the cleaner layer near the surface. Structure penetrating the cleaner upper layer provides holding water and good ambush points for predators. Look for them right along the color break. Steve Sanford

Another point to keep in mind is that silt and blooms don’t always extend through the entire water column. “The brown tide in our bays sometimes reaches only a few feet below the surface. That means you can work your bait or lures beneath it,” Leggio says. “On the other hand, when storms kick up silt on our offshore blackfish grounds, you might be able to find a high place that rises above the worst turbidity and keep on catching. 

I took a double-digit tautog recently in murky water from atop a rubble pile that rose 20 feet from the bottom in 60-foot depths. Never had a bite at the deeper level. I’m guessing the silt had begun to settle from top to bottom.”

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Snook next to boat
Snook are known ambush feeders, and discolored water offers them an opportunity to hunt their prey undetected. Adrian Gray

Bright and Loud

Capt. Gary Dubiel of Speck Fever Guide Service in Oriental, North Carolina, agrees that making adjustments is the key. 

“We fish for reds, speckled trout and the occasional striped bass in the Neuse River and Pamlico Sound. When it rains hard, runoff pushes down the river. 

“Then, we switch to bright colors, more scent, and lures with vibration or surface splash.”

In low-visibility conditions, Dubiel throws white, chartreuse or hot-pink lures. With soft-plastics in moderate turbidity, he prefers paddle tails, believing their vibration helps predators zero in. Still, popping corks are his No. 1 choice whenever water clarity becomes an issue. 

“You can use a Storm Shrimp or Storm 360 paddle tail to attract your quarry with that vibration and pop,” he says.

Keep in mind, he adds, that fishing around baitfish schools usually brings an advantage. “A small flip or lone jumping mullet will reveal a pod of baitfish obscured by off-color water. Side-imaging sonar is a big help in these situations. 

“A cloud of baitfish that suddenly rises toward the surface, then quickly settles back toward the bottom is another good sign. It’s like the bait’s response to predators on the hunt or lurking nearby.”

Live bait in discolored water
In discolored water, sound can be as important as sight in helping gamefish locate a meal. The tried-and-true popper or popping cork on the surface creates the illusion of feeding going on, and fish moving in to investigate will find a lure or bait handily nearby. Size the leader beneath the popper so the bait or lure just reaches the bottom, neither so short that the lure dangles, nor so long as to compromise feeling the strike. Steve Sanford

Texas redfish sharpie Guillermo Gonzalez prefers darker patterns when working marshes, especially when he breaks out his fly rod.

“Get in tight enough that you can see reds crawling across the bottom in a few inches of water, and throw a black or purple Redfish Toad to imitate crabs, shrimp or baitfish,” he suggests. 

“I favor dark colors so I can spot my fly as I bring it past the fish. I want to put it right in front of them when visibility is limited. They’ll use their lateral lines and other senses to find the pattern if I get it on the mark, but I need to see it to ensure a perfect presentation.”

Read Next: How to Fish the Tides

Angler fishing from poling tower
Elevation aids in spotting the edges of blooms or patches of discolored water. Adrian Gray

Capture the Advantage

Off-color water, while generally viewed by most as something to avoid, can also work in the angler’s favor sometimes. In fact, Capt. Bobbi Brady of Florida Saltwater Flats Fishing Charters in Steinhatchee, Florida, welcomes it. She enjoys targeting big seatrout when visibility is near zero.

“The bigger storms flush stained water down the Steinhatchee River and onto the flats of Deadman Bay,” she explains. “And I recently discovered that, while small seatrout avoid discolored water, the lunkers seem to relish it. Just last week I worked a dark, tannic stretch, and drilled trout in the 26- to 27-inch class on scented, root-beer-colored soft-plastics embedded with 1/4-inch rattles, and suspending swimmers touched up with shrimp-scented Pro-Cure Super Gel Fish Attractant.

“With the opportunity to connect with big fish like those, I’ve grown considerably more willing to welcome heavy rains and gusty winds every now and then.” 

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