Turbid-Water Slabs

Many of the best crappie lakes in Oklahoma are going to be murky from late-winter and early-spring rains during prime crappie-fishing time this

year. Here are some hotspots and hot tips for taking fish under these conditions.

By Bob Bledsoe

"We're gonna fish here?" my partner asked incredulously when he got a look at the color of the water in the Deep Fork arm of Lake Eufaula. "It looks like ketchup."

That trip took place shortly after heavy rains in the Deep Fork drainage had pushed the river, and the central Oklahoma red-clay soil that it carries, to flood levels. The floodwaters had in turn muddied up Lake Eufaula all the way down to the mouth of the river near Fountainhead Lodge.

He wasn't the first to say the water there looked like ketchup. A bass tournament director acquaintance of mine in Tulsa usually called the Deep Fork arm of Eufaula "Lake Heinz."

The turbidity and the color in some lakes turns fishermen away. But fish live in turbid waters just as much as in clear waters. And they have to eat, too.

Yes, the turbidity does affect their movement patterns and how they react to certain lures and colors of lures. But turbid water turns off fishermen a lot more than it ever turns off the fish.

I grew to actually like the turbid water at Eufaula. That's because on days when there were hordes of crappie fishermen crowded around every point or stumpbed in the lower portion of the lake, where water is clear, I had virtually the whole Deep Fork arm to myself. The murky water kept the crowds at bay, but it didn't keep the fish from biting.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

I've caught some impressive stringers of crappie from murky water. And I've seen even more impressive stringers that came from turbid waters. In fact, the single best stringer of big crappie I've ever seen or heard of - 21 fish that weighed 52 pounds - was caught in the more turbid portion of Lake Eufaula. It came from Coon Creek, which is not far from where the Deep Fork and North Canadian rivers converge.

Eufaula is fed by the North and South Canadian and the Deep Fork (of the Canadian) rivers, as well as by several large creeks. All three of the main rivers are turbid streams that flow through western and central Oklahoma, through red-clay soils. All three carry tons of clay and other soils into the lake, creating turbid conditions in the upper reaches. Some of the clay particles are colloidal - the kind of soil particles that tend to stay in suspension longer instead of settling to the bottom quickly. Water containing colloidal clay often stays murky most of the time, especially if there is heavy in-flow or if the clay is disturbed - as by livestock walking in the water.

At Eufaula, those portions of the lake lying west of U.S. Highway 69 are the most turbid portions of the lake. Between U.S. 69 and the "chute" (that relatively narrow portion of Eufaula that separates the upper and lower portions of the lake), the water is moderately turbid. And in the lower lake, the water is often very clear.

My favorite crappie-fishing holes have long been in the most turbid areas west of U.S. 69. I have several spots along the Deep Fork, from Graves Creek, near Hitchita, all the way down to Fountainhead Marina south of Interstate 40. Mill Creek, which flows into the South Canadian arm southwest of the town of Eufaula, is another turbid area that yields good catches of crappie. And Coon Creek, Possum Creek and Fame Branch (Creek), which all flow into the North Canadian arm of the lake, are all good crappie-fishing areas.

Let's talk a little about how to fish murky water for crappie - as opposed to fishing clear water. And remember, Eufaula is certainly not the only turbid lake in Oklahoma. There are many others - Heyburn, Wister, Keystone and many more - and what we discuss here is applicable at those lakes, too. Plus, almost any lake in any part of the state can become murky at one time or another. The condition may not last, but if you're a crappie angler looking for some weekend angling action and find your favorite lake muddied up, keep this advice in mind.

If you're a bait fisherman who relies on minnows for most of your crappie fishing, about the only things you need to know about fishing turbid water are the following:

Fish close to the cover, and fish very shallow at times.

First, crappie or other predator fish cannot see far in turbid waters, and so they may not see the minnow you offer. But they can still "hear" and smell it just as they do in clearer waters.

Second, crappie and other game fish can be found right at the surface when turbidity is sufficient to hide them, so don't neglect to check out the very shallow spots, or to set one of your baits to fish near the surface. That's especially true at spawning time. Fish in turbid lakes like Eufaula may spawn in water only 6 to 10 inches deep, while crappie in some very clear lakes are more likely to spawn 15 to 20 feet deep.

Two things are very different about turbid water. One is the amount of light that can penetrate, or is prevented from penetrating, the depths. The other is the color of the water. The color of the soil particles, or the algae or plankton in some cases, suspended in the water also affects the penetration of certain wavelengths of light.

Those factors make lures or baits invisible from afar and make certain colors of lures less visible to the fish.

In general, bright and shiny lures don't perform as well in very turbid water. That's true for any kind of fishing, not just crappie fishing.

A shiny spinner blade or shiny tinsel jig skirt that is meant to reflect sunlight and attract attention can't do its job if the sunlight isn't penetrating the water. And any light that is reflected is quickly absorbed anyway. So the silvers and golds and the skirts of tinsel and Mylar are pretty much wasted in turbid water. They may be very effective on sunny days in areas where the water is clear, but they aren't the tools you need for murky-water fishing.

During the 1980s I spent the whole decade fishing, on average, more than a hundred days a year. Sometimes it may have been only a couple of hours a day, but sometimes it was 14 or 15 hours a day. I fished for about every catchable species we have here in Oklahoma, but a lot of my trips were crappie-fishing trips to Lake Eufaula. I fished there a lot on my own and I fished there a lot with the late Jack Frisbie, a former state wildlife commissioner, tackle shop owner, fishing guide and all-around avid fisherman. Frisbie was a true wizard with a crappie jig.

After several years of f

ishing Eufaula for crappie during pretty much all months of the year, I had a relatively good feel for what kinds of jigs worked in various seasons and conditions at that lake. And one thing I noticed when I put together a tackle box just for Eufaula crappie fishing was that about 90 percent of my most productive jigs had one of two colors in them. Most of them had dark colors. And the ones that had a bright color all had the same bright color. I should note here, too, that I did most of my Eufaula crappie fishing in those turbid areas west of U.S. 69.

Most of my best tube jig skirts had black in them. They were black/chartreuse, black/red, black/ pink, and so on. And my most effective chenille-and-feather jigs and curly-tailed jigs all had orange in them, especially in the tails. I had a couple of other very effective tube jigs, and both were dark colored. One was a "plum" color that was dark purple with a bit of red/blue glitter. The other was a chocolate brown.

Why do dark-colored jigs, or jigs with orange in them, do well in the murky, red-stained water like we have in Lake Eufaula and in several other Oklahoma lakes?

I believe it's all a matter of light penetration and light filtration. That was the working principle of an electronic device, no longer on the market but still a frequently seen item on Internet auctions, called the Color-C-Lector. It was a probe and meter that, the makers claimed, could tell a fisherman what color of lures to use. Bait manufacturers even launched new lure color schemes based on the Color-C-Lector.

The meter worked for me. However, I've talked to many fishermen, including some pretty intelligent ones, who dismissed the Color-C-Lector as some sort of mumbo-jumbo gadget. They put it on a par with those little plastic fortune-telling 8-balls that give you a message when you turn them upside down.

Actually, the Color-C-Lector was based on a sound principle. And at its heart is a device that photographers have used for decades.

Several years ago, a friend and I went crappie fishing at Lake Keystone near Tulsa. We were fishing in a turbid, brown-stained arm of the lake, and we were to meet two other fishermen who had gone to the lake a couple of hours ahead of us.

When we found them, anchored over a brushpile in about 18 feet of water, they said they had searched and fished diligently but had just begun catching crappie a few minutes before we arrived.

"Hey," said one of the anglers in the other boat. "Do you have that Color-C-Lector gadget with you?" I told him I did. "Well, drop the probe down to about 14 or 15 feet right here," he said, touching the water's surface with his rod tip, "and tell me what color it says to use."

I unwound the wire and dropped the probe down to the desired depth, then looked at the display scale for "stained" water. "It says orange," I told him.

He reeled up his line and showed me his jig. It was a bright orange chenille-and-marabou jig.

"I've never used an orange jig here before," he said. "But I tried a lot of different colors today and this is the only color we're catching fish on.

"Now how does that gizmo know what color the fish like?" he asked me.

The explanation is simple: The device didn't know what color the fish "like." It was nothing but a light meter - the same kind of meter that photographers have used for decades. What it measured is the amount of light. And what it showed, based on the amount and color of light penetrating to where the probe was placed, was what color or colors were the most visible.

When you are fishing in stained or turbid water, the most visible colors are different from those most visible in clear water.

As light penetrates water, it begins to be filtered - absorbed by the water and the solid particles in the water. As the light is absorbed, it becomes dimmer, and fewer colors are reflected to be seen by our eyes, or by a fish's eyes.

Crappie, like others in the sunfish family (which includes the black basses), have excellent vision when it comes to differentiating colors and shades. They have more cone receptors - those elements in the eye that translate color signals for the brain - than some other species.

Water filters light more rapidly than air. Even clear water filters out light, and so filters out colors. Fish in deep, stained or murky water don't see as many colors as they might if they were just at the surface in clear water.

You can see the same effect without donning scuba gear. Just sit out in your yard for the last hour of daylight some evening and watch as bright colors fade, and then nearly all colors merge into sameness, as the light grows dimmer.

Colors at the red end of the color spectrum are the first to disappear as water gets deeper and light grows dimmer. Hues at the blue end of the spectrum remain visible longer.

As light decreases, color may become less important than brightness or contrast. That is, at a given depth, a bright red tube jig skirt and a bright jig skirt might look just the same to a fish. But a dark red one and a bright one might look very different.

Long ago, meteorologists who had to release and track weather balloons figured out that they could see light-colored balloons, which reflect a lot of light, best on bright, sunny days, and that dark-colored balloons were easier to see on darker days, when the sky is gray or overcast.

That same principle also applies to lures. Brightly colored or shiny lures are often best in clear water under bright skies, probably because they are the easiest to see in such conditions. At night, though, and on heavily overcast days, black or dark-colored lures may be better, probably because their dark silhouette is easier for fish to see.

Water color also helps determine what color of lure is best. In lakes where the water is clear but has a slightly green tint, bright colors are often best for daytime fishing. In lakes that are stained a burnt brown, or even black, by lots of tannin, a different color may show up better. And in lakes stained reddish-brown or rusty-red, like those in many lakes and ponds of the Great Plains, still different colors seem to work best.

That's because the color of the water acts much like a colored filter that a photographer might use on a camera lens. A "warming" filter may enhance those warm colors - reds, oranges and yellows - while neutralizing cooler greens and blues. But if you want to shoot a colorful photo of green foliage, a green filter might help you enhance the desired hues and neutralize others.

The color of the plankton and suspended solids in the water can act just like a colored filter. They may enhance some colors and neutralize others.

That's the only explanation I can offer for why orange jigs seem to be so effective in

red-clay-stained waters, like they were that day I described at Lake Keystone.

So think about your lure colors when fishing murky waters. You don't need an electronic device to tell you what to use. Start with dark colors and experiment with the occasional red or orange to see if it's effective where you fish for crappie.

But don't be discouraged if the water is murky where you choose to fish, especially if it is murky there a lot of the time.

The one situation, I believe, when high turbidity turns fish off is in a place where the water is normally clear but is rendered suddenly very turbid by heavy local rains. There, the fishing action can sometimes slow down for a day or two. Even so, the fish get hungry eventually.

And don't forget, fish can use sound and vibrations to find and zero-in on their prey, too, not just sight.

Give turbid-water fishing a try. You might wind up with a stringer of big ol' slab crappie to show for it!

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