It’s May in the state of Oklahoma and that means thunderstorms and severe weather, something that was unfortunately evidenced this week by the killer tornado that tore into Elk City the evening before last out in the state’s westernmost reaches.
The current spot on the calendar can also mean heavy rains, something that we saw in spades last year during the late spring as flooding downpours sent Texoma’s lake level surging upward as the Bassmaster Elite Series’ BASSfest tournament rolled into town.
Unfortunately, as weather geeks like yours truly have been noting over the last few days, more big rainfall totals could be on the way for the Lake Texoma watershed over the next week or two if computer model trends hold true.
If they do, it’s possible that local lake levels could be destined to get high and muddy just in time for Memorial Day.
What should local bass fishing enthusiasts do if that possibility of big rainfall totals does in fact prove to be true?
For starters, they should not give into mental despair says my angling pal Rob Woodruff, someone that I’ve quoted often in this space – yes, including last week – because, well, he knows far more about fishing than I do.
And that’s even if I happen to cover the sport and write about it for a living.
Woodruff, an Orvis endorsed fly fishing guide on East Texas’ giant bass factory known as Lake Fork, is one of the more knowledgeable guides that any angler – fly or conventional – will find, something evidenced by his being a three-time finalist for the Orvis Guide of the Year award.
It’s also something one might suspect if they happen to see the new issue of Dallas’ D magazine where Woodruff – who is also a fly fishing trout guide on southeastern Oklahoma’s Lower Mountain Fork River – happens to be on the current cover making a tight looped cast into the picturesque tailwater trout stream near Broken Bow.
What’s the guide’s first piece of advice for high, muddy water in May?
“One of the biggest mistakes I see people making with muddy water is mentally throwing in the towel,” said Woodruff (www.flyfishingfork.com; (903) 967-2665).
“They show up at their favorite spot and either leave without fishing or they don’t fish with much enthusiasm because the water on that day doesn’t look like it does in the magazines.”
Even if the fish that they might catch still do.
So what changes when high and muddy water rolls in? Woodruff says it isn’t so much the location that an angler should look for fish at this time of the spring.
“The location stays basically the same as prior to the rain event or the same as traditional areas that work well during this time of year,” said the Quitman, Texas resident who has landed nearly a half-dozen double-digit bass over the years on an Orvis fly rod.
What’s more, he annually guides clients to their own big bucketmouth catches too, including several that have tipped the scales in the 10-pound or better range, all on the more difficult to fish long rod.
So what does an angler do when a storm stirs things up and muddies the water during the later stages of the spring season?
Woodruff recommends that they search for clean — or cleaner — water by focusing on the deep water side of grass beds, around emerging lily pads, on the deep water side of bream beds, in areas where shad are spawning, and around structure — especially lone trees — that lie on migrational routes that bass use to move to and from their spawning beds.
Oftentimes during May, bass are still caught very near where they spawned only a few days or weeks ago.
“Watch the side coves and pockets on creeks,” said Woodruff. “They may stay clear for quite a while after a big rain.
“Shad and other baitfish will seek out this cleaner water (too) while they can. And if they find these spots, you can rest assured that the bass will too.”
Are there areas for a bass angler to avoid after a big rain?
Yes says Woodruff, whose wife Jenny Mayrell-Woodruff, is also a trout fishing fly guide on the Lower Mountain Fork River.
“Yeah, it’s usually a good idea to avoid areas with heavier current that is flowing in, areas where there is flooded debris floating, and spots with foamy water and such,” he said.
So what changes the most with the sudden appearance of high and muddy water? In some cases, what an angler is actually fishing with.
“Lure selection — or in my case, fly selection — is the main thing that changes,” said Woodruff. “I like to use highly visible flies with the most visible colors in stained water being fluorescent orange, fluorescent red, chartreuse and black.
On the conventional lure side of things, Woodruff says the old fire tiger selection is a great color choice in heavily stained water.
The next thing that the Fork guide wants to do is to give bass some commotion to hone in on.
“Noise and water displacement are important factors for a fly to have in muddy water, so I’m often throwing patterns that are topwater based, have rattles embedded in them or have curly tails tied into the fly that will push a little water,” said Woodruff.
Conventional tackle — lures such as spinnerbaits with big Colorado blades that throb or crankbaits that have rattles buried within — accomplish the same thing in giving bass something to hear or in creating some sort of water displacement that fish will pick up on with their lateral lines.
In addition to using visible colors, adding noise and using flies that give a “push of water,” Woodruff is also going to challenge heavily stained conditions by altering the way that he fishes such patterns too.
“When I’m retrieving a fly, I try to do so with a consistent cadence so the bass can predict where it will be as they move towards it,” said Woodruff.
By doing so, the guide says that a fish will have ample time to either see his offering, to hear it, or to sense its location before the fly — or lure — moves out of the fish’s strike zone.
A final recommendation by Woodruff for high, muddy water is for an angler to fish with a slower retrieve in such conditions.
“One of the bigger mistakes that people make when fishing in stained conditions is to fish their offering too fast,” said the Texas A&M University entomology graduate.
While fly fishing for big bass isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, Woodruff’s fishing wisdom is applicable for both conventional anglers and those who thrill to catch bucketmouths on the long rod.
By adjusting the guide’s advice to lure selection, proper presentation, and the right location, the result can be the May bucketmouth of a lifetime.
No matter what kind of fishing tackle is used.
Or what kind of stormy weather curveball that the local weatherman might try to throw Texoma’s way over the next few weeks.
Lynn Burkhead is Senior Writer for the Outdoor Channel, World Fishing Network and Sportsman Channel and lives in Denison, Texas