Clear Water Vs. Dirty Water

During this crazy summer of 2020, I had a rare chance to get together with my long-time fishing buddy, tournament fishing partner, public and high school pal and, of course, frequent beer-drinking cohort, Mike Burriss. This was our second get-together for the year (the first was a Smallmouth Bass slaying we did on Lake Ontario), and I’m hoping it won’t be the last. I say rare, by the way, because by the time bass season is in full swing, we are both typically too busy to coordinate a Largemouth trip like this.

Mike’s Getaway Oasis

Mikey has been after me to join him up at his place on Cranberry Lake just north of Kingston, Ontario, near Seeley’s Bay. His stories of mega-sacks of Largemouth Bass have had me drooling whenever his texts and, of course, photos roll in. Well, I finally got to give this intricate lake system a shot.

Seeley's Bay map
Seeley’s Bay is a small community sitting at the north end of this system.

The System of Lakes

I call it intricate because I had no idea there were so many kilometres of water in the Cranberry Lake system. I thought it was simply Cranberry and Dog Lakes. Well, I discovered that I needed to add in Little Cranberry, Whitefish, and Cranesnest Lake at the extreme upper end of the chain (I’m not sure if one can access it from Dog Lake, but there is a small bridge there). Of course, all these lakes are joined by winding channels that look very much like rivers. There is a mind-boggling amount of water there.

Garmin display
This intricate lake system is a bass angler’s dream.

Another thing I didn’t realize about these joined lakes is the difference in water clarity. Mike has always told me about his area of the lake, which is Cranberry, having little visibility (a Eutrophic Lake). However, we had never really talked about the rest of the water.

Whitefish Lake

Our first trip would be up to Whitefish Lake, accessed via a canal. Whitefish is pretty much what one would expect for a southeastern Ontario lake… gorgeous.

Mike told me this would be the cleanest water we would be fishing for the next couple of days. Once we arrived at Whitefish, Mike headed to some waypoints and, with about 75% confidence, said, “We should be able to get some fish here.” The reason he didn’t have complete confidence was partially due to the nasty rainstorm we drove through while towing his rig through the Kingston area on the way to the lake. Something else affecting his confidence was the time of year—this wasn’t exactly perfect timing.

She was a wee bit wet on the way north.

Armed with flipping sticks and either heavy mono, heavy fluoro, or a combination of heavy braid to a heavy fluoro leader, we started dunking soft plastics into lush weedbeds. While trying to come up with a small variety of the best bass lures to use, Mike dropped mostly worm-shaped plastics while I took a heavy weight and dunked a Texas rig Beaver bait on a straight shanked flipping hook. We were instantly into a nice bunch of Largemouth in what I found to be “normal” water clarity (5’ visibility— give or take).

Mike Burriss holding largemouth bass
The clear water of Whitefish lake provided a steady bite for the couple of hours we were out. No hawgs, just lots of fun.

Finally, the receding daylight forced us to pack it in.

Cranberry and Dog

The next morning, we were all pumped up to hit some of Mikey’s waypoints on “the Big Two” lakes—Cranberry Lake and Dog Lake. We had to wait for a swing bridge to start its morning operation for water vehicles. They don’t turn the big gearwheel until 9 am. On any other fishing day, Mike and I would already be 2-3 hours in by that time. 

On the plus side, the unexpected delay made for a nice leisurely pace to enjoy a morning coffee and tie up a few more rigs for the upcoming day.

Once through the pearly gates and to our first spot, wow, what a difference in water clarity. It almost looked like an algae bloom. Mike assured me it is normal there and happens every year. The only thing that is not a constant is how far this green water creeps through the system. This year was a strong creeper.

We did the exact fishing tactics as we did on Whitefish, but my confidence was waning. What little remaining confidence I had was only because I trusted Mike, his fishing ability, and his past stories. I must say, I much prefer clear water. It doesn’t have to be gin-clear; it just has to make me feel that the fish can see my bait.

Beaver Style Bait
Beavers and creatures Texas rigged with pegged tungsten weights, and hefty jigs with chunks on heavy line got in front of the Largemouth’s faces.

My Newfound Confidence

Well, my fishing friends, it didn’t take Mike long to step into one on a tip-toe hookset (I love watching this guy drill Largemouth). Then another, then another. Holy s—, these fish can actually see down there… awesome!

mike burriss with largemouth bass
Mike Burriss displays a “skinny” 4.35. Had that fish been full, it would have been close to five pounds!

After a bit of fine-tuning, I too was power housing hooksets into these green beasts from their green environment.

This is a huge stepping stone for me and most certainly knocks the barriers off my negative “dirty water” mind frame. To me, this proves that fishing truly is a mental game. Build the confidence, and the fish will come.

Pete Bowman with a Largemouth Bass
Mike and I caught lots of Largemouth, including several 4lb+ fish.

A Quick Trip to the Big Water

Before the day ended, Mike wanted to take me to the deep-water area to try for a Splake. Now, if you are thinking like I did on that day, you’re saying, “Splake in green water?”

Well, the water was a bit cleaner/clearer. However, it certainly wasn’t what I would call trout water. That said, Mike hovered the boat over another of his waypoints, and we started searching.

Mike is as good an angler as he is not only because of his practical skills on the water but in his ability to listen. I kept telling him about the increasing success that Ang and I have been having with Garmin’s LiveScope. Once I gave him a few stories about smashing Smallmouth with 100% of the success going to this technology, he said to me, “Tell me what to get.”

He immediately went out and bought a 9” EchoMap along with the LiveScope system and hasn’t looked back. He calls it money well spent!

Now I must point out that Mike already had two of Garmin’s competitor’s units on his boat, but he was that confident from my stories that he took the plunge.

With Mike’s newly discovered electronics, there is some reciprocation involved, and he is now sending me reports and telling me how it has changed his fishing. Essentially, we are now learning together. I love it!

“That Fish is Gonna Bite.”

As we entered Mike’s Splake area, he dropped the trolling motor in and turned on the fish finder. Within a minute, we saw the school of trout, and he dropped his little jig down to them. (He did this the previous week and quickly pounded two big Splake.) 

We watched his jig on the LiveScope screen, and, within 30 seconds or so, a fish showed interest. Mike said, “Watch this. See the way it’s swimming? That fish is gonna bite.”

Well, bite it did. 

Dog Lake Garmin map
This is the Splake area of Dog Lake. Notice the depths. Apparently, there are some beauties here!

We were freaking out as he reeled it in. It was picture perfect; see it and catch it. The only downfall to all of this is… it was a Pike! We laughed so hard—a classic Petey and Mikey moment and ending to a fantastic fishing day.

In Conclusion

Taking someone’s word for something—especially in fishing—can be a tough thing to do. In this case, I trust Mike Burriss 100%. If he tells me a pattern, a bait suggestion, etc., I believe him. That said, for me to go out onto a new lake with that same green pea soup water colouring by myself, I would be a mental mess until I hooked up. That is if I hooked up! 

Having Mike at the front of the boat and watching him reef into my favourite fish species gave me incentive and built my confidence level tremendously. Now I can take that day of experience fishing dirty water and transpose our techniques to any similar body of water I hit.

Definitely a successful fishing trip.

Now, it is a matter of you taking my word about how to fish murky, low-visibility water, heading out, and giving it a go yourself. 

I do get it; it’s a tough one to follow through with, for sure.

Here are some tips: 

  1. Fishing with a second person (or more) can be a huge help in turning a tough day into a successful one. By observing Mike and his low-visibility water technique, I quickly adapted.
  2. In low-vis water, I would suggest starting by using darker coloured plastics. I believe the dirty water makes the fish see things in more of a silhouette view (just my theory). 
  3. In low-vis water, adding a rattle into a plastic bait can be a good idea for extra drawing power. 
  4. If the area of low-visibility water you are fishing has a fair amount of fishing pressure, switch to a white or bright coloured bait. This can sometimes be the ticket. (Yes, this goes against my silhouette theory above, but it has worked for me in the past.) Fish often become familiar with things like colour. Don’t be afraid to change it up.

Hopefully this story kept you entertained, and the tips and content gave you a better understanding of how to approach a dirty/murky water fishing situation.

Thanks for reading,


6 Replies to “Clear Water Vs. Dirty Water”

  1. Great stuff Pete. It’s not hard to imagine how frustrating it can be for anglers when water clarity changes so abruptly in a water course, such a we see in you blog. Rest assured as you say, confidence can and will play an integral part. I suspect Mike Burris was well aware of the information I have managed to dig up on the internet.

    Have you ever wondered to yourself “Can fish see in the dark?” How are they able to navigate murky dark waters that humans would find blinding?

    Many anglers, aquarium owners and curious observers have wondered about this exact topic. Are fish able to see lures or bait in the dark? And if not – how are they able to detect bait and bite onto it? If you own an aquarium such as the one at Pinepost Productions, how should you manage the lighting situation so your fish are as comfortable as possible? In order to answer these questions we should delve into some of the biology behind fish vision, the sensory perceptions of different fish species – and how you can take advantage of this as an angler.

    Fish Vision Explained :

    Fish vision is different from terrestrial animal vision. This is because light waves behave differently in the aquatic environment that fish inhabit. Water absorbs some wavelengths of light faster than others. For example, red and orange light is absorbed within the first 30 meters of water, while blue and green light can penetrate all the way down to 200 meters below the surface. That’s why deep-sea fish are often red colored – the lack of red light perception makes them appear black, and thus less visible to predators and prey.

    Water clarity can also be a major factor in what fish are able to see. Depending on the time of year, wind, rain, algae, dam water and snow melt can change the water clarity from ‘gin clear’ to dark and murky. In the most pristine water conditions, fish are only able to see about 100 feet away. In murkier water, their vision is limited to a few inches, similar to being in a perpetual dense fog.

    Structurally, fish eyes are similar to our own. The major difference is that fish lenses are generally more dense and spherical than human eyes. These rounded lenses give them better peripheral vision. They also are able to bend light and focus it on their retinas better than we are – which makes them able to take advantage of low light situations.

    Fish Vision at Different Depths :

    Fish that live in the surface waters, known as Egipelagic fish, primarily use their vision for hunting prey and escaping predator fish. These fish typically do not have adaptations for ultra-low light conditions.

    The next level below is known as the Mesopelagic zone. Light levels are greatly reduced at these depths and as a result fish here have large eyes with big lenses, which provide sensitivity to the smallest light signals. Many species have upwards facing eyes to detect prey animals silhouetted against the dim light above them. This adaptation means they sacrifice lateral (sideways) vision in favor of terminal vision.

    Below this level it’s completely pitch black. No light from the surface can penetrate this deep. This layer is known as the Bathypelagic or midnight zone. Fish living here have highly specialized adaptations to deal with the lack of light and high pressure. They do not rely on vision, and instead operate on sense of smell, sound and their lateral line. Many also incorporate bioluminescence (producing their own light) to hunt or find a mate.

    How do fish see in the dark? :

    It’s easy to assume that because we have a hard time seeing in the dark that other animals have the same issue. Fish have a number of adaptations that make them less dependent on vision and better able to navigate in low-light environments. Many fish have a unique sensory system known as a lateral line that runs across the length of their bodies. This is a series of organs (called neuromasts) which detect movement, vibration and pressure change in the surrounding water. It plays a key role in spacial awareness, hunting for prey and schooling behavior. As mentioned previously, many fish also have good night vision due to their large rounded lenses. This means they are able to take advantage of the light reflected by the moon and stars to see.

    Other fish are able to sense their environment using magnetoception and chemoreception. Catfish use chemoreception to “taste” and “smell” everything in the water around them using their incredible sense of smell. Other species are able to use special sensory organs known as Ampullae of Lorenzini to detect slight variations in electrical fields in the water around them.

    Fish also feed differently in the dark/murky water, than during the day. They rely more on their lateral line to detect movement and vibration in the water. This means noisy, moving bait like chatterbait, buzzbait or any bait with moving parts will help you catch more fish. Make sure to keep the bait moving to attract more fish. Not only do the fish rely more on their sense of feeling in dark, stained or murky water – so will you!

    As I stated at the beginning Pete, Mike Burris seems to be well aware of this information. A confidence builder for sure.

    1. Yes Calvin Mike is most definitely aware of this now but I bet he had a bit of a mental block the first time he came upon this just as I had. His learning curve might have taken longer than mine because Mike probably didn’t have his “Mike” like I did in the boat to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that these fish indeed do bite in that green abyss.

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