Columbia River: Dealing with Springtime Run Off

Let’s just start this off with the bad news.  There is nothing more difficult in bass fishing than trying to catch them in muddy, cold water.  I don’t even think the cold water is the biggest issue.  But anytime the water is much more stained, dirty or visibility is less than what is “normal”, then you are facing a difficult task.  Smallmouth, especially seem to be impacted by this, but it affects all bass.


This first trick is to decide what is “normal” for the body of water you are fishing.  Bass get conditioned by what normal light penetration is and any deviation from that causes them to adjust.  The poorer the visibility, the less their chances for a successful feed.  When water is cold, then their metabolism is also cranking along slowly.  Less need to feed + less ability to feed = well, you guessed it…less bites for you.   Fortunately, “less” is also a relative term.  No, you won’t have your best day ever, but it doesn’t have to be your worst either.

Low and High Water levels for Lake Umatilla. Keep tabs on this and you will be able to anticipate the relative trends for that pool.
Lake Wallula Water Elevations. Know what is “high” and what is “low” and how that will impact water clarity for where you are fishing.

River Location Concepts

If you can identify the source of the cold, muddy water, then the best, simplest thing to do is to stay away.  If you are thinking, “listen smarty pants, the whole river is the source of the problem”, then let me clarify.

  • If a tributary on one side of the river is the main issue, work the opposite side of the river.  Your best bets right now this time of year is often backwater sloughs and some of the very tributaries that are causing the problem.  Get away from runoff.  Look for bays, or dead-end sloughs that are not “flow-through” areas.  In other words, areas where runoff has to work its way into but is not running through back into the river.
When the Umatilla River is running high and muddy, expect the sloughs and backwaters on the same side of the Columbia to be impacted.
  • The furthest away from the source of the cold, muddy water, the better.  So a tributary on the opposite side of the river that is not running off hard or a back water pond opposite the side where the heavy runoff is occurring.
  • The furthest part back in these back waters is going to yield the best water conditions both in terms of temperature and clarity. So if I can’t switch sides of he river to escape the worst of the cold, dirty water, then I go as far back as I can.  As an added bonus, the more vegetation, (emergent and submerged) the water has to go through to reach these back sections, the better.  Vegetation acts as filtration, and while the water won’t be “clean” it also won’t be as muddy (remember “relativity”!)

    When water levels are low in the main Columbia, expect backwaters to be a little cleaner and warmer during spring runoff.
  • The angle of the slough or backwater is important as well.  A slough mouth that is pointed to the current flow will be affected much more than one that is angled away.

    Mouth opening that cut back away from the main flow of the Columbia are not as susceptible to muddy flows.
“Flow-in” mouths are more suceptible. When main river levels are high, expect muddy, cold water in the back waters. The down river mouth of Crow Butte opens away from the flow, so is more protected but still influenced by high and low main river levels.
Flow through culverts, like the one on the roadway at Plymouth, will affect the back end of slough , so the cleanest water will likely be on the outer half of the downstream opening.
  • When forced to fish dirty water, then don’t hesitate to work even more shallow and tighter to cover than normal.  Even if the water temperature is telling you to fish deep, water clarity trumps temperature.  So if you were thinking of targeting fish suspended out over deep water, think again.

Bait Options

In a nutshell, brighter, and bigger than “normal”.  Favor water displacement over subtle and natural (grub over a tube, bigger crankbaits or jerkbaits, bigger bladed spinnerbaits over a single willow-leaf blade).



The brighter and more eye-popping, the better.  An all-chartruese profile is sometimes necessary. You are not very concerned anymore with nuances of a crawfish pattern, secondary colors, etc.  Get as much chartreuse as you can on there and go to work.

Wiggle Wart, in maybe the ugliest color scheme ever. I bought 3 of these brand new 20 years ago, and have two left. Easily one of the most effective cranks I’ve ever used in cold, dirty runoff conditions.
This bait produced nearly 26lbs of Smallmouth and Largemouth in less than an hour…and obviously paid the price. It was retired after that day and earned it. If I can find water over 50 degrees, in the spring and the water is stained to muddy, this color combination spinnerbait is getting work for the rest of the day.
In the most extreme of dirty water, I will go with bigger Colorado blades and an all-chartreuse profile.


Lean towards the brightest shades of these that you have.  Same ideas as with the chartreuse.  Go all red or all orange.  To worry about disguising it with realistic patterns or other colors is not necessary.

Not a coincidence that this color combination proved effective on a recent outing in the “muddy” Columbia
The Rapala DT Fat is a killer crank for shallow, rocky, dirty water situations.



As big of a “secret” as I have is a copper Rat’l’Trap in dirty/muddy water conditions. Especially if the sun is out.  We’ve even gone to customizing some of our other cranks with a solid copper color.

Copper Rat’l Trap. One how it looks before you use it, and one after you put it to work for a day or two. You won’t find a better bait for stained to muddy water, especially if the sun is out. Great for both smallmouth and largemouth.
The all-copper spinnerbait is another good option when the water gets over 50. For me, spinnerbaits really shine in that 54-58 degreee range.


Two of my favorites, a Speed Trap and copper. Custom colored bait, for just the right situation.


Water Temp

Don’t let water temp ruin your day.  Too many of us tie our confidence levels to water temperature.  I’ll take stained, colder water over muddy, warmer water.  Unless water temps are into the mid to upper 50’s, finding 48 degree but muddy water over say 45 degree but only stained water is not a big help.  Let water temps be your guide however to fish activity levels and baits you would choose.  A crankbait is a proven, and effective early season choice on the Columbia.  In water temps from the 45-52 degree range, often my first and only choice is a crankbait.  Once water temps get toward the mid-50’s I will often start gravitating toward spinnerbaits and chatterbaits.  Both can be effective dirty water baits.  Again, water displacement and bright colors over subtle movements and subtle colors.

In water with good visibility, regardless of temperature, I will break out the true king of the big fish baits – The Super Fluke. In dirty/muddy water conditions, it won’t even get into the game.

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