Larry Pugh, the state’s fisheries director, is also one of Mississippi’s most avid bass fishermen, and like his peers he doesn’t always wait for pleasant weather to hit the water.
Expect him to be on the water this weekend somewhere near his home in Tupelo.
“Two places, either Trace State Park near Pontotoc or Bay Springs Lake (on the Tenn-Tom),” Pugh said. “Both of those are excellent in January, and for two different reasons.
“At Trace, it’s the largemouth. At Bay Springs, it’s the spotted bass. Both are good choices, even with the water temperatures in the 40- to 42-degree range. Fish are going to eat. They have to, and you have to be lucky in these conditions, you have to be patient, to be in the right place at the right time when they start to eat.”
If Pugh chooses Trace, he’ll have two lure patterns ready.
“One is a jigging spoon and the other is a 5½-inch swim bait,” he said. “With the jigging spoon, we’re looking for 25 to 30 feet of water and we’re using the electronics to find baitfish wads. We get off the edge of the flats and just jig it vertically. You have to work at it and be patient because you can go a while without getting a fish and then boom, boom, boom, and you get three, four or five in a row.
“That’s been working when it is really cold. Last weekend, I about froze my tail off in the boat and our best five fish went 26 pounds.”
When the deep water and jigging spoon pattern isn’t working, Pugh will move up and throw the swimbait in 20 feet of water.
“When it warms up even a little, the fish might move up to feed and I like to throw a swim bait. It’s slower but when a fish hits it, it will be a big fish,” Pugh said.
If Pugh chooses to drive up the Natchez Trace to Bay Springs Lake, he will be prepared to catch fish — spotted bass — as deep as bass can be caught in the state of Mississppi.
“They could be as deep as 40 or 45 feet out on the deep ends of the main lake points,” he said. “Look for fish on the points that have brush, and Bay Springs is loaded with brush piles. Not all of them are that deep, either, and you can find spots in 20 to 25 feet of water on those points. They’ll move up, but not suspending. Bay Springs spots always relate to the bottom.”
The No. 1 bait of choice is the shaky head worm rig.
“No doubt, and we fish it in the cover on those deep points,” Pugh said. “We use 8- to 10-pound test on that and on drop shots, too. Sometimes you have to use the drop shot because it’s more of a finesse-type bite.
“What makes that spotted bass bite at Bay Springs so interesting is that they aren’t always affected by the weather. They could move up in 40- or 43-degree water, or they might stay deep, but either way they are going to eat. They might not eat as much or as often as they do in warmer temperatures, but they still have to eat something.”
Pugh said there are days on Bay Springs when the fish move up on the shallower points, 20 feet is average, and will be very active.
“I’ve even caught them on a deep crankbait when it’s so cold you can barely stand to be out there,” he said. “But mostly we’re still throwing the shaky heads, or using drop shots or the Alabama rig.”
Another good North Mississippi choice is Davis Lake, a U.S. Forest Service lake 32 miles south of Tupelo off the Natchez Trace near Houston and Okalona. Fishermen there primarily use the shaky head and 7- to 9-inch worms and fish structure along the edge of the main creek channel. It produced a 17.34-pound largemouth last January for Jeff Foster of Tupelo.
This weekend, the water temperatures are still likely to be in the low 40s, even though air temperatures are returning to the mid 60s. Fishermen all over Mississippi could find some active bass.
“But more likely it will be early next week as we move deeper into the warming trend,” said Elite Series bass pro Pete Ponds of Madison. “It only takes a slight rise in water temperature to trigger a bite and that could happen this weekend but, like I said, a better bet would be early next week.”
Mississippi is just a few days off one of the coldest periods on record, including 61 straight hours of below freezing temperatures in the Jackson area. The Barnett Reservoir control tower measured single-digit temperatures Tuesday and Wednesday morning.
Still, Ponds said, the fish will see a warming trend as a chance to feed, once the water temperature climbs a degree or two.
“They can notice a slight difference just like you can and they will get active,” he said. “But they will still relate to deep water so I would start my day on any lake along the dam or riprap bank near deep drops.I’d throw a suspending jerk bait like the Talon 110. You need to use light line, about 8- or 10-pound fluorocarbon because it gives the lure better action.
“But work it slow, extremely slow. Make the cast, give it a few jerks and reel up the slack and then pause for several seconds. One Mississippi, Two Mississippi all the way to 10 Mississippi ... dude, I’m not kidding you. You have to give the lethargic fish a chance to notice it sitting there and it can take that long for one to hit it. If you don’t get bit by 10 Mississippi, give it a few more jerks and twitches and start the count again. Do that all the way to the boat.”
Along the riprap banks and dams, a few more degrees will increase bass activity and a small-body mid-range crankbait like a Bandit 200 will get bites along the dam. Ponds said when he has to switch from a heavy jacket to a windbreaker or sweater, he usually can switch from a jerkbait to a crankbait.
As the water continues to warm, more patterns open up.
“One of my favorites is a lipless crankbait on the edge of spawning flats, yo-yoing it up and down on the retrieve,” Ponds said. “Keep looking and when you get a fish, work that area hard because this time of year fish move in packs. You will likely catch several in the area. That pattern will work good on all waters, especially those state lakes people in South Mississippi like to fish.”
On big lakes like Barnett Reservoir, a week of warm weather can trigger a big bite in the backs of coves, as long as there is deep water nearby.
“You’d be surprised at how many bass will move back in those coves around pad stems and stumps, and there will be some big ones, too,” Ponds said. “One of my favorite things then is to throw a single-bladed spinnerbait with a gold Colorado blade about silver-dollar size and either a chartreuse or white skirt with your favorite plastic trailer (Ponds likes a small craw worm, like a Paca Craw).”