It wasn’t when the first mosquito bit, or when another one flew into my ear that got my goat — it was when two at one time zeroed in on my mouth and rode an inhale deep down my throat.
I coughed, I choked and, between gags, I cussed like a sailor in a hurricane.
Then I packed up everything I had in the shooting house, bid farewell to the three deer standing in the food plot and headed for the truck.
The walk — in the 70-degree weather — was miserable, and by the time I reached the vehicle I was soaking with sweat. I dried my hair with my orange vest.
December, you aren’t supposed to be that way, not at 8 a.m., if ever.
I was reaching for the air-conditioner switch when my cell phone rang. It was my friend Sidney Montgomery, who at the time lived on the banks of Eagle Lake.
“You deer hunting?” he asked.
“Was, but I quit; too hot,” I said.
“Figured,” Montgomery said. “Look, if you’re at your camp in Port Gibson, before you head back home, come up here and let’s go fishing.
Without asking for an explanation of when, what and where — and in bad need of a story for the weekend, I answered with a terse, “I’ll see you in an hour.”
That afternoon, at the edge of dusk, I was standing on the front of Montgomery’s boat and posing with an 8-pound largemouth I had snared off a submerged boat ramp at Chotard Lake.
It was about my 50th fish of the day — the only largemouth either of us caught, and it surprised us both.
As an outdoor writer, it saved my bacon.
“When life gives you lemons,” Montgomery said, “make lemonade.”
In this case, Mother Nature had given us unseasonable weather, far too hot for hunting deer but just right for a day on the water.
It is a situation that happens every winter in Mississippi, and it’s a sure bet it will happen to deer hunters at least once or twice in December or January this deer season.
When it does, try one of these hot patterns, shared by some of the Magnolia State’s best fishermen. Some, as you will read, work even better when it’s cold.
Montgomery’s targeted fish that warm day was white bass, a fish native to the Mississippi River and its oxbow lakes, like Chotard, located about 15 miles north of Vicksburg.
It was the third day in a week-long warm spell and the first time it hit 75 degrees — short-sleeve weather in the middle of the day, but featuring water temperatures that were still in the upper 40s.
“Any time we get a few warm days, the water temperatures will increase a degree or 2, maybe 3, and that’s all it takes to trigger a bite,” Montgomery said. “Just the slightest change will make them eat. If we put something in front of them, they will eat it.
“And we’ve got the lake to ourselves.”
Montgomery tied on tail-kickers on two baitcast rods and handed one to me, with the instructions of throwing it up the ramp and fishing it out to the deep end with a yo-yo retrieve.
“Somewhere they’ll be stacked, and they’ll unload on it when the lure is falling,” he said.
He was right.
Each of us caught white bass on our first three casts on the concrete ramp, and every fish went into the box, destined for a holiday fish fry.
The bite slowed a half-hour later, but by then 30 fish filled the 48-quarter cooler.
We moved from ramp to ramp — some concrete and some gravel — and caught fish at each. Concrete held more than gravel, but the bigger fish seemed to prefer the gravel.
We pinched down the barbs and kept fishing.
As the sun faded and sweatshirts were needed to cover our arms, we returned to the ramp where we had started. Montgomery told me to make another cast or two before we left.
I picked up the wrong rod, one with a Bandit 200 crankbait, jumped to the front, and tossed the lure all the way to the waterline.
I turned the reel handle twice ….
“Sid, this could be a state-record white bass or maybe a striper, but it feels like it weighs 10 pounds,” I said, getting a laugh out of my partner.
“You probably snagged an old limb,” Montgomery said.
“Well, if it is, it swims because it’s charging the boat,” I hollered.
The fish passed right by the driver’s seat where Montgomery was seated.
“Oh my God, that’s a black bass — a largemouth — and it’s huge,” he said.
Fortunately, the fish charged hard to deep water, where it would find no structure abrasive to monofilament. A minute later, Montgomery lipped the fish and brought it aboard.
“Biggest oxbow bass I ever saw,” he said, using hand-held scales to measure 8 pounds, 2 ounces. “So I guess you will be back tomorrow, eh?”
Eagle Lake specks
David Thornton, who lives on Eagle Lake (another old Mississippi River Oxbow just a mile or two from Chotard Lake), makes life tough on crappie living in his neighborhood — quite literally, right in his neighborhood.
Thornton lives on the outer curve of Eagle Lake, the Mississippi side of the water, the deep side. It is lined with piers and boathouses that start at the bank and extend into much deeper water.
“Black crappie, which we call specks, love these piers in the winter,” the angler said, as we idled along the outer edges of the structures on a bitterly cold, bluebird morning. “The white crappie that made this lake famous suspend out in the deep, open water, and can be tougher to find and catch in the cold.
“Blacks are just the opposite: They like the cover, and they like to stay close to shallow water, at least here they do. They will suspend in deep water, like white crappie, but they will not be nearly as deep, and that’s what makes it fun.”
Fun? When you can’t feel your fingers? When you have to break ice at the ramp to launch a boat? When the eyes of the jigging pole freeze up?
“Yep, you’re going to love it,” Thornton said with a broad grin. “Wait until you hook up with one on an 11-foot pole, with only 4 feet of line, way up under the middle of one of these piers.”
Two hours later, our 48-quarter cooler was full of 1½- to 2½-pound black crappie. I mean slap full — no ice was needed.
We just left the box open to the freezing elements. The temperature never topped 30 degrees.
Thornton’s strategy, based on years of experience, is quite simple. He uses 11-foot B’n’M jig poles, spooled with 8-pound yellow monofilament or braided line, and various colored tight-tailed jigs.
No more than 5 feet of line is ever hanging from the end of the pole. Fishermen sit on side-by-side seats on the front deck of his 20-foot boat.
“I use the trolling motor on the bow of the boat to put the nose of the boat right up against the pier, or if possible under the edge,” Thornton said. “Then I figure out the best way to reach under and around the boards or pilings to get the jig as far back in as I can.
“I work the water around pilings, and then against the pilings. Specks are not going to be too deep — usually 3, 4, or 5 feet in water that is 10 to 15 and even 20 feet deep. You have to watch the line, because a lot of times they will hit it on the fall. You see as many hits as you feel.”
Once the fish bites, the fun starts.
“You set the hook any way you can, which is usually sideways, if you don’t want to break a pole on the pier,” Thornton said. “You are usually short-armed, too, because you’re up against the pier. That’s when you need a partner, so he can push against the pier and push the boat out away from the pier so you can bring the fish out away from the pilings, give it some more slack and fight it the way you would normally.”
After we filled the cooler, we ran down the lake to find some of Thornton’s friends who were fishing for white crappie in open water. They had found success drift-trolling with jigs tipped with minnows and had close to a limit of white crappie.
“They were in 25 feet of water, at least 18 to 20 feet deep,” said Paul Johnson, who like Thornton is a member of the Magnolia Crappie club. “We found big schools of suspended shad with our electronics, and we put our lines out to drift through (them) with our jigs just under the shad.”
“They bit all morning.”
Bass pro Pete Ponds of Madison doesn’t like fishing in winter, but he does anyway because he can target big fish on many different patterns when the conditions are right.
His favorites involve three different types of hard-plastic lures: lipless crankbaits, lipped crankbaits and suspending jerkbaits.
“Three different lures that work in three different situations,” Ponds said. “Understand that when I go in winter I am targeting only big fish and have to be satisfied with only a few bites a day.
“If you can’t live with that then you’re better off hunting or sitting in a recliner in front of a TV.”
Ponds’ penchant for hard baits is the opposite of the traditional winter patterns, which mean fishing slow and methodical with a jig and trailer or with a soft-plastic worm.
“That was just never my thing,” the pro angler said. “I like to cover a lot of water and try to establish a pattern that the most big fish are exhibiting. It changes a lot in the winter because the weather changes a lot, but the one constant is that I use big lures for big fish and I do fish them differently from other times of the year.
“I change the presentation to a little more slow and deliberate retrieve.”
His favorite lure is the lipless crankbait, which he goes to when the weather warms a bit.
“On about the third day of a warm-up, I tie on a lipless (crankbait) and move up on some flats in 4 to 6 feet of water near deep water,” Ponds said. “If I’m on a lake with muscle beds and I know where they are, that’s where I start. Using 15-pound fluorocarbon, I make long casts and let the lure sink to the bottom. Then I yo-yo it up and down to mimic a dying shad. Big bass can’t stand that action and will explode on it on the fall.
“In the same conditions on a lake with more wood structure, like laydowns and stumps, on the same kind of flat, I use a mid-range crankbait with a big flat profile, like the Bandit FlatMaxx. I will knock the structure with it, but I’m not just throwing and reeling. After cranking it down, I slow down and use a sidearm retrieve, where I sweep the bait forward with the rod instead of reeling it, with a pause.”
Ponds’ third winter pattern — using a suspending jerkbait such as the Lucky Craft Pro Pointer 100 — can be used in all winter conditions, even on cold days, and it is worked with the same methodical sweeping retrieve he uses with the FlatMaxx.
“In the winter, if the water you are fishing has a riprap dam, head straight to it and pull out the jerkbait,” Ponds said. “Back off and cast at 45-degree angles to the riprap, which allows you to work more of the water column.”
But he isn’t just casting willy-nilly.
“What I’m looking for is a place along the dam with a shelf extending several feet from the rocks with 4 or 5 feet of water, with an abrupt drop into much deeper water,” Ponds explained. “That’s where bass will be in the winter — where they can move shallow to deep and back without a lot of travel.”
The retrieve is equally important.
“After reeling the jerkbait quick to get it down, stop, pause for an eight or 10 count — one Mississippi, two Mississippi — and then sweep the rod back and move it another 6 to 10 feet,” Ponds said. “Reel up the slack and do another 8 to 10 count. Be patient; the big fish will see that profile above it and move on the lure.
“Most of the strikes will be light, and you won’t know it until you start to sweep the rod again.”
Bridge piling mixed bag
Coastal fishermen should appreciate winter more than any other anglers in the state, since the season makes it easy to build a box of fish for a holiday meal.
“Shortens the run, shortens the day and exposure, and fills the box,” is how Capt. Kenny Shiyou of Bay St. Louis describes the action. “Seriously, we can put fishermen on fish within five minutes of launching, and keep them busy all morning.
“We can be back at the dock by noon with a worn-out and happy bunch of fishermen.”
Winter fish movements bring different species in from the open Gulf of Mexico into the coastal river bays, constantly restocking hotspots with new arrivals of redfish, puppy (black) drum and sheepshead, with an occasional oddball species.
And the pilings on the Highway 90 bridges across those rivers are where the action is, whether it is at Bay St. Louis, Biloxi/Ocean Springs or Pascagoula.
“Each bridge has a lot of pilings, so you may have to hunt and peck to find the hottest piling on a particular day,” Biloxi’s Capt. Robert Earl McDaniel said. “You’ve got to have either an incoming or outgoing tide for it to be really hot action — but, man, when it’s right, it’s awesome.”
Dead bait shrimp is all you need to fill a cooler. Shiyou uses braided terminal line with a short 20-pound fluorocarbon leader tipped with a circle or Kaile hook. He uses only enough weight needed to hold the bait in place in the current, usually a 1/4, 1/2 or 5/8 ounce.
“Toss it right up against the piling — as close as you can — and let it free fall against the piling,” Shiyou said. “These fish will sit with their noses right against the concrete. Watch your line on the fall because they may hit it on the fall and you don’t always feel it.”
In Northeast Mississippi, whether on Davis Lake, Trace State Park, Bay Springs Lake on the Tenn-Tom or Pickwick Lake, the lure of choice for most bass anglers in the shaky-head worm.
“I don’t need a tackle box,” said Jeff Foster, whose 17-pound, 3-ounce bass caught on Jan. 3 on Davis Lake in 2013 is the second largest largemouth ever recorded in Mississippi. “I just need a few shaky heads and a few worms, and I’m good.
“That’s all I am going to throw, and I will be happy with one or two bites.”
Foster’s success with that one monster bass exposed what is one of the best trophy lakes in the state and the most prolific big-bass pattern in what is the coldest part of the state each winter.
“The colder and more brutal, the better I like it,” he said. “I can’t tell you how many big fish, 8s, 9s, 10s and 12s are caught on Davis on the shaky head that time of the year.
“We fish deep, and we try to target any kind of natural cover we can.”
His 17-pound behemoth was caught near the convergence of two creek or ditch channels, with stumps in between. The water was 18 to 20 feet deep.
“That kind of water is available in all of these lakes up here because of the rolling hill terrain,” said Tupelo’s Billy Tucker, another shaky head fanatic. “I prefer Trace State Lake near Pontotoc because I can catch more fish than at Davis, but Davis is where I would choose to target one really big fish. I like to fish for big spotted bass deep at Bay Springs — and I mean deep, like 30 to 35 feet off the main lake points.
“My biggest spot from there was 6 pounds, 15 ounces caught on a shaky head on Christmas Eve last year. I thought I had hung a submarine.”