Dan Smith stared in disbelief, confounded, like he couldn’t believe the question had been asked about the productivity — and sanity — of bass fishing in February.
Especially since he was drying his hands after releasing an 8-pound sow back into the lake, shortly after it had devoured his crankbait.
“Can’t believe you asked that,” Smith said, not realizing the sarcasm intended. “I tell you what’s insane: not fishing in February, thinking it’s too cold to catch fish. Heck, if anything, it’s prime time. Winter makes it easier to find them, and a lot of the time, easier to catch them.
“And, it’s when the big ol’ sows are at their biggest.”
We were but 10 minutes into what would be a four-hour fishing trip on a 40-acre private lake in Madison County in mid-February last winter.
Before it ended, we would catch and release more than 50 bass, many of which were topped 5 pounds.
The 8-pounder Smith caught on his fifth cast was the first and biggest, but only because two other giants got away before we could close the deal — one by each of us.
Two days later and 30 miles to the east, at Barnett Reservoir, FLW pro Pete Ponds proved that success could be duplicated on larger bodies of water.
It was the fifth day of a mild warming trend, when daytime high temperatures rose from the 20s and 30s during a cold snap the week before to the upper 40s and low to mid 50s.
“The water temperature is only a couple of degrees higher (44), but that slight increase is all a bass needs to trigger its feeding impulse,” Ponds said. “Instinctively, they know they need to eat and they know the warm weather is probably short-lived, so they will take advantage of it.”
Bottom line, such opportunities must be taken advantage of by bass anglers, too.
In a diverse north-to-south state like Mississippi, February fishing opportunities from one region might differ totally from one in another.
Compare guide Roger Stegall on Pickwick Lake in the extreme northeast corner of the state and avid coastal angler Junior Thomas of Pascagoula, for instance.
While Stegall is likely to have to break ice from the eyes of his rod many days this month, Thomas can fish most days in a T-shirt and windbreaker.
While Stegall is battling deep prespawn bass, Thomas is looking for bass already on the beds in the back ends of coves off the main river channels of coastal rivers, or in small impoundments like MDWFP state lakes like Lake Perry and Bill Waller.
But one common thread linking all February bass fishing in Mississippi — south, north and all areas in between — is what Smith calls fishing on the edge, as in the edge of deep or shallow water.
“They may move shallow for a time in February, whenever weather allows them the chance, but they won’t go too far from a quick break back to deep water,” he said.
Ponds agreed, providing more detail on how to narrow your search.
“The more vertical the drop, the better,” he said. “A fish that can swim only a few feet to go from 4 or 5 feet deep back to 10, 12 or even deeper is a fish comfortable with feeding.
“That is a fish that you can find and coax into hitting something you throw.”
The pro said it’s a simple matter of bass preference.
“Bass do not like to — and will not — swim a couple of hundred feet or yards to feed on a flat in February,” Ponds said. “They prefer to move only a few feet, like the difference between a 12-foot bottom in a creek or ditch up to 4 feet on a bank. That’s what you need to look for.”
Veteran bass tournament pro Dudley Salers of Brandon has made a career out of fishing such key spots on Barnett Reservoir.
A guy who flipped before flipping was cool, Salers had a slough he concentrated on every fishing trip — and it offered a sharp break just off the bank in backwaters.
It was full of cover, like logs, stumps and laydowns.
“The key is finding the right cover, and the perfect one is a laydown where a tree on the edge of the bank fell at an angle that put its top down the deep end of the break while its root wad is still right at the bank,” Salers said. “This one piece of cover gives a bass deep cover in 10 feet off the break, but also shallow cover to the bank.
“All that bass has to do to move from deep to shallow cover is move up 10 feet.”
Salers would flip his bait, usually a jig-and-pig or the modern jig-n-plastic craw, to the roots and slowly work it down off the drop.
“If a bass is on that tree at any spot, he’s going to get a look at my bait,” Salers said. “If he gets a look and I do my presentation as I’m supposed to, he’ll eat it.
“It may take me four or five flips from different angles, but sooner or later I’m going to present the bait exactly the way and the place he wants it, and he’ll swallow it.”
A key spot
Ponds had a great opportunity to prove his point about sheer vertical drops a couple of years back on two trips in the same week to Lake Okhissa at Bude on the Homochitto National Forest.
The first day was warmer than average and near the end of about a four-day warming trend in February. The second, three days later, was a lot colder, perhaps 20 degrees less than the previous trip.
Ponds found fish both days, and did so using an edge of a creek channel as it wound through the upper end of the lake.
On Day 1, the warmer day, Ponds sought out a creek channel and followed it with his electronics, looking for any turns that brought the channel near a bank.
He marked three places with buoys, and we returned to the first one and started working.
“There’s one,” Ponds said on his second cast with a swimbait.
The fish struck the lure as Ponds swam it past a standing tree in 4 feet of water.
“Right where he ought to be,” the angler said.
The 4-pound fish — with an extremely fat belly — was the first of about 40 fish caught that day on a variety of lures, including swimbaits, spinnerbaits, shaky heads, square bill cranbaits.
These baits were all fished on the shallow edge of the creek channel.
When the weather cooled later in the week, Ponds suggesting we see how it affected the fish. So we returned to the same part of the same creek channel and caught only one 12-inch fish shallow in an hour’s time, which Ponds had predicted.
“I knew they would move out: A 20-degree change will do that,” he said.
So we swapped sides of the boat, fishing off the deep side.
Ponds kept the boat right on the edge of the channel drop. The difference was 16 feet, both in distance and in depth.
“Pick up the drop-shot rig and let’s see,” he said, stopping mid-sentence. “Yep, there’s one.”
Vertically jigging a 41/2-inch Roboworm in a bold, bluegill pattern, we duplicated the quantity if not the quality of the catch a few days earlier.
We finished with about 40 to 50 fish in the 2- to 2½-pound range. We did not catch anything bigger, but were far from disappointed.
Asked if a similar pattern would work at a bigger lake like Barnett Reservoir near Jackson, Ponds needed just another week to prove it would.
It was another warm streak, and the pro angler knew bass would be moving toward spawning areas.
“But we will still look along edges of creeks and ditches, any kind of edge of a travel route,” Ponds said. “We have to get out of the current. The edge of the river is not the kind of edge I’m looking for. They will not like the current, so we’re going to look on the edges of pathways to backwaters well off the river.”
Soon, he had us in a small cove off, two turns off the main river that had a good bit of deep hard cover.
Through the middle of the cove was a ditch — exactly what Ponds was seeking.
“A month from now they will be in the back of this cove on beds, spawning,” he said. “Right now, they should be on the cover near the edge of the ditch.”
Ponds tied on one of his homemade swimbaits on each of our lines, and before he finished tying on his, I rocked the boat with a huge hook set.
Right next to the boat, a 5-pounder grabbed my lure and short-lined me.
Water splashed on my host.
Two seconds later, I plopped the fish down on the deck right next to where Ponds was seated.
“#@%&” Ponds said, “I guess I was right.”
An advantage of finding fish in February for a tournament angler is that, once a school of fish is found, he can track that school throughout the spring tournament season.
I returned to that pond in March and found the bass on beds, but didn’t check any of the fish to see if they still wore the scars left by my swimbait hooks.