Few things are more frustrating for an angler than seeing a large bass ignore his or her offering, which, well, darn it, becomes a pretty common occurrence in the early weeks of the spawn in Mississippi. 

“Despite the cold, bass are still looking for all those things that bass need,” said pro angler Shannon Denson of Fannin, “those being comfortable water temperature, ample dissolved oxygen and a good food source. 

“This prespawn period sees bass starting to move based on those things that trigger the spawn.”

February typically features a marked increase in fish movement and fishing activity. Florida-strain largemouths, especially in the southern half of the Magnolia State, become more active before than their native northern cousins, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. 

We’re talking here about all bass before the true spawning period. There is a myth biologists debunk that Florida-strain bass feed more aggressively during winter than northern black bass. 

So what should an angler be looking for as the bass spawn approaches? Let’s consider all the factors that control bass behavior this time of year.

“All bass like to spawn on a flat surface, the flatter the better,” Denson said. “It’s in the deep water near these sometimes generations-old bedding areas that the bass will stage, waiting on just the right conditions to start the spawn. Before the start of spawning activity, bass are cold and sluggish, but they can be caught.”

Shad, as always, are the key to bass activity.

Bass and shad have a special relationship in winter. When bass get hungry, they eat shad. To expend the least amount of energy necessary, bass may pick on injured or dying shad. With a gullet full, they may not feed again for up to two weeks. 

The remainder of the time, they hang motionless like a cluster of couch-potato humans watching back-to-back bowl games. The good news for anglers is that not every bass eats at the same time; some are always ready for a snack.

“The bass, being cold-bloodied creatures, are the same temperature as the water, and cold water slows a bass’s metabolism,” said Tom Holman, a fisheries biologist for the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks. “Studies have shown a bass may require several days for a meal, such as a shad, to digest.

“Water temperature will pretty much be the same from top to bottom in the winter. Several days of warm weather will heat the surface, and a wind might pile it up, so to speak, but as soon as conditions calm, the water evens out.”

Anglers can judge the progression of the spawn by the bass they are catching. If only buck bass are being caught shallow, while fanning out nesting areas, then it’s prespawn time. 

The larger, egg-heavy females are going to be in deeper water near the ledges where the males are building the nursery. Both will be feeding, but the males are particularly vulnerable, hitting almost anything they see cruising in the shallows. It is totally different than when both males and females are on the beds, when fish are more finicky and often grab the intruder with the intention of taking it away from the nest, not eating it. 

Males and females will do this as the spawn progresses.

The females move up and lay their eggs while the male waits nearby, guarding the nest from intruders. As the water begins to warm, frogs, salamanders, other fish and birds will come to prey on the eggs in the nest. With the eggs deposited, the males waste little time in moving in to spread their sperm, thus clouding the water. The females will almost immediately exit, leaving parental duties to the male, which will guard the nest and eggs, and then the hatched fry.

Fish can be caught throughout the process.