Spike those early spawners

Bass in the pre-spawn stage are vulnerable to fishermen who can track the progression of the spawning cycle. February is a perfect time to find big fat female largemouths staging deep near shallow water.

February is the beginning of a Mississippi largemouth bass’s trip to the spawn, and a great time for anglers to target the biggest of the big. Here’s how….

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.

Big bass like a big meal, especially when in cold weather when their metabolism is slower, and they can swallow a plenty big one.

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.

Techniques and presentation are critical

Getting a lure to the depth at which bass are holding and keeping it in the strike zone are two requirements a fisherman must satisfy to entice a strike. How neat it would be to have a lure with a built-in transponder that would transmit its exact depth and location in relation to the bass. Such baits doesn’t exist, but finding structure or drop-offs on the sonar and the ability to feel them with a rod and line will suffice.

Finding the proper depth where fish are holding necessitates an accurate sonar unit. Prespawn, staging females are usually suspended in the water column.

If you’ve located bass holding on or near the bottom, it’s hard to beat a chunky jig-and-pig in February.

Veteran angler Donnie Stuart of Pelahatchie has solved the problem with a degree of satisfaction with the results.

“I have never had a good feel for just how deep my baits were, or if I was fishing at the right depth,” Stuart said. “So I tied a bead-stop at the depth I see fish holding and use a slip cork to keep the bait where I want it to suspend. Then I use a spoon with a trailer or plastic bait such as a Shimmy Shad.”

Stuart uses the plastic on a 1/8-ounce weighted hook so it will sink slowly. Instead of jerking the bait, he raises the rod tip to raise the bait under the cork. It slowly sinks, mimicking the actions of a dying shad. Most strikes come when the bait starts to fall. By keeping the bait suspended under the cork, Stuart can fish it as slowly as he likes.

“When using the jig with the trailer, sort of a traditional jig-and-pig, I stick to crawfish colors with blue accents,” Stuart said. “This works well where structure allows the bait to crawl on the bottom. I squirt a little fish attractant to get the bass to hold the bait a little longer. It has been my experience that bass will take the bait, but will not run with it. Seeing a slight twitch in the line or feeling the resistance is sometimes the only way I know I have a fish.”

Mississippi’s prespawn hot spots

The Magnolia State has hundreds of bodies of water where bass can be caught, but some are simply better than others at different times of the year and bass cycles.

For instance, not every lake is stocked with Florida-strain bass, and knowing which members of the largemouth family are present is important. Water clarity is also important, especially for sight-fishing bedding bass.

A good place to start is the MDWFP’s system of state lakes, many of which have been renovated, restocked and rejuvenated. Stocked primarily with Florida-strain bass, years 3 through 12 are the best for targeting these fast-growing fish. They are easy to catch in years 3 through 5, since they are naïve. It’s in the next handful of years when they are at trophy stage and still a little ignorant.

Wes Vowell broke the Neshoba County Lake record with this 14.3-pound sow caught in February 2017.

A lot of factors dictate a lake’s productivity during the pre-spawn, when the vast majority of the biggest fish are caught. After research, here is Mississippi Sportsman’s list of the best lakes for prespawn bass.

• Neshoba County Lake near Philadelphia was restocked more than 10 years ago, and a lake record was set in February 2017 with a 14.3-pound female. According to lake manager Chuck Hazlewood, the bass have plenty of cover, and bass stocked in 2005 should have reached peak maturity. With back-to-back lake records set last year there is no reason to believe another record couldn’t be set in 2018.

• Lake Jeff Davis, restocked in 2011, can be added to the list. Just six years in, the lake-record bass, 12.6 pounds, was caught in March 2017.

“Jeff Davis is approaching its peak and I believe there are bigger fish there,” said Jerry Brown, a fisheries biologist for the MDWFP.

According to Larry Bull, assistant chief of fisheries for MDWFP, these lakes should produce fish heavier than 10 pounds in the near future:

• Lake Tangipahoa at Percy Quinn State Park was stocked with Florida bass in 2014. The biggest bass caught since it was reopened is 10.5 pounds.

• Stocked in 2013, Lake Lamar Bruce boasts a lake record of 9.2 pounds caught in July 2017. Historically known as a bream fishing paradise, Lamar Bruce could be a sleeper when it comes to big bass.

* Lake Monroe was stocked with Florida bass in 2015, and reopened to fishing in 2017. Go there for numbers now, but look for it to become a trophy-bass location with fish in excess of 10 pounds in a few years.

Get the right gear

For prespawn bass, angler Donnie Stuart of Pelahatchie favors 17-pound braided line with a fluorocarbon leader as long as the rod he is using when not using a slip-cork. For the rod with the slip cork he uses a 10- to 12-pound monofilament.

He prefers a medium-heavy action rod, at the very least, to horse bass out of structure.

Having a quality depth finder on your bass boat and knowing how to use it to locate baitfish and bass is a key to better prespawn fishing.

A quality fish finder becomes an important tool for the modern angler. A side-imaging mode is all the better. Learning to identify a deep-water shad ball is the important first step in finding nearby bass.

“The first step may sound too simple,” bass pro Shannon Denson of Fannin said. “Look in those places where you have found fish before. If you are new to a lake, then look off points, underwater humps and structure adjacent to deeper water. A dense school of shad will show up as a large, suspended spot on most depth finders. Better models will add more separation to the shad.

“Let me say this; not every bass will be near a shad ball. Drop-offs where there is structure are also going to hold bass in winter. Look at every location where there is a change in depth, such as creek channels. And, shad are not the only food source. Bass will also target bream and crappie. The point is, bass don’t hibernate in winter, they just slow down.”

About David Hawkins 195 Articles
David Hawkins is a freelance writer living in Forest. He can be reached at hawkins2209@att.net.