2012 Louisiana/Mississippi Bass Forecast
February 23, 2012
A brisk wind was blowing hard into the cove, curling the edges of the few lily pads that had either survived the winter or were already emerging to face a new spring.
Coming out of the south, it was a warm touch, which figured to make the inlet on the 170-acre Bill Waller Lake a good choice to look for bass. The sun had been hitting the surface for a couple of hours and the breeze had to help. The surface temperature was still in the low 50s in the open water, but as I entered the cove, it start coming up quickly.
By the time my trolling motor had put me 40 yards around the point, it was 55 degrees and I saw activity. There seemed to be some fish chasing bait around the edges of the vegetation.
I chose a soft plastic crawworm that I could pitch into openings, and eased toward the bank.
As soon as my second pitch hit the water next to the grass, I felt a solid thud. I jerked and the 15-pound fluorocarbon line landed a 10-inch bass right on the deck of the boat.
Thirty minutes later, I had put 10 more small bass in the boat and released them all.
The buck bass had already moved up into the shallows, but where were the females, the big fat sows that make this lake near Columbia in south Mississippi such a popular destination for bass fishermen?
My partner and I discussed the possibilities and settled on the obvious. We had to move deep, and find where the females were staging in the pre-spawn cycle of early March.
It took a little while, but man, was it worth the effort.
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We found the big girls out at the mouth of the cove, just where the water was starting to warm, and they were holding on all kinds of cover. We found two good patterns and wound up catching a dozen fish all larger than 5 pounds and all fat with full egg sacks. Half came on a soft plastic swimbait, unweighted, and reeled slowly around stumps. The other half came on jigs and 7-inch black lizards or 4-inch craws pitched around the deepest vegetation on the points.
Not a bad afternoon at all on a bluebird type day in March, one that began in thick insulated jackets and ended in t-shirts. That's typical fishing weather for the season in the southeast.
It is a variance often seen in the fishing, too, with some lakes still too cool for any semblance of spawning or pre-spawn activity and others on a peak. And, as evidenced by the 2011 BASS Masters Classic in New Orleans just two weeks prior to our trip to Lake Bill Waller, the change in fish behavior can come as quickly as a change in the weather.
The Mississippi River Delta is another great March destination, and there the entire direction of the tournament changed in less a week. A hard freeze a week before the event was replaced by 70-degree weather on classic week.
Predictions of the winning weights coming from fishermen making long runs to Venice to produce 15 or 18 pounds a day, were cast aside and the tournament was dominated by anglers who stayed north in the Delta, a few miles from the Bayou Segnette launch at Lake Cataouatche.
In the span of a few days of warmth, shallow Cataouatche filled with sow bass, feeding heavily in the pre-spawn. Suddenly, if pros weren't catching 20-pounds a day, they were not in competition. Kevin VanDam won his fourth title with a three-day total a few ounces shy of 70 pounds.
He gambled that a warm front would hit and change the fishing and it paid off.
"If that change doesn't happen," he said, "I go from fishing for the win to fishing for last place."
The 2011 classic, though in February, is a perfect example of March bass fishing in Mississippi and Louisiana. It can change that quickly. But, the key to any fishing is being in a good spot. The following list of late-winter and early-spring hot spots is a compilation of some of the best.
LAKE BILL WALLER
As described earlier, this lake near Columbia, Miss. is an outstanding bass fishery being managed the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Park for trophy largemouths. After being closed and drained for structure repair, it was restocked and reopened in 2007 and the Florida-strain bass stocked are now approaching their sixth year.
The original stockers and their offspring have been protected through the growing cycle by strict limits. While the daily limit of 15 is generous, only small fish of less than 18 inches can be harvested, with the exception of one fish per person per day in excess of 22 inches. All bass between 18 and 22 inches must be immediately released.
The pre-spawn begins in mid to late February, but peaks and enters the bedding period in March. Take a boatload of tackle because the options are myriad — shallow and deep, hard timber and vegetation, or sharp and tapered points.
"For my money, you can't get a better public bass fishing lake than Waller," said Rob Doherty of Hattiesburg. "The fact that they are managing it to protect and produce trophy bass is ideal because this lake has everything needed, such as a variety of habitat and forage, to produce monsters."
BAYOU SEGNETTE STATE PARK
As proven by VanDam and Company in the 2011 classic, the Mississippi River Delta near New Orleans is an outstanding fishery. When the water begins to warm into the mid 50s, the upper reaches around Bayou Segnette and nearby waters like Lake Cataouatche are prime.
Freshwater diversion channels have helped replenish most of the Delta on both sides of the river over the past decade, and has created a challenge in that what once was a few options is now a Delta full of alternatives.
But finding the lakes with hard bottoms and big grass flats, like Cataouatche, is important in March. On the pre-spawn as the big females begin to invade the flats a lipless or square-bill shallow crankbait around any hard isolated cover, such as stumps, will catch fish.
A favorite of northeastern Louisiana and west central Mississippi fishermen, this old oxbow lake near St. Joseph, La., is about 45 minutes south of Vicksburg and has been a productive lake for decades.
It is not one to produce trophy bass. An 8-pounder is a monster.
But it is a lake full of 3 and 4-pounders, with a lot of 5-pounders mixed in. And that's just the largemouths. The lake is also home to some of the best Kentucky spotted bass fishing in the area.
"The thing I like about Bruin, and why our club goes there for a weekend every March, is that no matter what, we catch fish," said Bill Lowery of Clinton, Miss. "Cold or hot, windy or mild, they bite there and it usually involves a lot of 4-pound fish."
Lowery's favorite time to fish is early March, on a warm front after a week or two of cold weather. The lake is a horseshoe with the open end to the south.
"I will take a lot of plastics, go to one of the west banks where the sun first hits the water in the morning and stick with it as the water warms all day," he said. "Lizards are my favorite because if I find them bedding they will jump on it. But I'd rather find them in the pre-spawn and scattered on the cypress. Then that lizard pitched around the bases will produce fish after fish."
CALLING PANTHER LAKE
Any story about bass fishing in Mississippi has to include this 500-acre lake managed by the state's Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks. It's located about 40 miles southwest of Jackson and five miles west of Crystal Springs.
In November 2011, a fisherman netted and turned in a 15 1/2-pound largemouth he had found struggling to breath and dying on the surface of Calling Panther.
Old age? Maybe, there were no indications of disease.
The original stocking of Florida bass in this 8-year-old lake, which was stocked in 2002 and opened in 2004, are nearing the end of their lifetime, but this is the first fish biologists have had reported in dire conditions. All previous monsters have been caught by hook and line, including the lake record of 15 pounds, 4 ounces.
"Add the weight of a spawning female, and we could be pushing a state record in 2012," said MDWFP Director of Fisheries Ron Garavelli.
The odds against breaking the 20-year-old state record of 18.15 pounds taken by Anthony Denny at Natchez State Park are about a million to one against you. But, there's no doubt that catching the bass of a lifetime is possible at Calling Panther.
"If I had to choose any public water right now to catch a 12-plus up to 15, I don't know that I'd pick anywhere other than Calling Panther," said Pete Pond, a B.A.S.S. Elite Series pro from Madison, Miss.
In March, the pre-spawn — and spawn later in the month — pulls the big females up out of their deep timber haunts to the banks. The mouths of the coves present the first opportunity. A suspending jerkbait fished slowly in 6 to 8 feet of water in mouth of a cove will lure otherwise lethargic females into biting.
"But that's only necessary before it warms up into the mid 50s, and then they move up and you can start fishing the usual pre-spawn patterns like lizards, square-bills and that kind of stuff," Ponds said.
NESHOBA COUNTY LAKE
This could be the year that this 138- acre lake near Philadelphia, Miss. hits its peak, and that's saying something since over the past two years it has produced an amazing amount of 10-plus-pound bass.
Another one of the MDWFP lakes closed in the mid-2000s for renovation and repair, Neshoba reopened in the fall of 2006 and has been producing surprising big bass ever since.
"Our Florida bass have done really well," said lake manager Chuck Hazelwood. "When you see a lake like this producing so many 11- and 12-pounders, then you know we're on to something."
When renovated, which was extensive, the lake's character was completely changed. Deep channels were cut reaching into the shallow backwater areas and a path was pushed up leading to what used to be an island. Earthen piers were constructed to increase bank-fishing opportunities.
"Basically, what we did was introduce about 130 acres of prime bass habitat in a 138-acre lake," Hazelwood said. "You think about everything we did and it created bass habitat, whether it was the rock used to build the path or the channels cut into the back end of the lake."
It is the edge of those deep channels that attracts the most attention in March. Those banks provide fish with shallow cover with immediate access to deep water.
"Perfect," Hazelwood said. "You can work the banks with soft plastics and pick up fish or fish deep, depending on the conditions, and the fish only have to move a few feet."
Half the cars and boat trailers at the Okhissa ramps on any given day will have Louisiana tags, and most of the visitors, like George Thomas of Vidalia, La, considers the 1,100-acre national forest lake near Bude, Miss, his home waters. It is a short drive from many areas of east Louisiana, including Baton Rouge.
"I fish here more than anywhere else," Thomas said. "And the reason is simple. I want to learn it before the fish they stocked in here originally hit their peak size. This lake is going to produce some monsters and while it is a relatively small lake, there is a lot to learn."
Apparently, Thomas has learned a lot. His 2011 pre-spawn catch in March included two of more than 10 pounds, including one that weighed 11 pounds, 2 ounces on his portable hand scales.
"Swimbait for both of them," Thomas said. "I won't tell you exactly what kind or where, but it was in timber, 6 to 8 feet deep on a soft-plastic 10-inch swim bait."
Thomas said the big females were n 55-degree water and were obviously in a staging mode before moving up to bed.
"I think fish bed deep at Okhissa, which is why I have never really spent a lot of time sight-fishing for them," he said. "But in the weeks prior to them actually locking up on a bed, the big females move into the pockets or ditches and hold in the deeper water.
"The swimbait was just the culmination of a lot of experimenting to find the one bait that the big fish would hit, that the smaller fish would leave alone. In March, I'm there for one thing and one thing only — monster bass. I fish all day for one or two bites.
"But I got friends who prefer numbers and they love it, too. They just fish shallower with soft plastics," he added.
Thomas is steadfast.
"Like I said, one day, this lake is going to produce a lot of 15, 16 and up bass, and I want to know what makes the big ones bite," he said.