February's Jekyll-And-Hyde Largemouths
September 24, 2010
This month can mark either the beginning of springtime fishing or the harsh end of winter. By adapting your techniques, you can find and catch bass under either extreme.
Eating breakfast with Randy Edwards in a restaurant full of fishermen is a lot like talking with E.F. Hutton on Wall Street. Everyone listens . . . and interrupts to ask fishing questions. The veteran guide has a reputation for putting bass in the boat even under the toughest conditions and on the toughest waters.
Naturally, when it was time to put this article together about February bassin', I knew that Randy's insights would be essential. He didn't disappoint.
Spending most of his days on heavily pressured waters, Edwards' techniques for coldwater largemouths may seem a little unusual at first, but they consistently put bass in his boat -- even when other anglers are going home empty-handed.
"Everybody knows about using jigs and pigs for winter bass," Edwards explains. "Even the bass know about them! That's why it's important to find other methods that work at all times of the year, but especially in the toughest months -- like February. "
February, Edwards points out, is a transition month. In most years, it's not quite winter, but it's a far cry from spring. After a few warm, sunny days in February, the bass can really perk up and get active in the shallows. But if things are cold and dreary, those same bass will typically sulk in the depths.
February is bass fishing's blind date; you don't know who's going to show up, Cindy Crawford or Phyllis Diller. On those supermodel days, when winter's weak sunshine is trying hard to warm the shallows and bring the bass fishing back to life after a long winter, Randy often targets a traditional summertime cover -- boat docks.
Guide Randy Edwards unhooks a nice February largemouth that fell to one of his favorite cold-weather techniques. Photo by Ken Duke
"Fishermen tend to think of boat docks as a place to catch fish in the late spring and summer, " Edwards says. "But those fish don't just magically appear there in June. Lots of them moved to the docks in the late winter after a few days of sunny weather warmed things up a little." Randy credits the sun warming dock pilings and floats as the primary reason that bass on docks are active and will readily strike a well-presented bait.
"The area right next to the pilings or the floats will be several degrees warmer than the surrounding water, and this will often be enough to draw the bass up and make them more active," he says. Most anglers, locked into the jig and pig mentality, will never catch these fish because their baits plummet to the bottom before the bass can even think about biting.
Edwards has a solution. "Since the water's still cold and the fish are suspended and lethargic, you need a bait that falls slowly if you want to get bit." Edwards' choice is as unusual as it is productive. He opts for a floating-style plastic worm on a 1/8-ounce jighead, but presentation is really the key to his success.
"Naturally," he says, "I'm throwing this lightweight bait on spinning gear, but I'm not using light line -- I'm using 15-pound test. The heavy line helps to slow the fall of the bait and keep it in front of the fish a little longer. Even on days with good warming trends, these bass are moving slowly and they won't chase a bait that falls quickly to the bottom. The floating worm with a light jighead has just enough buoyancy to stay in the strike zone."
Edwards likes a round jighead with a long-shanked 1/0 hook and he rigs the bait Texas style to reduce snags. It's a rig that can easily be skipped under docks or around pilings and into areas that seldom see a lure. After the cast, he immediately closes the bail on his spinning reel and waits for the strike that typically comes as the bait is falling.
"The strikes can be very soft," he says, "and about 90 percent of them come within the first few feet of the drop. If you don't close the bail of the reel immediately and start watching your line, you'll miss a lot of them. If the bait gets to the bottom without getting hit, I'll usually just twitch it a time or two, then reel up and make another cast."
Boat docks on flats are your best bet for this pattern and Randy concentrates his efforts on areas with few boat docks and little other cover. "It reduces the number of places they can hold," he says.
But what about fishing on those days when the weather isn't cooperating and it's cold and uncomfortable on the water? Where does Randy Edwards fish then? Why, around some of those same boat docks, of course. He simply changes his tactics.
"On colder days, I generally expect to find the bass a little deeper and oftentimes, they'll be right on the bottom underneath deeper docks."
These deep fish are lethargic and refuse to chase their food. To catch them, Edwards slows way down using a technique that's just starting to catch on in the United States.
"Dropshotting was invented in Japan where they have very intense fishing pressure," he explains. "It's sort of a reverse Carolina rig. Instead of the sinker being between the bait and the rod, the worm is tied between the rod and the sinker so that when the sinker settles to the bottom, the bait is suspended up off the bottom."
To rig a dropshot, use a Palomar knot to tie on a small worm hook and be sure to leave lots of excess line on the tag end. Rather than cut the excess line off when the knot has been cinched up, leave it there and tie on a sinker. Edwards uses bell sinkers with a built-in swivel, but several manufacturers now make sinkers specially-designed for this technique. Most often, Randy wants his bait between eight and 18 inches from the sinker. As a final rigging tip, he uses two simple overhand knots to tie the sinker to the line. "Overhand knots break easily, so if your sinker hangs up, it'll break off by itself and you won't have to re-tie the whole thing. "
For most of his dropshotting, Edwards uses a small, finesse-style worm of about four inches. "These fish aren't looking for a giant meal at this time," Edwards offers. "I also like to use a fairly light sinker. It should be heavy enough to get the bait down and allow me to feel it easily, but I don't want it to fall to the bottom so fast that suspended fish can't make a grab for it."
The dropshot is best fished vertically. "I'll either drop it straight below the boat or make a short underhand pitch with it," Edwards says. "Either way, you need to be watching your line for signs of a strike as it sinks."
Once the bait hits bott
om is when most cold-weather dropshotters make their biggest mistake. "They want to put too much action into the bait, and they forget that cold-blooded creatures are moving very slowly at this time of year."
Edwards will often just hold the worm in place, knowing that line twist, current and boat movement will impart enough action on their own to bring the bait to life.
"At most, I'll shake the rod tip very gently to give the worm a little action," he says.
Giving a bait the right amount of action -- or inaction -- is also a key to Randy's other favorite method of catching February largemouths. For this, he targets boat ramps with suspending jerkbaits. "It's a great method to use when temperatures have been stable and relatively warm, but the sun's not out. Under these conditions, the bass will tend to roam and you can usually find them around launch ramps. The concrete will hold some heat and the bass will hang around it. "
Randy's jerkbait of choice has been specially tuned. It suspends perfectly in the water once the retrieve is stopped. "Very few baits will do this right out of the box," he says. "You're probably going to have to tinker with the bait to get it right, adding lead strips until it sits perfectly still and perfectly level when you stop it. If it sinks a little or floats a little or isn't level, it will cut down on your strikes."
Edwards carefully works both sides of any ramp area, as well as the submerged concrete structure itself, by casting his jerkbait up near the shoreline and bringing it back with a few sharp twitches. Once the bait is under the surface, he pauses it there . . . and pauses it there . . . and pauses it there. Strikes appear as subtle line movement or resistance when you try to move the bait. The technique requires lots of patience, but it pays off when cold-water bass are cruising the shallows and looking for a meal.
"February bass aren't always easy to catch," Edwards concludes, "but, if you'll change gears and do something a little bit different from the rest of the crowd, you might find that prime-time bass fishing starts earlier than most people think."
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