Magnolia 'Hawging' in February

Bassin' action's slow in the north of the state this month, but the fish are biting in the south. Fish either section now, and you'll find it a great time for hooking a Mississippi lunker.

By Robert H. Cleveland

Imagine that a lunker largemouth is pulling hard against your line, bending your 7-foot rod in an arc and giving your forearm and shoulder a workout. The water is boiling; your temperature's rising. The pull is unrelenting.

This is no ordinary bass. If you can beat it and get it to net, it'll prompt some indecision. If trophies are among your goals, it's obviously a wallhanger qualifier. But ...

You work the fish in, pulling it away from a log and leading it like a dog on a leash away from any other line-threatening obstacles. Finally, your fishing partner is there at your side with the net in the water and it's done. The big fat sow bass is yours. It's in the net, and then in the boat.

Then you can finally exhale, and when you do, the vapor forms a cloud in the cold air. You give your partner a celebratory high-five, and the slap stings your skin in the cold air of February.

Yeah - that's right: February. Sure, it's likely that the forecast temperature in Mississippi will be 50 degrees or lower. And, yes, you will have to wear insulated clothing if you go fishing. But when it comes to catching a trophy largemouth bass, there is no better month in Magnolia State waters than the second month of the year.

The reason's simple: It's the peak of the pre-spawn period, when female bass are at their biggest, full of eggs and at the peak of feeding activity. By instinct they know that the rigors of spawning lie ahead, and feel the need to fill their bellies, ensuring strength for the spring rites.

From the coastal rivers to the Tennessee line, and from the Mississippi River lakes to the Tenn-Tom Waterway, February is trophy bass month in Mississippi.

"The pre-spawn process actually begins a lot earlier, but it does peak about a month or six weeks before the females move up on the beds," said fisheries director Ron Garavelli of the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks. "Big females feed heavily any time we have a run of warm days in the winter. They take the opportunity to gorge."

Garavelli can (and did) point to the state record book to back that up. The largest bass known to have been caught in Mississippi is an 18.15-pound largemouth taken at Natchez State Park on New Year's Eve of 1991. Anthony Denny of Natchez threw his twitch bait at a surface swirl that looked like a big bass feeding - which it was. He caught the lunker in 2 feet of water.

Big as that hawg was, it's likely that in February, after two more months of feeding and with a fully developed egg sac, the fish would have been bigger. A weight of 19 or even 20 pounds could have been possible.

"We are a year-round bass fishery in Mississippi," Garavelli asserted. "Our winters are not so severe that we have a down season. There may be some periods as long as a week or 10 days when we have a deep freeze that can shut the fish down, but they are rare. Our bass have a 12-month growing period."

Obviously, the further south you move in the state in February, the more consistent the fishing you'll find. But a few north Mississippi lakes can be very good, too.

While most bass waters can be productive at times, history indicates that trophy hunters should target a certain few lakes for sure. So put on a few layers of clothes, grab the rods, and load the boat and hook it up to the truck. Give these waters a try.

LAKE COLUMBIA
At a mere 90 acres, this pond in the Marion County Wildlife Management Area is a big one for trophy bass. It was renovated and restocked with Florida-strain largemouths in 1996, and the bass here have grown rapidly in the fertile waters. Since it is managed strictly for fishing by the MDWFP, the lake is made even more productive by fertilization and close monitoring of the fish population and its needs.

As the original stocking class of Florida bass has matured, giant fish have turned up in creel reports. Bass in the 13- and 14-pound range were reported in 2003, and that year-class should be reaching full maturity this year.

Lying well inside the southern third of the state, Columbia is one of those lakes that are particularly noteworthy in February. Lunkers are caught by using pre-spawn tactics and then targeting the spawn during the month.

Most of Columbia's big female bass are in a pre-spawn pattern in February - holding on deeper cover at the edge of the spawning areas in shallow coves and upper lake regions. In a pre-spawn mode, they are most vulnerable on the third day of warming weather patterns. Those conditions push them up toward the banks for feeding, and fishermen can exchange slow fishing patterns like a jig-and-pig for spinnerbaits and even soft-plastic twitch baits.

Vulnerable as the lunkers are then, that exposure is nothing compared to what happens when they move to the beds. Biologists say that spawning on many of the southern lakes like Columbia can start as early as mid-January - and that works for fishermen knowledgeable about sight-fishing over bass beds.

Columbia has unusually clear water, even in the rainy winter months. With polarized sunglasses, fishermen can easily spot big females on the shallow beds and then coax them into striking. It's a practice that many local anglers and visitors perfected on Columbia's neighboring lake, Lake Bill Waller.

Waller was one of the first MDWFP lakes to be renovated and restocked with Florida bass back in the 1980s. The record bass for that lake stands at over 15 pounds, and an occasional trophy is still surrendered there, despite the long-ago disappearance of the original stocking class.

"There's a lot of people down here who are pretty good at fishing the beds because of their experience on Waller," said O.T. Sutton of Columbia. "I don't know if it is good for the lake, because it is so effective. You can see those big females on the beds, and then it's just a matter of antagonizing them into striking. I've seen people cast hundreds of times to the same fish before it bites."

Lessons learned on Waller and other lakes are being put to good use on Columbia. The daily limit on Columbia is five bass per day, only one of which can be over 18 inches. All bass between 14 and 18 inches must be released immediately.

For information on Lake Columbia, visit the MDWFP Web site at www.mdwfp.com. Click the Fishing link; go on to State Fishing Lakes. Next, click on District 5, and then, Lake Columbia. Regulations and a map of the lake are available.

LAKE ROSS BARNETT
N

ot to be confused with the reservoir of the same name near Jackson, this lake near Mize in Covington County is very similar to Columbia in terms of history and output; it's also small, just 87 acres. Maintained by the MDWFP, it was renovated in the mid-1990s and restocked with Florida bass. Though few if any of its original stocking class remain, the class' offspring continue to produce trophy bass in the double-digit weight range.

Lake Ross Barnett diverges from Columbia in the amount of cover available for fishermen to target for pre-spawn bass. When the lake was renovated in 1995, a lot of timber was pulled into the newly contoured lake bottom.

"We did a lot of 'dozer work and wood-hauling there," Garavelli said. "We redefined channels and dug new ones. We put timber everywhere, from brushpiles in the middle of the lake to lining all the banks."

Pre-spawn bass have a lot of cover to choose from. In February they begin moving up from the deeper open water to the treetops along the banks. Others move to the redefined contours on points at the mouths to coves, staging before moving in to spawn in the coves.

The key to catching these bass lies in finding the banks with cover that are closest to deep water. Like all bass in the winter, Lake Barnett largemouths need the security of knowing that they can go deep without having to swim very far.

"I've had my line and my heart broke at that lake so many dang times in the last five years," lamented Tommy Sims of Jackson, a frequent visitor. "My biggest bass there was an 8 1/2-pounder three years ago, but I guarantee you I've lost at least 10 fish bigger. I love to fish there from late January to March, because I figure I'm going to get at least one trophy bite a day.

"When the pre-spawn is on, the big females are fat and they are active. You catch a couple of warm days, and they will be on the treetops right off the banks in 3 to 6 feet of water. I stay with a jig-and-pig and fish very deliberately, flipping and pitching into the heart of the cover.

"Two years ago, I had a big one on that I finally got to the surface in the middle of a top," Sims recalled. "I promise you she'd have gone 11 or 12 pounds, but she wrapped me and broke me. Now when I go down there I don't use anything but braided line."

With regard to lure choice, Sims likes black and blue for his jigs. Later in February, some bedding activity takes place in the lake, and the fish move up on the shallow south end of the lake around the stumpfields and into the coves. Water clarity makes sight-fishing more difficult here than it is at Columbia, but it can be done.

The MDWFP Web site offers several maps of the lake, including a contour version that can help you pinpoint prime areas.

ROSS BARNETT RESERVOIR
For the past 20 years, the secret to catching big bass at this 33,000-acre impoundment near Jackson was fishing in February. Tournaments in that month have tended to be won more often than not by an angler with a catch including a monster than by someone putting together a five-fish tournament limit of quality fish.

But in the past five years, thanks to an increasingly aggressive Florida bass stocking program, "the Rez" (as locals call it) has begun producing trophy bass in the 10-plus-pound range. The lake record was pushed to 12.55 pounds in 2000 - and (you guessed it) it was caught in February.

Both that record fish and dozens more over 10 pounds have been caught in the Pelahatchie Bay area of Barnett Reservoir since the late 1990s. That, Garavelli said, can be attributed to a cooperative yearling Florida bass release program in the early part of that decade. Funded by a revenue-raising bass tournament and managed by the MDWFP, that program was long over before fishermen and biologists began to see its impact. But see it they did.

In 1998, 10-pound bass began falling victim to artificial lures, and fishermen pressed the agency to rethink the Florida bass program. Although the state can't at present afford to raise Floridas to the yearling stage, it has been releasing fingerlings into backwater areas in which the small fish can find refuge in vegetation, thus enhancing survival rates.

Those fish continue to grow, and only time will tell if they turn out to be adults weighing in double digits in other areas of the lake, but it's obvious that some of the bass in the bay have been transported to other areas of the lake. With tournament weigh-ins frequently held at the state Route 43 ramps, bass caught in Pelahatchie Bay are being released in the upper lake and river area. In recent years, several 9- and 10-pound largemouths have been caught in the traditional big-fish areas of the upper reservoir.

"Cane Creek has always been known for having some of the biggest bass on the reservoir outside of Pelahatchie Bay, and that has only been enhanced in recent years," said tournament angler Shannon Denson of Brandon. "I know of at least 10 fish over 10 pounds caught in Cane Creek, or near that area, in the last two years - all in February."

The key to all Barnett Reservoir bass, and, indeed, to all pre-spawn females in Mississippi is, Denson said, depth. "You have to pinpoint shallow areas with deep water nearby," he explained. "In February we may get a run of three or four warm days, and fish that have been lethargic in cold water begin to move. They move up to feed shallow, but they won't go far to do it. Fish may move up into or around vegetation in 2 or 3 feet of water, but they won't cross a 50-yard flat to reach it. They move to shallows immediately adjacent to the ditch or creek channel where they are wintering.

"That's what makes Pelahatchie Bay and Cane Creek two good February areas," Denson continued. "Both have lots of deep water in small channels near banks with cover. A fish can go from 10 feet of water to 2 feet of water without having to swim much more than the 8-foot difference in depth to get to it."

Flipping around shallow vegetation is a popular pattern on both Pelahatchie Bay and the upper lake areas, and a new bait has taken over the headlines: a fat 6-inch soft-plastic lure called a V&M Corkscrew, which offers fish the same outline and qualities of a jig-and-pig but gets more hits.

"If you haven't tried a black-and-blue Corkscrew, then you have a treat ahead of you," Denson said. "It works on the vegetation in Barnett, and it works on timber and other structure, too. It has the large outline of a jig-and-pig but a more subtle action and presentation. It falls so slow."

Dudley Salers of Brandon, one of the Cane Creek faithful, says that the ideal situation for finding big bass in the pre-spawn period occurs when you locate one piece of structure, like a sunken log, that offers both shallow and deep cover.

"People always ask me what the secret to Cane Creek is in February, and that's it," he stated. "It's that simple. There are a lot of good spots in Cane Creek, but there are not so many ideal spots. I know of several spots with an old tree trunk

that actually starts above the water on the shallow end, but the other end will be 6 or 8 feet deep in a channel. I keep going back to spots like that time and time again during a day and patiently working it from one end to the other. Sometime during the day, I'm going to get bit."

For those targeting Barnett's trophy bass, February is primarily a big-bait month. Big fish are very wise regarding energy conservation, and so expend the least amount of energy possible to get the most benefit. A big bait like a Corkscrew or a jig-and-pig offers them just what they are looking for: a slow presentation of what they think is a filling meal.

"The exception is an overcast day on the back end of a warming trend, like just before the next cold front arrives," Denson said. "That's when the big fish may move off that cover and feed on the edge of flats or in pad stems. A spinnerbait - and even a buzzbait, if it's warm enough - will work then."



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