February brings rewarding angling to waterways throughout Missouri. Let's look at where, and how, to find the best action at some notable bass lakes. (February 2006)
Photo by Tom Evans
Despite the warmth of your Thinsulate-lined parka, you shiver violently from the cold kiss of a February morning.
The chill subsides as you thrust your hands in your pockets and draw your coat tightly around your waist. The thermometer that hangs from the big walnut tree out back reads 28 degrees. The day's high is only supposed to reach 36. The frost-covered grass in the front yard crackles under your feed as you trudge to the driveway to check on your boat. It's dusted with a hard, thin layer of ice, and you wonder why you even bothered. You can't imagine being on the water in this kind of weather.
Framed by the distant outlines of gray, leafless trees, your breath turns to an icy mist as it leaves your mouth. It hangs for an instant and starts to swirl. A slight breeze catches it and carries it away, taking with it any desire you had to go fishing.
Oh, if you could only know what you're missing!
Though Missouri can be brutally cold in February, serious anglers know this to be a time for deceptively "hot" bass fishing. Subtle changes in weather patterns are starting to affect bass throughout the state. Some are beginning to engage in distinctive pre-spawn activity; others respond to alternating warm and cold fronts by launching into voracious feeding cycles. When you find the right spot at the right time, you can catch some of the biggest bass you'll encounter all year.
In the Ozark hill country of mid-Missouri, winter lingers several weeks longer than it does farther south. For example, a snowfall in Osage Beach may stay on the ground for a week this time of year, but in Springfield, it might be gone in a day or two. Therefore, it's important to keep abreast of weather conditions when planning your trips. If you time it right, you can enjoy the kind of fishing you normally associate with April and May.
Here's a look at five of our best bass lakes and some tips on how to catch largemouths, smallmouths and even some Kentuckies this month.
TABLE ROCK LAKE
In February, this popular bass lake looks nothing like it will look in spring and summer. All the vacation cottages are locked up and vacant, the hills that ring the lake are bare and gray, and there's virtually no traffic on the water. There's nothing wrong with the fishing, though -- under the right conditions, it can be awesome.
As spring approaches, we'll start getting strings of warm days punctuated by harsh cold fronts that barrel in from the north. I like to get out the day before the cold front arrives and two or three days after the arrival of a warm front.
Although largemouth fishing is good on Table Rock, the lake is best known for its outstanding smallmouth fishing. In February, you can catch a lot of smallies -- but this is also a good time to catch giants, too.
After several warm days, smallmouths often move shallow to feed on shad. They'll chase baits and strike savagely, and you can catch them using a variety of methods. Early in the morning, when the lake is calm, you can position your boat off the flats extending from the islands or from main points and throw a Red-Fin or a big jointed Rapala. Retrieve either just fast enough for the bait to wobble and create a V-wake on the surface. Even in February, a smallmouth will come from a considerable distance to strike, and you might even get a double.
If they're not shallow, smallmouths are probably suspended over main-lake points or concentrated around a specific type of structure, like boulders at the ends of main points or off points on creek channel bends.
If that's the case, your first mission is to find the fish. First, pick a dependable hotspot or choose a likely looking spot from a topographic map, then cruise slowly over these areas and scan them with your graph. You might find schools of shad with bigger blips beneath them, or you might simply find fish suspended.
A great way to catch suspending smallmouths is with a drop-shot rig. Use a small worm or grub, as small as 3 inches and no larger than 6 inches, and let it fall among them. You can also catch them with the "float-and-fly" technique that's so popular among smallmouth anglers on lakes in East Tennessee. It hasn't caught on here, but it's very effective, especially when it's really cold.
If smallies are on the bottom, you're in luck, because then you have a lot more options for catching them. After a string of warm days, smallmouths often get more active and feed aggressively. In that situation, you can catch them with a soft plastic bait of your choice on a Carolina rig. A dark worm or lizard can be effective, but I sometimes do even better with a Carolina-rigged crankbait. Like the float-and-fly, this isn't widely used, but it can be very effective. Use small crankbaits like a chartreuse or white Bomber 5A.
If it's cold, and air pressure is low, you'll have to fish slow and deep. You can't go wrong with a simple jig-and-pig or jig-and-frog. A 1/2- or 3/8-ounce brown jig with a pork or plastic trailer is all you need. Cast it out, let it fall and let it sit for several minutes at a time. Watch your line closely, because smallmouths will often approach a jig and watch it for a long time before sucking it in. You won't feel it. You'll only see your line twitch, so you'll need to be ready to set the hook before the fish spits it out.
Anywhere on the lake from the confluence of the James and Kings rivers down to the dam will offer some good fishing this month. Don't overlook the riprap around the dam and road embankments. Those rocks hold heat and attract fish, and those are good places to load up.
LAKE OF THE OZARKS
Next to Table Rock, LOZ is the Show Me State's most popular bass lake -- but not in February. It's just too darned cold for many anglers, unless a tournament compels them to venture onto the water.
Early this month, there's a good chance that many of the coves will be iced over. However, many large docks, such as those at Tan-Tar-A Resort and similar places, have large aerators that churn the water and keep ice from forming. This water is highly oxygenated, and the motion generated by the aerators simulates current. Sometimes this attracts shad, which in turn attract bass. When that happens, these docks can be very productive for bass fishing when you might not get a bite at a conventional dock. Indeed, the ice might be so thick in some coves that you can't reach some docks at all.
The best docks to fish this time of year are those situated on main-lake points near channel bends or some other type of conspicuous structure. Bass relate to these areas this time of year, and they concentrate around docks that are on or close to this type of structure.
When fishing around aerated docks, you can do well with a small, white or pearl-covered crankbait, such as a medium-diving Bandit. A light-colored crankbait with a splash of orange can also be effective. Small inline spinnerbaits and 1/4-ounce spinnerbaits sometimes work well, too.
Many docks have brushpiles off the deep ends, and bass relate to them year 'round. If bass won't chase aggressive baits like a crankbait or spinnerbait, you'll have to take the game to their house. A 4- to 6-inch purple worm on a pegged Texas rig is excellent for this kind of situation. Work the worm slowly through the brushpile. Strikes vary in intensity: Some feel mushy, some like a subtle thump; others might be hard. A bass won't hold the bait long, so set the hook quickly. You'll often hook wood, but that's the price you pay.
The best situation you can hope for in February on Lake of the Ozarks is really high water in Truman Lake, directly upstream on the other side of Truman Dam. When Truman gets up, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers opens the gates at Truman Dam, and the power company that manages LOZ opens the gates at Bagnell Dam, which impounds LOZ. This creates current throughout the entire length of the lake and muddies up the entire lake. All those big bass that live in deep water move up to the shore, and you can catch them all day long with crankbaits and spinnerbaits.
Because it's primarily a flood-control reservoir, Truman Lake mainly just fills up and holds water, so it's not as dynamic as LOZ. Steve Blake -- (660) 438-9725 -- a guide on Truman Lake since 1985, says that weather is the key to bass fishing there in February. The best place to fish this month is in the upper portions of the Pomme de Terre arm.
"If we get water temperatures up above 45 degrees, bass fishing can be pretty good with a jerkbait," Blake observed. "A clown Rogue is a really good one, and a clown-colored Husky Jerk is pretty good, too."
The last three or four winters have been fairly mild in Missouri, so the February bite has turned on a little more quickly than it does in cold years. If water temperatures stay below 45 degrees, Blake recommends fishing channel points and bends with small jigs around cove mouths. The key depths are 8-15 feet.
"Black and blue works really well," Blake said, "and natural brown. I normally fish a big Zoom trailer. I use whatever color corresponds to the jig. A bigger trailer on a little jig gives the jig a slower fall."
The best place to fish in February is in the upper end of the Pomme de Terre arm. According to Blake, it's smaller, so the water warms up quicker there than it does in other parts of the lake. "You're always better off fishing the upper end of the lake," he said. "The bite starts there and works its way down. You get a bright, sunny day, and those fish will move up on those points, and you can throw those jerkbaits at them. They get a little more active late in the day until a cold front moves in."
BULL SHOALS LAKE
The problem with fishing Bull Shoals in February is figuring out where to start. This giant White River impoundment covers more than 45,000 acres at winter conservation pool, and, thanks to some fine spawning years, the lake contains large numbers of largemouth, spotted and smallmouth bass.
As the last lake in the chain, Bull Shoals has clear water from end to end, but a staggering network of tributaries feeds it from every direction. It sits at the southern edge of the state, where February can be as bitter as a green persimmon, but this area will start seeing strings of warm days toward the end of February. That's when bass will start hunting for their pre-spawn meals.
Despite the abundance of main-lake structure at Bull Shoals, the creek mouths near the lake's lower end are always the best places to fish in late winter. Like Table Rock, the upper end of Bull Shoals is colder than the lower end because of cold-water releases from Lake Taneycomo, which is a trout fishery.
Some of the best creeks include Howard Creek, which enters the lake between points 1 and 2, Noe Creek (near Point 3), Jimmie Creek and its tributaries, and also Big Sister and Little Sister creeks (points 6 and 5, respectively). Bass invade the coves after about the third warm day in succession; catch them by slow-rolling a 1-ounce spinnerbait with a hard-thumping Colorado-style blade.
Another excellent area for late-winter bass fishing is found in among the flooded willows in Barnes Bay, a large inlet on the north side of the lake near Point 7. A large dike surrounds this inlet, and the riprap structure catches direct sunlight and holds it throughout the day.
The most direct route to Bull Shoals is to take U.S. Highway 65 south from Springfield. For information, call Bull Shoals Lake Boat Dock at (501) 445-4424.
POMME DE TERRE
Bass fishing at Pomme de Terre (known locally as "Pommy") depends on water temperature. However, Pomme de Terre is farther south than are Truman and LOZ, and so warms up more quickly. Further, its water is a little clearer than theirs, and Steve Blake reports that the activity of bass in cold water is greater in clear water than in stained.
One thing good thing about Pommy is that it has a very healthy bass population, with a decent percentage of fish over 13 inches, and a respectable percentage in the 16- to 20-inch range.
In February, some of the best areas are Stinking Creek, Possum Creek, Martin Flat and Wheatland Bay. These areas have some large flats with a lot of stumps that attract largemouth bass.
Like Truman and LOZ, Pomme de Terre also has a lot of submerged topographic features, including long points extending out to channel bends, as well as humps and secondary points that attract bass in cold weather. Again, water temperature is the key: When it rises above 45 degrees, bass will move into shallow water and chase bait; after a few warm days, they'll get noticeably more aggressive, and you can catch them with fast-moving offerings like jerkbaits.
If they swirl on a jerkbait but don't take it or fail to hit it solidly, come back with a soft-plastic jerkbait and twitch it. That will usually do the trick for fish that either are reticent or simply don't have their timing down.