Whichever side of Interstate 70 you call home, Missouri boasts plenty of black-bass opportunity as spring approaches. Here are some of the hottest February waters at both ends of the state. (February 2009)
February can be frigid, with ice and snow to boot. Nobody in his or her right mind would venture out at that time of year to go fishing -- except, perhaps, a bass angler.
In February, anglers targeting sluggish bass will do well to fish slow and deep. Photo by Ron Sinfelt.
Interest in cold-weather bass fishing has escalated over the last two decades. Knowledgeable (or slightly insane) fishermen have discovered that they have the opportunity to catch some of the largest bass of the year in February. The general public is beginning to realize that bass fishermen are serious about their sport -- and that size matters to them. Cold weather is no longer going to keep bass anglers watching bowling by the hearth when bruiser bass are waiting to be caught.
February is the month for the guys who'd rather catch one very large fish for their efforts on the water rather than a bunch of dinks. And plenty of waters in both north and south Missouri enable anglers to do just that.
While the largemouth bass may be found scattered over the entire state of Missouri, the smallmouth bass is almost exclusively a creature of the cold, clear streams of the Ozark Highlands in southern Missouri.
SMALLMOUTHS IN THE SOUTH
Smallmouth bass are the undisputed kings of the hundreds of miles of Ozark streams that paint serpentine lines on topographic maps. Most anglers chase the bronzed fighters during the summer months, when the fish's metabolism is at its peak. Many spring-fed Ozark streams' water temperatures vary only slightly from summer to winter. Brownies are often caught as easily in February as in June, but without the crowds of fishermen.
Smallmouth bass are known for power runs and aerial acrobatics. A big smallmouth tailwalking across the water's surface in summer is a sight to behold -- one that etches itself into the memory of an angler for a lifetime.
February smallmouths aren't as acrobatic as are summertime fish, but a big brownie caught on a mist-shrouded stream against a backdrop of snow-covered hills creates memories as warm as a glowing campfire. Eleven Point River
Flowing wild and free through some of the most rugged terrain in the Ozarks, the Eleven Point River is the classic idyllic smallmouth stream. Cool, crystalline water tumbles over rock rubble, boulders and slides as it flows south towards Arkansas. The deep holes filled with cover and multiple springs along its course make the Eleven Point a top destination for February smallmouth bass.
Lifetime Oregon County resident Mike Jones has fished the Eleven Point his entire life. His humble down-home attitude coupled with an uncanny understanding of the Eleven Point's smallmouth population, the 40-year-old Jones considers February to be a great time to be on the river chasing the brown bass.
"February can provide some awesome smallmouth fishing," Jones began, "especially when the conditions are right. I like to see a rise on the river to the point that I can see my lure at 18 inches under the surface. A 6-inch to a 2-foot rise is perfect."
These conditions on the river stimulate smallmouths into a wintertime feeding spree. "Even though the fishing picks up under these conditions," Jones said, "it is not the frantic bite of summertime fishing, but it is a treat to catch smallmouth in the winter. Too, smallmouth often ball up in the deeper holes during this time of year, providing the chance to catch several in one spot."
Smallmouth anglers can eliminate a lot of water by studying maps and talking to local fishermen or guides. Jones, a river guide himself, said, "Fishermen on the river in February should concentrate on the deepest holes associated with a spring or a creek entering the river. These holes will actually have warmer water than the more shallow areas. The ideal hole will also have lots of rock rubble and some woody cover."
Jones' preferred lure for wintertime smallmouths is a 1/8-ounce hair or marabou jig. "I use dark colors to represent crawdads or lighter colors to mimic minnows," he said. "The key to presenting these baits is to fish slowly. That is the most difficult thing about cold-weather fishing for people to understand. I often tell clients that when they think they are fishing too slowly, to slow down some more. The fish are there, but their metabolism is so low that they are not going to chase a bait. You have to put it in their face."
Suspending jerkbaits and crankbaits will coax a few smallmouths to hit as well. Rogues, Rapalas and Model As are Jones' favorites.
Several deep holes in the areas surrounding Frederick Creek about three miles below the state Route 142 access east of Alton generally produce fish in February. Floating from the Whitten Access to Route 142, anglers will encounter many deep holes as well, especially around the Boze Mill area.
Fifty-six miles of the Eleven Point are included in a Missouri Department of Conservation Smallmouth Management Area running from Thomasville all the way to the Arkansas line. A limit of one fish with a 15-inch length is in place.
Mike Jones may be contacted at Hufstedler's Canoe Rental and Guide Service, (417) 778-6116, hrental@ ortrackm.missouri.org.
The Meramec receives more wintertime fishing pressure because of its proximity to St. Louis, but it is still a prime cold-weather smallmouth fishery.
Kevin Meneau, the MDC fisheries management biologist responsible for the Meramec, suggested that the best places to fish for smallmouths in February are near and above the Pacific area. "Once you get very far below Pacific, Kentucky and largemouth bass become the dominant species. However, they too can be caught in cold weather."
A brief look at the MDC publication A Paddler's Guide to Missouri will reveal the areas in which anglers should primarily concentrate their efforts. Numerous springs and creeks enter the river, giving fishermen the opportunity to choose a location and travel to it by boat from the nearest launch site. Limiting the amount of cold weather travel by boat greatly increases one's abilities to withstand the rigors of fishing in February.
"Slower areas of the Meramec may actually freeze over in February," Meneau warned. "Surface temperatures could be in the mid-30s. Smallmouth will congre
gate in springs or the deepest holes where temperatures are warmer. Holes with lots of structure -- including big rocks, boulders, rockslides and rootwads -- will hold the most fish."
Meneau indicated that fishermen must adjust their attitudes and speed to catch wintertime smallies. "Smallmouths are cold-blooded creatures," he noted, "and their metabolism slows with the approach of colder temperatures. Therefore, they do not need to feed as much to fuel their bodies."
However, smallmouth bass do continue to take in food, but they expend as little energy as possible to get it. "Anglers need to concentrate on two things to catch smallmouth bass in the winter," Meneau said. "They need to fish deep and they need to fish slowly."
Jig-'n'-pigs are without a doubt the most popular baits for cold-weather smallmouths. The versatile baits, fished ever so slowly on the bottom, are the best imitators of the smallmouth's favorite prey, the crayfish. In the hands of an experienced fisherman, the jig-'n'-pig is a fish-catching machine.
Anglers have a tremendous variety of choices when it comes to jigs and the accompanying dressings to compliment the head and skirt. One only needs to pick up a fishing catalog to begin the confusion.
Sticking with tried and true producers is a fundamental tactic that will save fishing time on the water. Bass Pro Shop's Enticer jigs made with football heads and Gamakatsu extra-wide gap hooks are good jigs to start with. Shades of brown, green, blue and black will do the job. For 1/8-ounce jigs try attaching a Yum Baby Crawbug to the business end of your hook. Among larger jigs, a Chomper is hard to beat. Chomper markets a new line of Brush Jigs that work well in heavy cover.
With a look at the Meramec River map in A Paddler's Guide to Missouri, anglers can quickly pick out more than a half-dozen access points that will put them into best cold-weather fishing starting at the Robertsville State Park Access and ending at the Castlewood State Park Access 20 miles downstream.
The middle and lower sections of the Meramec are under statewide regulations.
As crooked as they come, the Gasconade is chock full of deep holes with the right habitat to hold smallmouth bass with serious shoulders on them. Twisting through the hills for 120 miles before dumping into the Missouri River, the Gasconade River's course covers 300 miles, all within the boundaries of the state. That's a lot of smallmouth territory.
Within the jurisdiction of Nick Girondo, the MDC fisheries biologist in charge of the middle Gasconade, is the Smallmouth Management Area, which stretches from the Riddle Bridge Access in Pulaski County to the Jerome Access in Phelps County, a distance of 20 miles.
Most people still hold the misconception that fish are hard to catch in cold weather. "Smallmouth migrate to the deeper holes in the river during cold weather, especially those associated with a spring or stream entering the river," Girondo explained. "This phenomenon concentrates fish in fewer areas and leaves a lot of water with fewer fish. Experienced anglers who understand this principal eliminate a lot of unproductive water and concentrate their efforts on the more productive areas."
Girondo offered other tips. "Fishermen need to work the cover very slowly and fish on or near the bottom. Soft plastics are the primary baits to use. Big Chompers and 4- to 8-inch Power Worms in red or purple work well. Guys normally Carolina-rig the worms."
A common problem among inexperienced fishermen is that they fish too fast and float through productive areas too quickly. "If fishermen would take the time to get out of their boats and work the areas below the riffles slowly and thoroughly, it is possible to have 200- to 300-fish days on the Gasconade," Girondo commented.
Cold weather fishing can be brutal at times, but Girondo says the colder the better. "The best day I had on the river last year, the thermometer read 14 degrees. We had to keep dipping our rod tips in the water to get the ice out of the guides."
LARGEMOUTHS IN THE SOUTH
If you want to catch a bruiser largemouth in southern Missouri during cold weather, check out the lower Meramec, from Stanton to the Mississippi. Again, the deep holes with rock rubble and springs nearby will hold the fish. Bucketmouths in the 5- to 7-pound range are not uncommon. Soft plastics are the baits of choice.
If you prefer lake fishing for largemouths, Lake of the Ozarks is the place to go in February. According to bass fishing guide Keith Enloe, "some of the biggest bass of the year are caught at LOZ in February. You may fish all day for one or two bites, but they will be big fish.
Suspending jerkbaits do the damage at LOZ. Main lake points and the sides of bluff lines near the end seem to be the two best places to target these lethargic bass.
LARGEMOUTHS IN THE NORTH
The reservoirs above I-70 are chock-full of largemouth bass waiting for the cold weather angler. And there is plenty of room for more fishermen. Cold weather bass fishing is not as popular in the north as in the southern part of the state.
Mark Twain Lake
At 18,000 acres, Mark Twain is the largest impoundment in northeast Missouri. The lake filled in 1984 and quickly earned the nickname "Little Truman" because of all of the trees left standing in the coves.
Ross Dames is the MDC fisheries biologist at Mark Twain. "The spring survey indicated that bass numbers were up by 20 percent," he began. "The keepers really looked good with 30 percent of the bass over 15 inches and 8 percent over 18 inches."
Dames referred to the unstable weather throughout the summer and concluded that fishing had been tough. However, the fish are there in good numbers and sizes. If weather patterns stabilize, anglers could reap good rewards during the cold weather of February.
Rick Lawrence, of Perry, is an avid angler and fishes every day he can. "Wintertime can be very tough on Mark Twain, but towards the end of February the winter sun begins to warm up the north banks."
Lawrence recommends that anglers concentrate their efforts on chunk rock banks that catch both the sun and wave action. "The wave action puts oxygen into the water and pushes bait fish to the banks. The rocks absorb heat from the sun making the water a few degrees warmer than elsewhere. I like to throw a clown-colored, 6-inch Rogue. I crank it down, read a book for a few minutes and then give it one swift jerk. Then I repeat the process."
Wiggle Warts and big jigs will work, too. Lawrence uses 25-pound line to quickly bring a big bass out of the woody cover along old channel swings and bluff ends.
Thomas Hill Reservoir
This 4,500-acre lake near Macon provides water for cooling Associated Electric's coal-fired generators. The warm-water discharge creates a warm arm in the lake's southeast region.
"Surface temperatures may reach 65 degrees in the dead of winter," said Mike Anderson, the MDC biologist responsible for the lake's fishery.
"Thomas Hill is primarily known for its crappie and hybrid bass fishery," Anderson continued. "However, the lake is a real sleeper when it comes to largemouth bass. We just don't have many fishermen here in cold weather fishing for largemouth. I guess they go to more popular locations."
Anderson was quick to point out some unusual characteristics about Thomas Hill. "Because of the warm-water arm of the lake, bass in February act much like the pre-spawn bass of May," he said. "Each January we collect fish for the St. Louis and Kansas City sports show aquariums. We always find bass in shallow water brushpiles in January. And a good percentage of those fish are over 15 inches."
Anderson advised anglers traveling to Thomas Hill to fish as they would for pre-spawn bass elsewhere. In the open lake, he suggested, try slow-rolling spinnerbaits and working jig-'n'-pig rigs very slowly across main points.
Brushpiles at Thomas Hill are marked on the bank, and maps can be printed from the MDC Web site.
Thomas Hill would be a good place for collecting some big bass before the crowd catches on.
Located slightly short of Interstate 70, this gargantuan lake sprawls over several counties in west-central Missouri and is the state's largest impoundment. Although Truman is not the bass destination it was 20 years ago, it still holds a fishery worth checking out. Its hundreds of miles of rocky shorelines, bluff ends, channel swings and deep humps give anglers literally thousands of places to toss a favorite jig-'n'-pig or, crank a suspending jerkbait down to bruiser largemouths.
SMALLMOUTHS IN THE NORTH
This fishery is perhaps the biggest sleeper in the Show-Me State. Over the last decade, bruiser smallmouth bass have been showing up in catches in the lower portion of the Salt River. Rick Lawrence extended the search to the Mississippi River with great success. "I fish the upcurrent side of wing dikes," Lawrence said. "Some dikes reach far out into the river. Paying close attention to buoys will help people find them."
Lawrence uses small baits almost exclusively. "Bitsy Craws and Baby Brush Hogs work well in the rocks," he advised. "Too, I fish the currents in streams entering the river. The same baits produce fish from the brushpiles."
Whether you prefer bass in the north or in the south, there is plenty of room for you in February. Put on the snowsuit, fill the thermos and catch a hawg this February.