February 06, 2023
Bass have to eat to live, even when it's cold. Maybe they don't have to eat a lot, and maybe they don't have to eat often, but they must eat. And the bigger the bass, the more it needs to eat.
That's the bright side of what can be a tough time of year. By focusing on finesse tactics—or at least "finesse-y" tactics—we can make things even brighter and get more bites. That includes action from some of the biggest bass swimming in our favorite waters. After all, February is a great time to target lunkers.
The reason for that is the biggest bass are starting to prep for the spawn. They may be weeks or months from laying eggs and guarding fry, but they're already acting in a manner we can use to our advantage.
We just need to find them and give them a meal that matches their appetite. Nothing does that better than finesse tactics—light lines, small baits and an exacting approach. We’re going to think deep to shallow this month because that’s how the bass will be transitioning.
Winter usually means fishing the deepest water you'll ply all year, and that’s certainly true in early February when water temperatures are likely at their annual nadir. But "deep" is a relative term. What's deep in one body of water may not be deep in another. A lot depends on a lake’s average depth and water color. If the average depth is 100 feet, few anglers are likely to call 20 feet "deep." Also, the clearer the water, the deeper "deep" tends to be. If depths of greater than 60 feet are available and the water has more than 10 feet of visibility, you can bet some bass will be that deep or even deeper. Where those kinds of depths are not available or the water’s dingy, "deep" might be half that or less.
And when looking for the right depth for the coldest bass, our starting point should be the bass's spawning grounds. Here, what I refer to as "reverse engineering" is the key to finding the best winter holding areas.
We'll start by looking for protected water in the shallows of the lake's northwest corner. This part of the lake warms first in the late winter and early spring because the sun is low on the horizon and in the south. As a result, bass will move into this area to spawn first.
Once you've identified likely spawning grounds through the northwest factor or personal experience, find the shortest, most sensible route to the deepest water in the area that also features vertical structure. Maybe the route follows a point that drops into a creek channel. If that water is 30, 40 or more feet deep, it might be deep enough to hold fish through the coldest part of winter. Start there.
If it's shallower than that, you may have to keep searching. Follow the creek channel out to the main tributary, but keep in mind that the best winter holding area could be the steep side of a main-lake point or a bluff bank where a channel sweeps up against a rock wall. You should be able to find these areas on a topographic map.
When you do, look for the "spot on the spot" that's most likely to hold a concentration of bass. It might be a rock pile or brush. For that, you'll need electronics. Traditional 2D sonar is enough for this task. You're looking for bass that are oriented to the bottom or suspended off vertical structure. Two-dimensional sonar is the best tool to find them.
If you spot some bass on your electronics (or identify a promising area), go after them with a shaky head rigged on 8-pound-test fluorocarbon line (6-pound if the water is extremely clear; 10-pound if it's dingy) on a medium or medium-heavy spinning combo. Because the water's deep and you want to keep your bait in the strike zone as much as possible, your presentation should be vertical. Try to stay atop the fish without casting a shadow on them.
A Fish Head E Series Hammer Jig Head weighing 3/16 or 1/2 ounce (heavier in deep water and lighter in relatively shallow water) adorned with a straight-tail plastic worm measuring 4 to 6 inches is all you need. As for color, choose whatever gives you confidence. At depths of 30 feet or more, most hues have disappeared from the visible spectrum, so the bass are probably looking at some shade of gray no matter what you have tied on. With modern electronics, you should be able to watch your bait fall and see if any fish are taking notice—"video-game fishing" at its finest.
When it comes to working the bait, less is more. Creatures in cold water are lethargic. A bait worked too aggressively will look unnatural and elicit fewer strikes.
MOVE TO MID-DEPTHS
As waters warm and the bass move shallower—one step closer to the spawn—the successful bass angler must move with them. Now, instead of looking for that last drop into the abyss, we're looking for mid-range water between the abyss and the first drop coming out of the spawning grounds. It could be 10 feet deep or it might be 30 feet deep, but it's an intermediate position between the winter holding areas and the first breakline from where they'll nest.
Again, we're looking for that spot on a spot—a brush pile or rock pile on a hump, manmade structure at the edge of a flat, the steepest slope off the end of a long point. Since these areas are going to be shallower than the true deep-water areas, side-scan capabilities can save you some search time. And since these bass are likely too shallow for us to get away with a vertical presentation, we'll cast to them. This is the time to try one of the newer soft-plastic finesse rigging methods—the "free rig."
To tie a free rig, start by threading a 1/4- to 3/8-ounce casting sinker on your line. Those are the teardrop-shaped weights with a swivel coming out of the narrow end. Your line will slide more easily through the swivel than through the length of a bullet weight, thus the worm has more freedom of movement in the water. The drawback is that the casting weight doesn't come through cover as well as a conventional slip sinker does.
Next, tie on a worm hook and rig a soft-plastic like the Z-Man TRD Bugz or StreakZ or the Strike King 3X Baby Z Too Soft Jerkbait. These baits are made with high-tech plastics that are extremely durable and buoyant. Use that to your advantage by occasionally throwing a little slack to them as you crawl your free rig across the bottom. That’s when you'll get bit.
Just as "deep" is a nebulous term, so is "shallow." For our purposes, "shallow" is less than 15 feet deep. That might be deeper than most bass spawn on your lake, but it might not be. The best area will be found around the first breakline or drop-off as you move away from the spawning area. Here, the bottom might fall from 3 feet to 10 feet or from 15 feet to 30 feet, depending on the lake and how deep the bass spawn there.
Whatever the depth, if there's cover on that break—particularly wood cover—that's where you'll find bass. Legendary underwater cinematographer Glenn Lau spent thousands of hours watching bass as they prepared to spawn, and he saw the same ritual year after year. Big females—bloated with roe—would bump their bellies up against wood.
After years of observing this behavior, Lau speculated or hypothesized that these spawning females were loosening their eggs or, alternatively, relieving their discomfort from being bloated with these eggs. Either way, wood cover around the first drop was always a big-bass magnet in the pre-spawn.
This is where a Gamakatsu Gika Rig or VMC Tokyo Rig will shine. If you haven't tried or seen one of these, they allow you to fish soft plastics just above the bottom. With these rigs, the sinker is connected to the eye of the worm hook or an attached split ring. The bait rides above the sinker, where it's more likely to be noticed by the fish.
In this relatively shallow water, you won't need a heavy sinker (1/8- to 1/4-ounce should be about right) and you can stick with spinning gear and 10-pound-test fluorocarbon, but don’' hesitate to switch to a baitcaster and slightly heavier line if the cover is thick. Use a 4- to 6-inch lizard, craw or creature bait and work it in short hops or drag it across the bottom. Bass hate any threat to their offspring, even before they've built a nest.
CHILLY BASS BASTIONS
Three of the best Western waters to fish in February.
Western bass anglers have plenty of places to fish in February, but few produce as as well as these three, each of which has its own unique drawing card.
- Clear Lake, California: The 43,785-acre natural lake has been a solid producer of numbers and lunkers for a long, long time. It’s not as deep as the canyon-type reservoirs that are common in the West, so “deep” isn’t quite as deep here. What Clear Lake offers in abundance is a legitimate shot at some truly big bass. Problem is, they’ll be cold, so you’ll need to slow down and drag a free rig to get their attention.
- Lake Havasu, Arizona: Havasu has gotten a lot of attention on the national tournament scene in recent years. Lots of limits and bass averaging nearly 3 pounds will do that. February air temps are often in the 60s, with water temps not much lower. You can catch active fish in the shallows—maybe less than 5 feet deep.
- Roosevelt Lake, Arizona: A lot is going on at Roosevelt these days. After a surge of big bass years ago, things slowed. Fortunately, habitat improvement efforts have it back in the national spotlight, where it should stay for years to come. Look for Roosevelt’s bass to be in pre-spawn mode, so give the Gika or Tokyo rig a try on the first break off the spawning flats. Yes, you’ll see some bass caught on fast-moving lures in the shallows, but you’re more likely to find the mother lode a little deeper.
Note: This article was orginally published in the February 2022 issue of Game & Fish Magazine. Click here to subscribe.