I believe that if I was in a deep coma for six years, suddenly shook it to become wide awake in February, I could look out my hospital window and know that it was the shortest month of the year. The characteristic steely gray skies, the dead flora, and the lack of animal activity (including Homo Sapiens) is the dead give away.
Julius Caesar^s hench man must have been a very bright fellow when he reorganized the Roman calendar, way back in 46 B.C., to make February the shortest month of the year. Had Caesar^s man been a fisherman, he probably would have made February an even shorter month.
While February may not be my favorite fishing month, I don^t want to give the impression that all bass anglers should go into hibernation. There^s good bassin^ to be had this month, if you know where to look and how to go about it. And you can thank the electric light you are using to read this article for making this fishing possible.
The demand for electric power brought about the construction of power generating plants on reservoirs and rivers all over the country. Besides electric power, these plants generate heat and that is a by product that is beneficial to bass fishermen.
Largemouth bass don^t use calendars to program their activities. The fact that there may be six feet of snow piled on land has no affect on bass if the water they swim in is warm and comfortable for them. To the bass, it matters not whether the calendar says June or February. If the water temperature is right for them to feed, they do it.
I arrived in the Mid West from the East to begin a new job in February. While driving across the bleak plains of Indiana and Illinois, I wondered what an outdoorsmen did in this part of the country during this time of year.
I expressed my concerns upon arrival and one of my new associates, Rod Steele, said," As soon as you get settled in, I^ll show you some pretty good bass fishing."
"But I didn^t bring my ice fishing equipment with me," I remarked in jest because it was a mild winter.
A week later, I was on a lake in Southern Illinois with Steele casting crank baits and spinner baits to brush and stumps and catching three to five pound largemouth bass just like it was late spring.
In 15 years, the mind tends to glorify catches of fish. We released all of the bass we caught, but there is no doubt in my mind that we could have culled out a couple of limits that would have averaged close to four pounds. That^s good bass fishing no matter what is the month of the year.
I never had another day on the lake that was as good as that first one, but that experience convinced me that life can be beautiful in February. Over the years, I have learned that you don^t slaughter bass every time whether you are fishing prime time in the spring and fall or generator heated waters in February. On most of my winter bassing on generator heated waters there has been enough action to compensate for tolerating cold blasts from the North Wind.
My long time fishing partner Hank Williams, who spent most of his adult fishing time around Indianapolis, has this advice for those who would fish for bass in generator warmed waters, "Dress like it is winter, but fish like it is summer."
"I know it is hard to do. It is against everything you know. Your mind keeps telling you it is winter. You just have to resist the urge to fish slow and deep.
"Crank baits have been best for me. I prefer the Rat L Trap and retrieve it pretty fast about two feet below the surface. I have a friend that uses a Big R (diving Rebel plug) and he does well.
"The good thing about the Rat L Trap is that you can fish it at the depth you want and at the speed that catches.
"I^ll start out by casting the lure out and letting it sink for about two seconds before beginning a fast retrieve. It this doesn^t work, I^ll slow my retrieve a little at a time until I get a strike. When the retrieve gets so slow that I can^t maintain the two foot depth, I let the lure sink a little deeper and speed up the retrieve. Again, I vary my speed until I find the combination that works."
As for lure patterns, Hank contends that selection should be based on the most common forage fish in the lake you are fishing. If the bass are feeding on gizzard shad, the logical patterns would have silver sides trimmed in black or blue. The same idea goes for bluegills, perch, crappie or whatever other species is the dominant food fish for bass in the body of water you are fishing. Trout fishermen have a technique of fishing with a fly that imitates the insects the trout are feeding on. They call it matching the hatch. The same principal applies for bass fishermen except they use lures that should look something like bait fish. We were thinking it might be a good idea to call this tactic imitate the bait.
While Hank sticks to crank baits unless they fail to produce in a reasonable trial, spinner baits and spoons are popular lures for other anglers who fish the waters warmed by generators.
While I use spinner baits with silver blades and either yellow, chartreuse or white skirts with yellow twister trailer just about anywhere unless I am fishing with someone who is doing a number on me with a different pattern, the rule for selecting a spinner bait patterns is: The pattern that works best on the particular body of water in the late spring and early fall will most likely be the best pattern for this kind of winter bass fishing.
Silver spoons work well in those bodies of water that have shad as the primary forage fish.
Rapalas and other shallow swimming baits are, likewise, very productive at times when bass are active near the surface. While some experts refer to these type lures as crank baits, I think of the plugs that can be worked deeper as crank baits. These lures will only dive 18 to 24 inches, but there are times when they are very effective.
This kind of fishing does not take a lot of finesse. Just cast it out and retrieve it as fast as you can crank the reel. Several years ago, while fishing from the bank at the warm water outlet on La Cyne Lake in eastern Kansas, I caught five largemouths in less than an hour using this technique. The bass ranged from two to three pounds, which may not be lunkers, but I consider that good fishing during the coldest month of the year.
Don^t look down on live minnows where they can be legally fished. They can be deadly on largemouths.
A couple of winters ago, I decided to fish Lake Anna in Virginia to catch a mess of crappie for the table. I don^t usually eat largemouth bass. It^s not because they are not good to eat. It^s because they are more fun to catch than eat. And because they take so long to grow, I usually release all that I catch unless they are throat hooked.
Anyway, I proceeded to a spot near the warm water flow into the lake that I was told was a crappie hot spot and rigged for crappies with a jig about 18 inches below a bobber. I sweetened the jig with a live minnow. I sat on that crappie hot spot and caught eight largemouth bass on live minnows. They were one to two pound fish and would have been the makings for a fish fry, but I released them.
I ended up with a half dozen crappies, which was enough for a meal, but the ironic part of this experience was that I talked to four bass fishermen at the launching ramp that evening and they all complained about how slow the bass fishing had been that day. Only one of them had caught a bass and he said that was too small to keep.
I didn^t have the heart (or maybe it should be courage) to tell them I sat in one spot and caught eight bass while fishing for crappie with live bait.
Another good thing about fishing with live bait is that you are not constantly casting. All you have to do is bait up, cast out, put your hands in your pockets and wait for the bass to do its thing. Remember, the water may be warm, but the air is likely to be very frosty in February.
Where do you cast these lures? Obviously, in the warm water, but it is not quite that simple. Even though the bass are concentrated by the generator heated water, there is another important factor. By nature, bass need cover or structure, as it is known in bass fishing circles.
Just like any other time of year, they will be hanging around brush, rock piles, rip rap, stumps, drop offs or ledges.
Some anglers assume all that you have to do is go to the warm water outlet and the bass will be stacked up there. This is true in some lakes, but those are the ones that have cover near the outlet.
The best fishing in some lakes may be a couple hundred yards from the outlet. It depends mostly on the cover, but current is important also. In rivers, the current is always down stream, but in lakes the current can vary. In lakes with little flow, the pumps on the intake valve, where water is sucked into the generating plant, is the dominant current factor. In some lakes this action establishes a circular current.
Because of this, the intake area is the best place to fish on some lakes. However, on some of these generator cooling lakes fishing is restricted in the area of the intake valve. Those lakes where fishing is restricted in the area of the intake valve are well marked.
Prolonged cold spells also dictate where you fish, also. The longer the cold spell the closer you fish to the warm water outlet is the rule.
The old story about the best time to fish is when you have the time doesn^t work too well in this type of fishing. If the plants are not generating electricity, there are lots of better places to be in February. When the generators are down, no warm water is being circulated and bass become less active. The plants have a daily generating schedule that is available by telephone. A telephone call could eliminate a lot of time sitting in the cold waiting for the water to get warm.
While most anglers use a technique similar to Hank^s while fishing for these warm water bass, Bruce Holt, who operates the Linn County Park Marina on La Cyne Lake in Kansas, fishes on the bottom to take his warm water bass.
While most of the cover was removed from La Cyne during construction, Holt knows where there are some old ledges, drop offs, stumps, flats and tree tops and he fishes them with either a jig n pig or an electric blue plastic worm rigged Texas style.
Recently, brush piles and artificial tire reefs have been placed in the lake to make up for the lack of cover.
Most of the time Holt uses the jig n pig combination, but claims there are other times when the plastic worm is unbeatable. He does not know why, but when the jig n pig is not producing he switches to the worm.
While generator cooling rivers and lakes provide some year round bass fishing, there is some concern about what man^s manipulation of nature does to the fish.
For instance, Don George, biologist for the Kansas Fish and Game Commission, has noted that in La Cyne Lake largemouth bass have a better than average growth rate for the first two or three years. However, after that accelerated growth period, the bass growth drops off to average and in some cases less than average.
George does not cite this as a problem. It is something that is taking place and it is not known what affect it may have on the bass.
Likewise, lake temperatures soar into the upper 90^s during the summer. George wonders what the long range affects of these high temperatures will be on bass and other fish.
Another concern is year round predation on forage fish. There doesn^t seem to be any adverse effect on the gizzard shad at this time, but George looks at it as a situation that should be watched.
He is also concerned about the easy harvesting of largemouth bass, white bass, striped bass and channel catfish in the warm water areas.
Another problem in many warm water lakes is that crappie seem to disappear after a few years of generator operations.
Many of the generating plants are fossil fuel operations, but the nuclear age has arrived.
The nuclear plant on Clinton Reservoir in Illinois is in its twentieth winter of operation. It is the only nuclear generator cooling water open to fishing at this time. Another at Wool Creek in Kansas has been operating for 17 years, but the private company is still evaluating the possibility of opening its 5,000 acre reservoir to public fishing.
At Clinton, a refuge was established in the warm water area in an attempt to prevent the over harvesting of fish. There was still enough warm water flow down lake to provide good fishing for largemouth bass and other species below the refuge, according to Illinois fisheries biologist Gary Lutterbie.
If I did awake from a long coma and realized it was February, I think I would instinctively grab my tackle and head for the closest generator warmed lake. What else can a bass fisherman do?