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February is the pits.
Mother Nature punctuates dreary weather with a pounding cold rain, snow or damaging ice storm. But, it is not necessary to sit around the house and mope about the seemingly endless days of highs in the low 40s with low gray clouds and no sunlight. This bleak time is also the beginning of fishing season.
For many of us, fishing in mid-winter isn't any fun. It is cold. You spend an entire day in the biting winter wind with numb hands and burning face for maybe a couple of bites. This style of fishing appeals mainly to the diehard.
However, you don't have to wait until it is 75 degrees outside to start fishing. A three-day warm front from late February to mid-March that pushes air temperatures into the 60s kick-starts the fishing season. Farm ponds offer productive fishing for largemouth bass. Stream smallmouth bite heartily and sauger make their spawning runs.
If you wear a layer of old-school thermals or thin polypropylene with wicking properties under a layer or two of outer garments, you'll stay comfortable while you fish in late winter and early spring. Packable rain gear is great for this time of year because you can wear it in the morning when it is cold, shed it in the mid-afternoon warmth, and put it on again at dusk when it gets cold again. They will usually fit in the back of a fishing vest, a pocket or tackle box.
Farm ponds offer impressive late winter and early spring fishing because they warm up much quicker than a large reservoir like Lake Cumberland or Barren River Lake. If the sun shines for a couple of days after a warm rain muddies the water, big female largemouth bass move up into surprisingly shallow water.
Old-timers impaled a gob of nightcrawlers on a large hook and probed shoreline stumps, downed trees and cuts in the bank to catch huge female bass in late February and early March. They used fiberglass rods up to 12 feet long with a limber tip and a beefy butt section to haul big bass out of the heavy cover. This method came to be known as jig-fishing and still works extremely well.
Large bass move shallow to take advantage of the great feeding opportunities provided by warm, cloudy water. The shallows draw small bluegill and other prey and the murky water shields lurking bass. They gorge themselves to provide nutrients for the eggs developing in their abdomens and recharge after a long, hard winter.
In addition to jig-fishing, running a square-billed shallow-running crankbait parallel to the shore triggers strikes from shallow bass, as does a spinnerbait fished in the same manner. A jig slowly crawled in and near shoreline cover also works well for these fish.
Stream smallmouth bass also wake up from their winter slumber in late February and early March. In late fall, stream smallmouth migrate, sometimes up to several miles, to find their wintering holes. They seek pools with a deep, current-free middle section with flowing riffles and shoals on each end.
Concentrate your efforts on the flowing shoals and riffles. A 1/8th-ounce black, olive, olive and chartreuse or brown bucktail or rabbit hair jig is deadly at this time of year. Fish them neat with no trailer slowly along the bottom or swim them just above bottom. A sleeper lure at this time of year is a 4-inch pumpkinseed lizard with green flakes fished in the same manner as the hair jig.
In smaller streams, these holes may only be waist to chest deep. Smallmouth bass spend the winter in these holes in a semi-dormant state and feed only under conditions advantageous to them. A three-day warm front in late winter is one of those optimal conditions.
Stream smallmouth bass thrive in a harsh environment. Surviving winter taxes their biological resources and mature female smallmouth must eat in late winter to nourish the eggs they'll deposit six weeks from now. Get out and use this to your fishing advantage.
Sauger also bite willingly in late February and early March. The best places to fish for them in Kentucky are tailraces on the Ohio River and directly downstream of Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley in the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers. You can also catch them congregating in creek mouths in the Ohio River and along irregular channel bends in the northern ends of Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley, but the tailraces are much higher percentage spots.
Some of the finest sauger fishing in Kentucky is below McAlpine Lock and Dam in Louisville and Meldahl Lock and Dam near Foster, Kentucky in Bracken County. Both of these areas are easily fished from the shore or waded.
Fish the flowing chutes that form miniature creeks below McAlpine Lock and Dam in low water conditions. Fish further downstream near the Falls of the Ohio State Park if the river is up. The park is on the Indiana side of the river, but Kentuckians may fish there from the bank with a valid Kentucky fishing license.
Don't lie around the house and pout as Kentucky shakes off the last of winter. Get out and fish.
Lee McClellan is an award-winning writer for Kentucky Afield magazine, the official publication of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. He is a life-long hunter and angler, with a passion for smallmouth bass fishing.
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