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  • Winter fishing for big Bass

    It's an experience every bass angler craves, but relatively few ever enjoy - hauling a truly monster largemouth or smallmouth to the boat. I'm talking about an eight, nine or 10-pounder, the story of which is repeated time and time again in docks, bait shops and bass club meetings by envious friends and acquaintances.

    Well, there's no better time to connect with trophy bass than during the chilly days of February and March, when many of Kentucky's waters are prime for a test of strength and will against the heaviest bass of the year. Although the cold water will mean less aggressive fish and probably catching fewer fish, the chances of taking bigger ones increase. Lunkers lurking often in shallow water can be enticed to strike if persistence, patience and desire are three characteristics anglers possess.

    Included with the numerous ways to catch big bass in late winter and early spring, what now would probably be termed the "old-fashioned" technique of live-bait jigging remains one of the best. Back 50 or 60 years ago, before the technology of in escalated to today's gadgetry and high priced menu, anglers were catching lunker bass, too. Yes, they may have "worked" bit harder, but success rates weren't all that different.

    The jigging technique includes the use of a long cane pole, heavy-test line, and a strong hook overwhelmed with live night crawlers. Usually, murky water conditions ( not hard to find in many lakes in February ) prove best with this method, and the idea is to slowly and tediously probe bank cover and structure, dipping the wad of crawlers in brush and tree roots. Big bass have a tendency to reside in heavy cover, frequently less than six feet deep during the early spring when surface temperatures warm in the afternoons. This time of year, unlike late spring through early fall, bass don't mind the sun nearly as much, and will search out the warmth. Choosing to fish late in the day and portions of creek banks on which the sun has shined longest will be advantageous.

    An eight-pound largemouth at the end of a cane pole is indeed an experience you won't soon forget, as these fish clamp down on an easy meal with little or no real energy expended. Even though their metabolism has slowed from the cold, bass still have to eat to survive, and will inhale live bait, no question about it. Anglers with the patience to ease their boat along slowly, and who are careful to get only as close to the cover as it takes to reach it with a long pole, have as good a chance to catch wall-hanger largemouth as any other angler using all the modem, sophisticated equipment out of a 21 -foot Ranger bass rig. Remember, there's no need to be in a hurry moving around, plus you'll stay warmer and safer besides.

    It also doesn't seem to matter whether you employ the jigging technique on small or large bodies of water, rather it's more important to thoroughly fish the available cover. On large lakes, such as Barren or Cumberland, water levels will be much lower than during the summer, and may present some likely spots most anglers never see. It is good to take note of what will eventually be "submerged" cover and structure, because these areas will also hold fish later in the year.

    Looking at some of the more consistent hawg bass producing major reservoirs, Lake Barkley always comes to mind. Long-time Barkley anglers believe February and March are the best two months to hook big sow bass that are a couple of pounds heavier that time of year. Frequent six and seven pounders taken during summer become eight and nine pounders in late winter and early spring.

    According to Gerry Buynak, black bass biologist for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR), Barkley has accounted for several large bass recently and would be one place he would recommend anglers try.

    "Creel surveys on Barkley regularly indicate the best bass are caught early," mentioned Buynak.

    "Some of these fish are taken by wintertime crappie anglers who pick up an inadvertent bonus. Lots of these guys are fishing deeper cover such as brush attractors, or structure like stump beds found along creek and river channel ledges. Bass will use this kind of habitat throughout early spring before moving more shallow to spawn," the biologist noted.

    "But, most of the big fish taken on Barkley are coming off pitched or flipped into heavy shoreline cover and worked very, very slowly. It is important to match your presentation of the lure to the activity level of the bass this time of year. You've got to take it easy, and get the lure close to where the fish most likely is holding.

    "After you catch three or four, you should be able to develop a pattern of what cover the fish prefer that day and hopefully it will create a more experience. One other suggestion for days when bass aren't right on the bank is to move to rocky points and continue to fish the jig so slow that you almost forget your line is in the water. Strikes may be very light, too, so you must stay alert for the hook set," reminds the biologist.

    Additionally, Buynak suggests that some of the deep, clear Eastern Kentucky lakes such as Cave Run and Laurel have the potential to yield truly exceptional specimens.

    "An interesting facet of biology that would seem somewhat ironic to many anglers is that our less fertile lakes are credited with some of the better quality largemouth and smallmouth, even though these waters don't have the production rate of other more highly-heralded bass reservoirs with high nutrient loads and forage bases," said Buynak.

    "For example, Taylorsville Lake in Central Kentucky provides a very fertile environment for largemouth, and they grow amazingly fast. However, of the thousands of bass we've examined from this lake, maybe a half-dozen were 18 inches long or longer and bigger than six pounds.

    "Herrington is the same way. There are tons of two, three and four-pounders and several five-pounders, but beyond that the frequency of monster bass drops way down," said the biologist.

    "From what we've seen, maybe lakes higher in fertility that tend to have a higher bacteria count, larger population and fiercer competition for food and habitat cause bass in these eutrophic waters to live hard and fast, and die younger than they might in a less stressful environment," Buynak said.

    For smallmouth, Buynak recommends and not surprisingly, Dale Hollow and Lake Cumberland. The biologist believes though, that the best time to hit these reservoirs for trophy bronzebacks is toward the end of April, when electroshocking studies have fumed up lots of huge smallmouth (and largemouth) along shoreline cover.

    "Dale Hollow is another example of a marginally fertile lake that holds some incredible smallmouth. We've observed a good percentage of big smallmouth on the banks during a two-week period when water temperatures hit about 60 degrees, and the smallies are right along side with the largemouth in the shallow-water brush," said Buynak.

    "I think this is the time when smallmouth are the most vulnerable to anglers, and the best chance for anglers to catch a big one regardless of their skill level," Buynak mentioned.

    "Also on smallmouth, I believe in the future we'll see Cave Run starting to produce some better than average fish, similar to what is occurring at Green River. The forage base in both these lakes is ample to support a pretty good smallmouth population, and their nature of staying in deeper water most of the time makes them more difficult to catch, so they're more likely to take longer in getting added.

    Anglers aware of the fertile vs. nonfertile aspect of bass biology may have an edge on many anglers after trophy bass, because the size of the water isn't such a determining factor for the size of the fish. "Large lake equals large bass" isn't always the case, as we've noted. And this leads to one other important part of looking for the lunkers: How hard are waters fished?

    "I think this is probably why a number of the state's smaller public lakes seem to always give up the nines and tens. It sort of seems like nobody really pays much attention to the lakes under 1,000 surface acres. There's less fishing pressure compared to the big lakes, and lakes like Woods Creek and Greenbo have a potentially good trophy environment," said the biologist.

    Two more of Kentucky's best lunker largemouth holes of the smaller persuasion are Beaver Creek and Guist Creek in Anderson and Shelby counties, respectively, in Central Kentucky. Kincaid Lake in Northern Kentucky is also a sleeper for giant spring bass. According to biological studies on these three lakes, bass populations are good, especially for bigger fish, and each of these three always produce some incredibly nice bass in February and March.

    Maybe the best thing about fishing in colder weather is the reduced competition with other fishermen for the best looking areas. All the smaller lakes mentioned have visible cover which is easy for anglers to find, but you won't antsy lots of other boats on these lakes. Generally, those out fishing on days with 35 - 45 degree air temperatures are the serious guys, dedicated to a special kind of bass fishing experience, looking for the catch of a lifetime.

    KDFWR Northwestern District Biologist David Bell maintains that in his part of the state, Lake Malone's 826 acres in Muhlenberg, Todd and Logan counties is still one of the best hawg bass producers in the region or the state, for that matter. The reproduction of bass, harvest rate and fertility of this lake all seem to be working perfectly for the correct setting in growing some monster bucketmouths. While any lake could do it, many of Kentucky's state fishery personnel believe Malone will be the lake to give up the next state record, if any lake does.

    ...many of Kentucky's state fishery personnel believe Malone will be the lake to give up the next state record...

    "It's just a honey of a place for bass, although like any other lake it has it's ups and downs depending on the weather patterns. But I have to say it is probably the most consistent producer of seven and eight-pound largemouth of anywhere I know about, including some super strippit lakes anglers mention in some of our coal fields," said Bell. In the northeast, Carter Caves Lake, located in Carter Caves State Park in (surprise) Carter County, due to the fact of less fishing pressure, is Kentucky's only "trophy bass" lake, or the only lake currently under trophy management by the KDFWR. Fisheries biologist Lew Kornman says Carter Caves Lake contains an excellent percentage of largemouth over 20 inches, thanks to several years of reduced pressure on the lake because of the difficulty of access. While access has been greatly improved, the one fish daily limit and 20-inch minimum size limit is maintaining good numbers of big bass, which will be even more impressive before dropping eggs during the spring spawn.

    While we've touched on good major lakes and smaller lakes for lunker bass, one other state fisheries biologists suggests a final opportunity not to overlook this spring. "I think there is one other excellent possibility available for fishermen to take a trophy largemouth... fishing either live bait or maybe a slow-moving spinnerbait in one of the many farmponds throughout the state," said Kerry Prather, KDFWR central district fisheries biologist. "Our studies indicate that almost half the state's anglers fish farm ponds, and these waters do offer some of the highest quality bass angling chances around," said Prather. Prather says that late February through March is a super time to take farm pond lunkers right off the bank, even if little or no cover exists.

    "Many times this is a period when the biggest bass in the pond are going to move closer to where the warmest water is, searching for prey like bluegill. If you've ever noticed, in the spring bluegill often move into the shallowest water they can find and congregate. This makes it easier for bass to corral and catch a meal and big fish always look for the easiest feeding opportunity they can find," the biologist added. The potential for anglers to catch a wallhanger bass, largemouth or smallmouth in the

    Bluegrass State is quite good, especially in February and March. And, for most of us, that's when the fishing fever really sets in each year. We simply need to play the odds at their best and put in the time.