Cabin fever sets up its final blow. It’s been cold, snowy, and rainy for two months. The fisherman that holds the reins in my brain is facing impending implosion, when, for a brief spell, the clouds lift. 30s turn into 60s—70s, even—and the resulting breeze turns the air crisp and comfortable. It seems as if spring is right around the corner, and, to those residents of the underwater world, that means calorie-packing for the approaching spawn.
Every year the same pattern is repeated. A warm snap in mid- to late-February signals a seasonal change for bass and other spring-spawning fish as the water temperature begins climbing towards 60 degrees. With every day of warm weather, they are reassured that the spawn is indeed approaching; and they take their staging positions on drop-offs and points with access to deeper water adjacent to the flats and shallow coves where they’ll spawn.
The fish know they must eat. Spawning rites expend valuable energy—energy fish don’t have after three months of winter lethargy. Their posterity depends on a ravenous diet. This makes late winter one of the best times to catch a big largemouth.
At first, I found taking advantage of this pattern easy—accidental. When the air turns warm in February, I start to get restless for the warmwater species. After a winter of trout fishing and pursuing the ever-elusive musky, I crave the tug of a strong bass.
This seasonal event is the beginning of the bass fishing season, and, likewise, spring, on my calendar. Every year, if I can swing it, that date finds me on the banks of my favorite farm pond.
Cumulous clouds billow in an evening sky that keeps me cool as it flows through the open windows of the truck, bumping over a long dirt road in rural Fluvanna County. The pond shimmers when it comes into view, as a slight breeze blows from the west, against a shallow point where grass grows in the summer. Wind traps small aquatic shrimp and plankton in the emerging grass, which attracts baitfish and, in turn, predatory fish—the big largemouths I’m hunting. An abundance of food makes this staging ground perfect for the fish and a hot spot for my fishing efforts.
I make a point of bringing someone along on such occasions, to teach them the pattern that is so predictable and that has brought me so many great memories. My brother, Phillip, was my subject this year.
In less than 20 minutes of fishing, the first fish had revealed itself. Phillip tossed a small swimbait to a submerged log. If the water has warmed past the 50-degree mark, fish will chase a moving baitfish imitation, and on this day, that was the case. In short order, the water erupted with the mouth of an oversized bass. With a violent headshake, the fish freed himself of the hook and left my brother convinced on the grassy bank.
Quickly, I pitched a soft plastic worm tight to the log. Tick, tick. A sweep of my spinning rod brought the lake bottom to life. After a short, lively fight, I lipped a feisty largemouth and lifted him from the water. Spring had sprung.
We continued fishing the banks of coves and their points, three to six feet of water, each of us landing several fish.
The breeze ceased as we approached the shallow point that’s choked with grass in warmer months. From past experience, I knew where several submerged stumps speckle the periphery of the seasonal grass bed. I placed a cast along the edge and began a slow retrieve.
I crawled my lure over a stump and let it flutter down to the lake bottom, but it was intercepted on its descent. As my line trailed out into the water, I set the hook with a sweep and grunted at the power returned from the end of the line.
A hefty fish boiled in the shallow water, surged for deeper water, then headed for the surface. I kneeled and exerted downward pressure on the fish, and his heavy head rolled over on the surface. He surged right, and I turned his head towards the bank. As I gained line to the reel, Phillip landed a thumb in his mouth.
We traded. I got the fish, Phillip got the rod. A camera caught my “grip and grin,” and I lowered the first big fish of the year to the water.
Many will leave their hats hung and their rods unstrung, claiming that bass fishing is a sport for warm spring days and summer evenings. However, late winter can be one of the most productive times of the year to target big bass. But this time of year, timing is everything.
*Originally published in The Rural Virginian