One advantage to bass fishing in February is lack of competition. There is only one other boat in sight.
The weather is cold, but not brutally so—upper 40s—about the same temperature as the water. Low gray clouds add to the late winter gloom. Thankfully, there is little wind.
Assuming that the bite will be subtle and thus difficult to detect, I’m fishing without gloves, but there’s no need, according to Scott Patton.
“When they hit it, they’ll practically knock the rod out of your hand,” he says.
Patton is a full-time guide and part-time tournament angler who fishes about 250 days a year. His favorite target is largemouth bass, with smallmouth a close second. February isn’t his favorite time to be on the water, but he doesn’t mind.
“You can catch some good fish in February,” he says.
We’re fishing a long point off Kentucky Lake near the Land Between the Lakes shoreline, a spot that’s just on the Kentucky side of the Kentucky-Tennessee state line, which splits this lake and neighboring Lake Barkley. Kentucky Lake is a 160,300-acre Tennessee Valley Authority impoundment, the final reservoir on the Tennessee River system and the largest man-made lake east of the Mississippi River. It’s also one of the best bass fisheries in the country.
We’ve been on the water about an hour. Patton has caught and released two bass. I’ve caught none, but not from lack of opportunity. The fish are here.
Patton is a Kentucky transplant who now lives in Tennessee. Kentucky Lake is his favorite water, but he’s fished from New York to Texas and the Great Lakes to Florida’s famed Lake Okeechobee.
We’ve fished together several times.
“What am I doing wrong?” I ask, half jokingly.
“You might be fishing a little too fast, if you know what I mean,” he says with a laugh cupped with a serious undertone. Patton wants his fishermen to catch fish, and a cold-water February day requires a specific technique.
I do know what he means, but it barely seems possible that I’m fishing too fast. I’m hardly doing anything at all.
“You want to let the bait sit for a long time, you know,” Patton adds. “If you work it too much, they won’t eat it.”
Bass are cold-blooded critters, which means if the water temperature is 48 degrees, they are 48 degrees. And a 48-degree bass doesn’t move aggressively or eat heartily. Except for those few times when it does move aggressively and eat heartily.
We are essentially trying to tease the bass into that moment of aggressive, hearty feeding. We are both fishing with a jerkbait, an artificial lure that resembles a shad, and Patton’s favorite cold weather bass plug. This specific bait is a light bluish color (another Patton favorite), about 4 inches long, and weighted (half-ounce) so that when the bait is jerked, it will sink 3 or 4 feet and remain at that depth for several seconds. Jerkbaits come in various sizes and weights and hundreds of colors. Like all fishermen, Patton has his favorites. Whether one style/size/color catches more fish than another is fodder for endless debate.
I sling a sidearm cast and the bait hits the water with a plunk. Then, per Patton’s instructions, I tighten the line, then give the rod a sharp, downward jerk, quickly repeat this motion, then wait.
And try to wait some more.
My patience expires, so I reel in the lure and re-cast.
Patton does the same.
“You want to let it sit as long as you can,” he says, the implication being I didn’t allow it to sit quite long enough.
“I’m going to let it sit for 10 or 15 seconds. The longer the better.”
That may not sound like much, but 15 seconds is an eternity to cast a fishing lure and do nothing. But when conditions warrant, it works.
“When the water [temperature] is in the 40s, you want to let the bait sit for a long time. We call it ‘deadsticking,’ ” Patton explains after a hard strike ended with the release of his third bass of the day.
I start counting silently. Cast. Retrieve. Jerk. Jerk. Wait. 1-2-3-4-5-6 . . . 15. Jerk. Jerk. Wait. 1-2-3-4-5-6 . . . 15. Retrieve. Cast. Repeat.
We change locations and the second cast produces a rod-jarring strike followed by a short but spirited fight from about a 15-inch smallmouth.
“You have to let it sit,” he says. “But when they hit, they hit hard.”
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