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First off, you don't need to remind me that I am not a pro. I am not even a successful or accomplished fisherman. But, as Tommy Boy once said, "I can get a good look at a T-bone by sticking my head up a bull's behind, but I'd rather take a butcher's word for it." Of course, I took the liberty of editing some wordy-durds out of that quote because we are family friendly around here. Seriously, though. Between my limited success, following the sport via social media, and doing some old fashioned gossiping, I have come to get a pretty firm idea of what you should be throwing in February.
February has become (perhaps) my favorite month in fishing for many reasons. Chiefly among them is that the average fisherman isn't going to brave the cold. Yes, I am aware that our winters are mild and tame compared to a lot of places around the country, but to us, 25 degrees is pretty dang cold. On the upside, here in Alabama you can get a few days among the cold where the temps can get in the high 50s, causing a warming trend in the water. When this happens, the fish shake off the winter funk, at least for a few minutes a day. Then, you get one of the other perks of February fishing....the bites from the big fish. That's right, though the bites might be far and few in between, your chances for hooking into a prespawn momma over 5 pounds in much higher. Though the bites are down, the average size is way up. It is this month alone where you will see massive sacks being weighed in. At any local tournament, you shouldn't be surprised to see 25...27...and 32 pound bags weighed in. I am not talking about big dollar tournaments. I am talking about local wildcat tournaments! Unless it has been an awfully slow day, don't show up to the scales with under 20 pounds! Of course, I admit that I fall into that category of fisherman that usually doesn't bother showing up. Of course, I have to admit that all the REALLY GOOD fishermen are out this time of year. And, there is no other lake in the country that has many pros on it at one time as the Big G. And, they have not problem fishing against you in any tournaments.
While I have struggled to win any larger tournaments, the last two years have seen growth in my game where I have gone from barely catching a limit of squeakers to weighing in sacks with no fish under 6 pounds. Of course, the struggle has been getting the 5 bites I need, not finding the right 5 fish among the small fish.
Take the MFC Club Tournament on Guntersville last year. We had found a spot that was consistently holding big fish late in the day after struggling for 6 straight hours. We averaged 1 bite every hour, but simply ran out of time. The results were still enough to get us a check as we weighed in 3 fish for over 18 pounds. We returned the next week to fish NATA Open and we fished the same spot all day. The fish were there, as were other fisherman. Once again, we came up short on the bites we needed, but not because they weren't there feeding, but because we were competing with boats on either side of us, all whom we saw catch fish over 6 pounds. we also missed one over 8 pounds.
Between these two trips and other February trips over the last 2 years like the SNUFISH Tournament in 2013, I have noted a common trend: I am using the same baits. That doesn't mean I haven't tried others...cause I have. Say what you will about me, but I am a versatile fisherman. I've cranked ledges. I've throw the A-rig. I've tossed a jerkbait. And while I have had limited success with everything I have thrown, there are 3 baits that I have used, in very specific ways, which have turned things around in the last 2 years. So, though I listed the limited traffic as one of my reasons to fish this time of year and the ability to catch BIG FISH...the thing I love the most is the simplicity of the fishing. I know what I am going to throw and when I am going to throw it.
The 3 baits I am going to have tied on, and throw almost EXCLUSIVELY (I will give a few standby) are:
- Lipless crankbait
- Square bill crankbait
- Texas rigged lizard
I will tell you the specifics on the baits later.
This time of year, I target 8 feet and shallower. I am looking for expressways next to the buffet lines. That is, creek channels and ditches that are adjacent to spawning flats. I also target points, but Guntersville fishes quite differently than a lot of lakes. The points I find success on have one of the aforementioned creek channels running along one side. You can locate these areas on your map (and you should) before ever leave your house.
When I approach an area that I plan to fish, finding the new and emerging grass is foremost on my priority list. I will put the trolling motor on high and fan cast a lipless crankbait around until it snags new green grass. Again, finding vegetation isn't what you are going after. This time of year, there is a lot of dead grass. Find the new grass. When you find it, you will know. I will then slow down and use my lipless crank to probe the area and find the edges of the grass. As I work it, I will slow my retrieve speed to just slow enough to touch the top of the grass. Occasionally I will snag a piece. Normally, this is an aggravation to fishermen. In this case, it is usually just the action you need. When I encounter a snag, I will pop the bait free. I am not applying steady pressure to remove it. I am jerking it through. 9 out of 10 fish will hit after the jerk.
When I find the edges, I will then continue to fan cast through the vegetation with the lipless crank, again using the technique described above. Every few casts, I will change to a yo-yo retrieve where I will allow the bait to fall, pop i up and reel, let it fall, and repeat. Again, the majority of the fish will hit on the drop.
To accomplish these retrieves, I typically use a 7 foot magnum cranking rod with a 6.3:1 reel spooled with 30-50 pound braid. The braid cuts through the vegetation as well as allowing you to rip the bait through without stretching the line.
I use the XCalibur XR50 and XR75 baits almost exclusively. I use a handful of colors such as Rayburn Red, Chartreuse Sexy, and Gold and Black Shiner. My color selection depends on the water stain and the sky condition. The cleaner and clearer the water and sky, the closer I want to natural colors. In some rare cases, I will go with other colors such as sexy shad for extra clear days, or royal red for heavy stain. Keep in mind that the grass filters the water wonderfully. So make sure you pay attention to water color in each specific area. All of that being said, in early February, I throw the Rayburn Red almost exclusively.
If I am not finding the fish in the midst of the foliage, I will work the outside edges and adjacent areas outside of the foliage with a square bill. Square bills are one of those baits that can catch fish year round. But, it really excels this time of year because of its ability to move a lot of water with its wide wobble, deflect off of cover and ability to cover lots of water quickly. Though it is a very good heavy cover bait, fishermen are always hesitant to throw it around grass (or any crankbait) because of constant fouling. But, as we said earlier, getting into the grass can be your best friend. You just have the have the tools to work it through. My plan is to encounter JUST ENOUGH grass so that I can constantly be popping it through the grass without actually fouling it. I accomplish this by using 17 pound test flourocarbon on a 7 foot medium heavy rod and a 5.4:1 reel. The heavy gauge line helps keep it high in the water column while also providing the tensile strength to be popped through the grass. While most of my bites with the lipless are on the fall, the bites on the square bill will be vicious and hard. You won't have the ability to horse the fish through the grass like you will on the lipless because of the braid. With these hits, you will have to pop the fish hard to get them on top of the grass.
There are a few specific bait brands I like:
- Spro Little John
- Xcalibur square bill
- Strike King square bill (the KVD 1.5, for example)
The former brand offers a little more uniqueness in its retrieve and sound, as it has a tighter wobble and a coated tungsten rattle. However, it is very light and doesn't cast as far. The other two are almost interchangeable, though the XCalibur comes with better hooks and the Strike King comes in a silent model. In all of these, I am going to throw one of 3 colors: A red craw(Rayburn Red), Chartreuse Sexy, and Sexy. The latter is reserved for especially clear water, high skies, and tough bites. Now, here is a little homework for you: there is another brand that I firmly believe works better than the 3 brands listed. I reviewed it on this blog. Go find it....Merry Christmas.
In all cases, I swap the front hook for a red #4 or #2 trebel hook. I want the fish aiming at the front hook. This will reduce the number of short strikes. Additionally, the front hook is normally right below the D-ring to tie the bait onto your line. After a hookup, it won't allow the fish to use the bait as a lever to get off. Lastly, with the rear hook free, you will sometimes get a hook into the side of the fish, further securing it.
Texas Rigged Lizard
With this last bite, it bears a bit of caution. My uncle always told me that keep moving, despite how good you THINK the area looks. When you get a hit, anchor down. It is always possible that you simply bagged a random fish. But more often than not, you have found a group of fish. If I am fishing with a partner, I will have the front boater continue to throw the 2 crankbaits while the backboater throws a Texas rigged lizard. Now, you may like different creature baits better, and that's fine. But no plastic bait has caught me more fish than the Powerteam Lures 6" Gator. Over the last 2 years, every fish over 5 pounds I have caught in a tournament (it's not THAT many, but I would guess around 6) has been caught on a Gator. I peg my tungsten weight at the hook. If you don't only the weight itself will fall between clumps of grass. Later in the year, I like the lizard to have a slow fall as I work it, but during this time of the year, I want it to pop on the fish's head and surprise it. I typically use a 3/o hook on 17 pound flouro and a 7" medium heavy to heavy rod.
There is no real magic to using a t-rigged lizard. You work it through the grass however you can. The only issue you are going to have is when when you pull the bait through grass and let it settle, many times the fish will hit it on the fall. When you take up slack, it may only feel like another clump of grass, initially. Sometimes the fish will shake and you will know it's a fish. Other times the fish may simply spit it out. To combat this, I use an attractant. Now, the PTL Hog Tonic isn't made to attract fish TO your bait. It is formulated to make fish HOLD ON to the bait with amino acids. And, it does that spectacularly. Again, going back to the number of 5+ pound fish I have caught....at least 5 of them were surprise hits. Luckily, as I tightened the slack, the fish didn't spit the bait out because of the Hog Tonic. Again, pick your poison when it comes to this bait. I like the 6" Gator. You may like Zoom or Yum. You may prefer other creature baits. But, one thing I can tell you is this: there are exactly 3 colors to throw and two of those are completely interchangeable to me. I will throw a junebug or watermelon green flake.
What's Next in the Rod Box
There is only 1 other bait that I MAY go to. I may go to a swimbait on a belly-weight hook (if foliage is thicker) or a lead head. Additionally, I may go for a swim jig. My go-to bait is the PowerTeam Lures Swinging Hammer. The warmer it gets, the more likely I am to throw this bait.
I am not guaranteeing you anything with this writeup. So, don't think you are going to go out the first trip of the year and load the boat based upon this writeup. But, it works for me. Through experience, I have learned that I can drastically simplify fishing in this month of the year...even down to a specific water column, foliage condition, and a 3-bait selection. If you stick to this approach to the lake and fishing, you will find success. It's exactly what I will be doing all of this month.