Catch your trophy in February; longer days revive hopes in many Kentucky angler’s souls

Published 1:37 pm Monday, February 12, 2024

FRANKFORT — Not long ago, wind chills bottomed out at 15 degrees below zero. After this arctic wave passed, Kentuckians endured monsoon rains that prompted rivers and streams to jump up quickly and run high for weeks.

It is enough to give outdoors enthusiasts the blues. January came in like a lamb, then roared out like a lion. February, with its gradually longer days and an occasional warm front, revives hopes in many Kentucky angler’s souls.

For February marks the beginning of a time when anglers with perseverance and a willingness to deal with the elements can catch the best fish of their lifetime, especially largemouth and smallmouth bass.

It starts with the warmer rains that raise water temperatures and trigger fish to begin feeding in preparation for the coming spawn. It’s a process that can happen quickly. In late January, for example, Central Kentucky’s Elkhorn Creek measured barely above 32 degrees. Following rains that swelled the creek, the Elkhorn’s water temperature jumped to nearly 51 degrees within four days.

“February is our wet season,” said Mike Hardin, assistant director of Fisheries for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. “We start to warm up from the deep freeze. Critters start moving, even salamanders get active at this time of year.”

By mid-February, female bass are gearing up for spawning. They need healthy fat reserves to power them through the rigors of reproduction. Instinct tells them to eat, even if it is dark and gloomy February.

“This is when female fish get eggy,” Hardin explained. “They need food so they can store energy for spring spawning that is still several weeks away in Kentucky. We are now starting to come out of the winter pattern, with our days getting longer and the water warming.”

Old-timers knew the pattern well.

Once February rains had raised Herrington Lake, flooding the shoreline cover and coloring the water, hearty anglers donned heavy wool jackets and fished the upper end of the lake.

Since this was decades before electric trolling motors, anglers used wooden sculling paddles to stealthily move among the shallow stumps and logs. Huge largemouth bass, flushed into shallow water by the rising lake, waited in this cover to ambush prey from their lairs.

Anglers employed stout cane poles with heavy black Dacron line tied onto the slender end of the pole. They impaled night crawlers on large hooks, then gently dunked their bait beside the stumps and along the sunken logs in the muddy water. Sometimes huge fish inhaled the offering.

This technique, called jigging, also proved effective when Lake Cumberland first filled in the 1950s. The new lake featured plenty of flooded shoreline trees for bass cover. Jigging’s popularity declined in Lake Cumberland as wave action eventually destroyed the cover. Looking at the nearly featureless bank of the huge lake at winter pool now, it is hard to believe the bank was once wooly.

As shoreline cover in Kentucky’s lakes has degraded with age, today’s anglers rarely use sculling paddles and fat gobs of nightcrawlers to catch shallow largemouth bass in February. Instead, they pitch ½-ounce black and blue jigs with large matching trailers beside shallow stumps, dock pylons or sunken logs. Big female largemouth still move to shallow cover after February rains like they did decades ago.

Hardin related a story about his uncle who loved fishing in late winter. “He looked for 51-degree water and places with floating debris and leaves,” he explained. “He would fish under the debris. Now they call this presentation punching. He caught more bass in 51-degree water than he did in 70-degree water.”

A pronounced warm front in mid-to-late February draws big female smallmouth bass from their deep winter haunts into shallower water on Lake Cumberland. This also happens on Laurel River Lake, the upper Kentucky end of Dale Hollow Lake and the lower reaches of Green River Lake.

A warming trend accompanying rainfall that causes the lake to rise also pushes big smallmouth bass among shallow flooded timber, stumps or logs. A white spinnerbait with a large chrome and smaller gold Colorado blade allowed to spiral down beside the flooded tree may produce a monster smallmouth. This presentation is known to fool shallow smallmouth in water as cold as the mid-40s.

“On Lake Cumberland, you get that warm water inflow with rains that can turn on the big smallmouth,” Hardin said.

A stretch of warm days without rain that elevates the water a few degrees in February often draws big smallmouth bass onto flats near deep water. They also move into small cuts in the bank along the main lake or on long, sloping points that end in deep water. A medium-sized live shiner crawled on a flat, in the middle of a cut or worked down the slope of a point produces strikes.

At this time of year, there is the potential for large fish in these areas. Live bait fools trophy smallmouth bass better than anything you can throw.

“With warm water, often the fish just move vertically,” said Hardin. “They move up in the water column from deep water and nose up on the bank. They often don’t move horizontally very much at all.”

Hardin recommends looking for warmer water near deep wintering spots like a sunny bank along a creek or river channel. The large fish simply need to move up in the water column in areas like this.

February is the shortest month of the year. A few big largemouth or smallmouth bass helps pass this often dreary month more quickly.