“The Southern Tackle Box”
The Dog Days of Winter
I’m not sure if there is such a thing as the “dog days of winter”, but if there was, it would have to be fishing our area striper lakes in February. For our area lakes, February is a month when the water is the coldest with water temperatures getting down to the mid to low 40’s. During this period the fish slow down along with their metabolism and food requirements. Stripers and bass will generally hold in deeper areas, usually in groups and becoming finicky eaters at times. They don’t move around in search of food like in the spring and summer but choose to wait on the food to come to them. They turn into “opportunists” rather than “aggressors”. They become real couch potatoes in February, just like me. If I decide to brave the cold wintery weather and test my winter skills against our finned adversaries, I start thinking vertical. There is good reason for this as we approach a winter shad kill. That is, if we have one this year. I can only imagine what a shad kill would look like to a hungry school of stripers waiting below. Two years ago in February on LakeLanier I remember waiting on a friend to show up at the launch. I had already launched my skiff and motored out to mid creek and watched big schools of tiny threadfin shad flipping, skittering and dying at the surface of the lake, only to float down to the depths with the occasional twitch on the way down. Surface water temps were 43-44 degrees and the shad die off was in full swing in some of the major creeks. Fishing was tough and a lot of the striper fishermen were switching to crappie and the early spring crappie bite. Gulls were everywhere in the creeks looking for a quick meal as the desperate shad would rise to the surface before cramping, dying and sinking. It was frustrating to fishermen because most of the bird and bait action didn’t involve fish. The fish were usually in groups and nice and cozy on the bottom waiting for the nutritious downpour of dying and dead shad. No hurry, the meal was on its way and judging from the huge amounts I saw dying, there were plenty of shad to go around for the hungry schools.
With that kind of backdrop in February I really have to think about spoons and vertical jigging. I believe the fish are genetically tuned to feeding on smaller baits and a more vertical presentation during these colder periods. If I run across a school of fish in February, I may throw a few things at the fish out of my fishing arsenal. This may include the use of u-rigs and live bait if I have it, but one thing is for sure, I’ll have some kind of spoon at the ready. It’s more about matching the hatch and the proper action during the shad kill. If I’m vertical jigging throughout the shad kill, I tend to mimic that same action I witnessed two years earlier in that creek. After a short death dance on the surface, the shad drifted down with the occasional twitch. I have a small spoon, usually a half ounce or less, bent in the shape of a banana to create a floating appearance. My rule of thumb is “white, light and flashy” for vertical fishing. I like using fluorocarbon as a main line or leader material on light to medium spinning gear. I like using light to medium because of the extra action I can put on the little spoon. I don’t really use a swivel but a 25-30 lb split ring between the line and spoon will give the spoon some extra action on the drop. When I’m working the spoon, it’s generally over the top of the school by a few feet. Visibility is a factor and I like to keep it close to the fish and I don’t give up easy. All it takes is one fish to trigger the whole school into aggressive feeding behavior. Most times the school will follow the hooked fish in hopes of getting the next meal. I know this may be hard to do, but sometimes you can keep the first fish on while dropping a second jig in the same area for a double hookup. This is especially true with big schools of hybrids in our southern lakes. As a striper fisherman I like pulling live bait in the shallows for the big single fish just about any cooler month of the year, but I won’t pass up the opportunity to outsmart a school of lethargic stripers or hybrids under the boat with a spoon in February. There are times that a hungry school may come to the surface aggressively feeding on the shad. During these surface feeding periods I can throw that very same spoon into the feeding area for a chance at a feeding fish by burning the spoon through the school or using a stop and drop method. The spoon is a handy little jig to have tied on and ready in the colder part of February. Fighting the urge to stay home by the warm fire is hard for me to do but the urge to fight just one or two fish on a spoon in the cold winter weather is much stronger. Dress warm and be safe…