When the water temperature in lakes across the Carolinas starts to plummet as winter approaches, many bass fishermen jump at the chance to fish those reservoirs that, because of the presence of a power plant, have a warm-water discharge.

“Hot-hole” fishing typically features water that is unseasonably warm, and bass that seek out that water and act like fish on the cusp of spring. Leave the boat ramp and find the warm water; what could be easier?

Bass pro and guide Joel Richardson fishes a handful of hot-hole lakes near his home in Kernersville, N.C., but heading for the warm water isn’t an automatic move when he backs his boat down the ramp.

“Just because the water is warm doesn’t mean fish will be shallow, but they can be,” he said. “It’s the depth and where the baitfish are living that dictates everything. No matter how warm the water is, if the baitfish are on the cold end of the lake, you won’t catch any fish in the warm water.

“Bass can tolerate cold water if there’s food there, but they can’t eat warm water if there’s no food there.”

Richardson said shad are drawn to areas where they can get plenty to eat. If their food isn’t in an area affected by the warm-water discharge when January arrives, they aren’t moving to the warm water, and neither are the bass.

“You have to find the baitfish, and you have to spend your time where the baitfish are located,” he said.

If baitfish are in cold water, Richardson said it’s going to be a drop-shot, jigging-spoon bite in deep water. If the baitfish are in areas affected by the warm-water discharge, lures can range from spinnerbaits to topwater plugs to plastic worms fished around cover.

“Every year is different,” he said.

Richardson believes that current is of the utmost importance in catching winter bass in hot-hole lakes, and not only the current being set up by areas where warm water is being pumped back into the lake. 

“There will be current near the intake where the water is being pulled out of the lake, and you’ve got the current coming out of the warm-water discharge, so you’ve got a loop of current that’s set up that can cover a lot of water,” he said. “At Belews Lake, the intake and discharges are about 4 miles apart, by water, and there may be as many bass at the intake as the discharge.”

Richardson will look for structure somewhere along the loop of current, places that will hold baitfish and bass. 

“You’ve got some deeper eddies down there that you’ll never see, places you find by experience,” he said. “But if you’ve got current, you’ll have certain spots the current has to run over or go around that will hold fish: shoals, humps, maybe a point, a place between and island and the land.

“Where you’ve got current, you’ve got places where bass are going to pull up and feed.”