Johnson, 53, said his personal key to success on any trip is working through a variety of potential patterns to learn what works best on that given day.
"One of the best things about fishing Lake Wateree during February is that there will be some really big fish on the prowl," Johnson said. "The average size of the fish caught will be very good at this time of the year, but a number of quality fish are taken as well. I've fished this lake for 18 years, and if I can't be fishing in Florida where it's nice and warm, I'd just as soon be on Lake Wateree as anywhere."
Johnson is a confirmed plastic-worm specialist, but he's quick to add that during this transition time, he has to get very creative to catch bass consistently.
"Lake Wateree can be a feast-or-famine type lake," he said. "However, through the years, I've learned that sometimes the famine part can be self-imposed if I don't change up my fishing lures and patterns. There are certainly times when crankbaits, spinnerbaits and even jigging spoons will be very important on any given day.
Mark Vining, another Sumter resident who has fished Lake Wateree for 10 years, totally agrees with Johnson's assessment. Vining, 49, is Johnson's frequent partner in bass tournaments and on fun-fishing trips. They have forged an excellent approach for fishing Wateree.
"During February and March, with so much change in water temperature - and often water color - the patterns are subject to huge changes in short time periods," Vining said. "With the common goal of catching more bass, we'll divide and conquer, with each of us trying different lures and patterns until one of us begins to get it right. In addition to thinking in terms of the right place to fish, we're also factoring in the right speed of the lure for the given day we're fishing and the right depth."
Johnson said that team-working is also apparent even when they are both fishing their favorite plastic worms. They both prefer fishing Texas-rigged worms on Lake Wateree in February, and they usually go with an eighth-ounce bullet weight and a 7½-inch worm, but the similarities end there.
"We both love fishing plastic worms, and they are really very productive, even in early February," Johnson said. "By late in February and through March, (they) get even better, but our individual ways of fishing a worm are different, and I think that helps us on some days. I prefer to hold the rod tip high and twitch it slowly when working the worm. Mark will generally hold the rod tip down and drag the worm slowly over the bottom.
As we've discovered, there's really no wrong or right way to fish the worm, because each technique can be singularly effective. On some days, the bass will prefer one (way) over the other. Of course, we'll quickly adopt the other person's technique if it's successful. But on other days, either technique will work at times, or we'll sometimes have to go to a jig and pork frog or a totally different lure to get consistent bites."
As they go through the pattern-searching process, they work together to give different lures an opportunity at different types of cover or structure.
"Points are excellent places to find bass this time of the year," Johnson said. "A lot of our favorite points will have big chunk rock and stumps in three to seven feet of water. Often, the depth will drop down to 10 to 15 feet. Usually, we can find some active bass in that depth range. If I'm working a plastic worm, then Mark will use something like a Shad Rap or other diving crankbait. Then I'll switch to a spinnerbait, and if that doesn't work, we may try the jigging spoon for a few minutes. When we find a fish, especially in deeper water, we'll quickly toss out a marker boy and fish that specific area thoroughly. Often, we'll pick up several more fish in the immediate vicinity.
"One key we think is essential is to have plenty of patience and perseverance at this time of the year," Johnson said. "We'll give each place a really good effort. When we leave a place, we'll know we have thoroughly worked it and are confident we didn't leave any biting fish behind. However, we're also prone to make another pass across the same points, humps or stretches of shoreline later in the day. Sometimes a few hours later, what seemed to be a dead zone may be teeming with aggressive fish. That's just a part of the seasonal process of fishing during February and into March."
Vining said forage is also a factor in where they fish and the type and size lures they use.
"I'm always looking for signs of forage fish on the (depthfinder) as well as seeing them dimple the water around where we fish," he said. "I like to match the hatch, so to speak, and if we can determine the size of the forage in the area, then we'll use lures that best imitate that in terms of size and color pattern. That's why the natural-shad color patterns are among our favorites when working crankbaits. I think when the water temperature is cold, getting the lure close to the natural forage size is more effective. During warmer weather, when the metabolism of the fish is higher and they may be more aggressive, it may not be as important. But it is the little things like this that can make a big difference on Lake Wateree during February."
Wateree is full of private boat docks in all water depths. They are an important part of Johnson and Vining's overall game plan.
"We see a lot of fishermen by-passing docks early in the year because they don't think bass will relate to them, but that's not the case," Johnson said. "We are successful fishing around docks year-round, but the productive patterns can change a lot - even from one day to the next. Again, that's why we'll work a series of docks with a variety of lures.
"We'll also usually select a stretch of shoreline where there are changes in underwater contours," he said "We'll often fish around a main-lake point back into a cove or small creek. Somewhere along the way, we'll be picking up largemouth bass activity. We may find them biting a worm, crankbait, spinnerbait or other lure, but once we get locked onto a basic depth and bottom substrate pattern, we can quickly go to other areas with similar characteristics and hopefully repeat the process."
Johnson said the weather often plays a role, but they simply go when they can and adapt to the weather conditions for the day.
"If I could pick a favorite day, it would be a cloudy day, with a high in the mid-60's with the wind blowing mildly out of the south," Johnson said. "There will usually be a few of those each year, but the reality is, fishermen have got to learn to catch fish on those 45- to 50-degree days with a gusty northwest wind. Frequently, those tougher days are when some of the largest fish are caught, but we do like to get to the lake early, even during February. Often, we'll find some active largemouth right at dawn."