If February 2018 is anything like February 2017 — with its unseasonably warm weather — bass fishermen can expect to encounter a good number of trophy fish. The key is water temperature; once it climbs into the lower 50s, big female bass migrate in numbers into shallow staging areas before they even think about spawning.
Although the water is warming, it’s still cold enough to keep most bass from chasing baits. Lures that can be fished with slow, tantalizing presentations account for many of the chunky bass that get scooped up in fishermen’s nets.
Two deadly winter baits that fit the above criteria are what some anglers call “J&J” baits: jigs and jerkbaits.
Those are the baits most-often found tied on by angler Rusty Bowers of Albemarle, N.C., when he fishes Tillery in February and early March.
When the bass start pulling up this month on Tillery, Bowers primarily targets wooden cover in the form of docks, tree laps and logs.
“The winter bass at Tillery love to hang around docks and piers,” he said. “When fish move shallow, that’s where you’ll find most of them. If fish are fairly deep, they’ll be on rock piles or along steep banks upriver, close to where the Uwharrie River empties into the lake. Fish wood or rocks wherever you see birds diving after baitfish. Birds are smarter than we are in locating fish.”
The jig is Bowers’ first choice for bass staging on wood or rock, especially in clear water.
“I like a 1/2-ounce jig with a matching Pro Chunk plastic trailer in green pumpkin, black/blue or red/orange colors,” Bowers said. “Let the fish tell you which color they prefer on a given day.”
Like most anglers, Bowers flips the jig to his targets.
“If the water’s still cold and the fish are inactive, I’ll s-l-o-w-l-y drag the jig back to the boat, keeping it in touch with the bottom and any cover along the way,” he said. “If the fish are active, I’ll hop the jig and keep it hopping all the way back to the boat.”
Bowers favors rattling jigs, believing the additional noise gets the attention of the fish.
His gear consists of a 7-foot-2, heavy action baitcasting rod and baitcasting reel. He keeps a tight drag and religiously spools his reel with Seaguar 20-pound fluorocarbon.
“I always use fluorocarbon,” said Bowers emphatically. “It’s invisible to fish, and since the fish can’t see it, I get more bites.”
If the jig fails to produce, Bowers isn’t stubborn. He’ll employ other options.
“If the water is slightly stained, a small crankbait or a No. 7 Shad Rap works great,” he said.
Although Bowers said the Alabama rig is not a personal favorite of his, he will use it if his regular arsenal of baits fails. To fish it, he uses the same outfit he uses for fishing jigs.
“I rig it with 3-inch plastics and slow-roll it in front of docks in deep water,” said Bowers. “The A-rig sinks quickly, so you don’t want to fish it around shallow docks gutted with brush.”
Given clear water and water temperatures 45 degrees and rising, he ties on his other money lure, a jerkbait, usually a Rapala X-Rap Slashbait in olive green or a Megabass jerkbait in green or purple. He fishes the jerkbait slowly with spinning gear and a reel spooled with 10-pound fluorocarbon.
“Fluorocarbon line isn’t made for spinning reels, but I use it on my spinning reels without much difficulty,” he said.
“Tillery is a great jerkbait lake with its clear, cold water. I like 3-inch jerkbaits and work them slowly. I give the bait a series of twitches instead of jerks.”
Bowers pauses 10 to 15 seconds between twitches, giving the bait time to suspend in front of fish on its way back to the boat.
“Patience is the key to fishing a jerkbait,” Bowers said. “Too many anglers get in a hurry fishing the bait, which is intended for sluggish bass unwilling to chase after lures.”
Bowers keeps a fairly light drag to prevent the tiny hooks found on most jerkbaits from tearing out of the mouth of a fish or from breaking the 10-pound line.
The light drag also saves him money.
“I can’t afford to lose too many jerkbaits, some of which cost more than $20 each,” he said.
Bowers fishes the jerkbait along creek-channel breaks, creek mouths and points.
Bowers said the ideal day for February fishing is sunny with 5 to 10 mph winds, with the lake being stained to muddy. The time to stay home is during and an extreme cold front, with water temperatures dipping below 45 degrees. Both conditions give bass lockjaw.
On a good day, tournament anglers usually have 5-fish catches totaling 20 to 22 pounds at Tillery.
HOW TO GET THERE — North Carolina’s Lake Tillery is the transition reservoir between the Yadkin and Pee Dee river system. The Yadkin becomes the Pee Dee downstream from the spot where the Uwharrie River enters the lake on its eastern bank. East of Albemarle and Norwood and bounded on the north by Morrow Mountain State Park and the Uwharrie National Forest, it forms the border between Stanly and Montgomery counties. The main access is the public ramp on the east side of the NC 24/27 bridge, aka Swift Island. Another popular ramp is in Morrow Mountain State Park.
WHEN TO GO — The winter bite peaks in February given dingy to clear water conditions.
BEST TECHNIQUES — Jigs and jerkbaits take the majority of winter bsdd. Jigs work best in the shallows around docks, tree laps and stumps or in deeper water around rock. Jerkbaits are effective in clear water at points, bends and riprap. Jigs should be fished with heavy baitcasting gear; jerkbaits are deadly with light or medium action spinning gear.
FISHING INFO/GUIDES — Yadkin Lakes Guide Service, 336-249-6782; Joe’s Bait & Tackle, Albemarle, 704-982-8716. See also Guides and Charters in Classifieds.
ACCOMMODATIONS — Stanly County Chamber of Commerce, Albemarle, 704-982-8116; Morrow Mountain State Park offers camping facilities and family vacation cabins, 704-982-4402.
MAPS — Kingfisher Maps, 800-327-0257, www.kfmaps.com.