"Bayou Bill" Scifres
Dedicated to the conservation and enjoyment of Indiana's natural resources
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Late-Winter Open Water Fishing
Copyright © 2005 by Bill Scifres

As February eases into the Hoosier outdoor picture smaller bodies of standing water are well covered with ice from one end of the state to the other. But the month almost always tries to appease the outdoors set for  January’s dire weather deeds by serving up some open water fishing..
This kind of fishing for members of the sunfish family--primarily largemouth bass, crappies and bluegill--is not always fast, but the angler who stays with it often takes home fish. And there is no better fish for the table than those that are taken before water temperatures start rising.
Days of bright sunshine and temperatures in the 40s or 50s are favored by most anglers at this time of year, but they are not always the best days to fish. The best days for this kind of fishing are calm, but overcast, days with temperatures anywhere above freezing. A light drizzle brings even better fishing conditions.
Many years of ice fishing tells us that the metabolism of fish, like other cold-blooded critters, slows as water temperatures become lower in the fall. But when the sun creeps northward at this time of year, it triggers  the urge to spawn, and this, in turn, tells fish of most species that it is time to get their bodies ready for the reproductive cycle. That translates into feeding binges--slow at first but picking up as days grow longer and water temperatures rise.

Bill James, chief of the Division of Fish and Wildlife’s Fisheries Section for the last few decades, says when bodies of water turn over in the fall temperatures are the same from top to bottom. But as winter comes on and water surfaces are covered with ice, the water temperature is just above freezing under the ice and slightly warmer below.

As water temperatures creep into the 40’s fish become more active and the arrival of 50-degree temperatures bring even greater feeding activity. Feeding activities peak just before fish spawn.

An important thing to remember about late-winter fishing revolves around the fact that surfaces of standing water need not be all ice, or all open, for fish to bite. A mix of ice and open water works just fine.

Although my dad taught me many years ago that bass would hit slow-moving artificial lures in open water situations, it was many years before I would discover, quite by accident, that bass would hit the same lures when standing waters were part iced and part open.

I had gone to one of my favorite farm ponds with the hope of snaking some bluegills out through the ice with ice fishing gear. But the shallow end of the pond was free of ice (shallow water warms faster than deep water) and I wondered if I might be able to catch a bass or two on artificials.

I had a light spinning outfit in my car because I had used it earlier to fish the jigging Rapala lure (hooks tipped with bee moth larva). So all I had to do to satisfy my curiosity was to tie on a ¼ (one-fourth) ounce Gapen Hairy Worm (purple) and walk to the shallow end of the pond.

A few casts into the shallows brought no action, so out of curiosity I cast the lure as far as I could onto the clear ice over the deep end of the pond. I scooted the lure over the ice slowly and when it dropped into the open water I thought I felt a fish pick it up.

I didn’t hook that fish, but the hint of action prompted me to repeat my loony ice-skidding activity. Before long I had hooked two bass soon after the lure had dropped from the ice into the water..

I have not found these conditions since, but on numerous occasions I have taken bass, crappie and bluegills in open water during February and March.

One of my favorite methods for late-winter, open-water bass fishing is offering live night crawlers on a three hook harness, but a wide variety of artificial lures will produce good (if slow) results. For many years I labored under the false assumption that slow moving, dark lures were best and I  recorded this opinion in a column. A short time later I had a report of a fellow nailing a huge bass . . . while cranking a bright yellow spinner bait just below the surface. In lure selection, let your wildest thoughts be your guide.

I like small minnow-jig combinations fished very slowly behind a casting bobber for crappies, and leftover ice-fishing bee moth larva drifted with only a hook (or a small split shot if it is windy) behind a casting bobber for bluegills.  

But whatever your method, the watchword is s-l-o-w. Fish are slow now . . . to catch them you will have more success if you play their game. Perhaps I will be corrected on that thinking, too.

All columns, essays, and photos are copyrighted by Bill Scifres and may not be reproduced in any form without prior permission from the author.  For reproduction permission and media usage fees, contact: Bill Scifres, 6420 East 116th Street, Fishers, IN 46038, E-mail: billscifres@aol.com

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