"Bayou Bill" Scifres
Dedicated to the conservation and enjoyment of Indiana's natural resources
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Copyright © 2007 by Bill Scifres
February 2007

Depending on the weatherman’s mood, the month of February can be one of the most miserable of the year. But mix the bad days with the good and you come up with one of the year’s most interesting periods because it is at least a beginning of the beginning.

It is true, of course, that only a handful of the hunting seasons is open, but hardy souls still find things to do to thwart “couch potatoism.” Many of them involve fishing. I don’t know what it is that launches this urge in man--especially those who wet lines--but come February the fishing urge awakens abruptly and there is no cure--short of getting out there.

I am usually informed by nature when it is time to fish, especially for open water. It comes in various forms--nature telling me casual-like that it is a time to fish. It may ride in on the flowering buds of a maple tree (they are a beautiful reddish-pink, you know), the geese paired, rather than flocked, or the tiny shoots of wildflowers. They happen every spring before it is officially here.

One time a few years back there was an unexplainable feeling about me as I sat at the computer trying to work. There’s nothing more stark than a blank computer screen, so after a time I turned the computer off, pulled on my dilapidated parka sweatshirt, and slipped out the garage door into swirling snowflakes as big as dimes. 

For a time I could see nothing that even resembled spring. But as I stood motionless at the base of a large ash tree beside my pond, my eyes focused on the edge of the pond where the previous summer rotting leave mingled with bleached weeds and other debris in the icy water.  For a while there was nothing. Then, as I zeroed in on the shallow water at the edge of edge pond, the slightest movement captured me.

There in the jumble of nature’s old products, I noticed the slightest, slow movement and picked up a strong branch to rake the weeds back a bit to uncover the scaly, black foot of a snapping turtle.

My first thought was to help this big, lumbersome fellow escape the quagmire where he had wintered, but before acting on the matter the swirling snowflakes riding a fierce north wind told me it might be a bit early. So I marked the spot and left him there to awaken more thoroughly when the time was right.

But, walking back to the computer, I knew it was time fish.

Be what it may that flips one’s cork, February is the month when fishing starts for the dyed-in-the-wool. Sure enough, fishing is slow in February--some species wouldn’t think (if fish thought) of biting. Still, such species as suckers and largemouth bass in small waters start thinking of spawing at this time of year. That leads to an urge for food to build spawning strength (which started the previous fall in bass, maybe suckers) and as this increases so does their metabolism. I liken it to an overloaded freight train with an ancient steam engine. To move requires much huffing and puffing, but once the load is moving speed mounts to runaway fury with seemingly little effort.

How to fish for these species, as different as daylight and darkness, is a work of art, although either species will be taken occasionally with completely unorthodox methods. Mistakes happen when dealing with nature as surely as they happen with man. There is a pattern for each species. Of course, some of the other species will be taken coincidental to sucker and bass fishing, but this is the exception, not the rule.

Taking first things first, largemouth bass are known for deep, slow feeding habits, especially in the early spring. My dad figured a pattern that would take bass in late winter, or early spring, on his lunch hour at the place where he worked at Austin, IN.

Instead of sitting around a table talking about bass fishing with others, he would take his bait-casting outfit to work, and when lunch was finished he would beat it to some nearby gravel pit to try the bass. At first, fellow employees thought him a little unbalanced in the head, but when he started bringing in bass he was joined on the water by his friends.

At first, he admitted, to trying bright spinner baits at moderate depths, but he hit on deep, slow running bottom bumpers of dark colors. These lures paid big dividends, and had a lasting effect on my bass fishing thinking whenever I fish, even though I use all types, all colors, later in the warm months and fall. 

But his early spring thinking makes a lot of sense--if you think and act like a fish. Cold water slows the metabolism of fish, and vision toward the sun (or lighter sky) detects dark lures better than light.

Thus, a slow-moving bottom bumper--or one near the bottom--is seen better. Add the fact that many food sources are the ammunition for nesting--and you are thinking bass.

Bait-casting tackle is good, of course, because it allows the angler to cover more water. However, it still must go slow and deliberate because bites often come slowly and they are frequently light, especially when plastic worms or other soft lures--or even live bait--are being used. Slow may determine success.

There are a number of suckers in our waters, but only two that we really fish for. They are the white sucker and the redhorse, although many outdoorsmen speak of black suckers. White suckers have smaller scales over the front (head) third or so of their bodies, and the redhorse is covered with scales that are all the same size. Otherwise, a fish may very well be a member of the sucker family but of some other kind, quillbacks, buffalo, even shad included.

Still, fishing for suckers and using the catch as food is well worth the effort if one learns how to handle the fish in all stages of preparation. A big drawback for eating suckers revolves around the fact that their meat is full of small, needle-like bones. 

But eating suckers is much like the dry wit recipe of Downeast folks for Bruswick Stew. It starts: “First you get the deer.” And so it is with suckers.

I start thinking of sucker fishing soon after the New Year bows in, and suckers go to the riffle, presumably to spawn. When suckers start moving to shallow, swift water they will bite. Through cold winter months the suckers--like other species--are in deep pools--possibly schooled.

Although suckers spend most of the cold months in deep holes, when that spring urge to spawn comes--they are free spawners--they build no nest and do not care for their eggs. They like the channels, especially those with gravel or sand bottom. That is indubitably because of their free-spawning tendencies. This is where I find them most, and this is where I fish for them.

When one becomes familiar with rivers and streams, the general location of channels (though they are inundated) will be apparent. Ordinarily, I find them just off fairly steep banks, often too deep for any thoughts of wading. However, I like to wade when I find knee-boot water adjacent to a channel. I don’t think it wise to go deeper. Any disturbance is not a plus. Even shadows on clear water can make suckers wary.

My favorite pole for fishing suckers is characterized by its simplicity.

All I want for a sucker fishing is about seven to nine feet long pole and it should be about the diameter of my thumb at tag (butt) end which should be sharpened for sticking into the bank. It should, of course, be smaller at the tip--say 3/16 of an inch or smaller. I like braided line for the back end with two to three feet of 4-pound test monofilament spliced in on the hook end. This gives me good view at the point where the line enters the water, and makes the line less visible in the three feet of the mono. I have always thought this arrangement thwarts the wary character of suckers. I don’t know. It is just my preference. This rig gives the angler a good view where it enters the water, but dull view for the fish.

The braid end of the line (half again as long as the pole) is attached with a slipknot to the middle (strongest part) of the pole. The line is wrapped around the pole to its tip where excess line is wound tightly around the tip and kept in place with a couple of half hitches. This changes as one moves to deeper or shallower spots.

The idea is to keep just enough free line beyond the pole tip to reach bottom straight down and have a foot or so free line to keep the line in constant touch with hook and wrap-on sinker. The sinker should be just heavy enough to keep the gobbed worm (or other live bait) on the bottom and keep the angler a little informed on what is going on down there. Hook should be about 1/4 (one fourth) of an inch at the gap (distance between post and point, bend). Using short-shanked hook (one to the pole) allows the angler to gob a garden worm and completely hide the hook. Be sneaky.

Drop the bait until the sinker hits bottom, then keep it there with a gentle up-down motion of an inch or two. This is known as “tightlining” and will help in the feel of a bite when the sensation goes up the line to the pole, and to the hand that is holding the pole. Indiana law allows three, two-hook rigs, but I usually go with two because I have two hands. 

I am always looking for fishing poles along the roadsides. A good sucker pole has a lot in common with a good mushroom stick. Ordinarily I take along a pair of seven to nine-foot rather sturdy fly rods without reels as backups. 

I like garden worms for bait. They seem to work better than nightcrawlers when gobbed on a hook. But some of my friends have told me of catching suckers on bee-moth larvae. That makes sense. Suckers are bottom feeders on all kinds of larvae and small molluscan life. Still, any live bait may produce. I have never heard of suckers being taken on artificial lures, but I try to point out that one should never say never when dealing with wild critters.

As for the handling (cleaning and preserving), both bass and suckers have been addressed in archival writings. The search engine at the bottom of the opening page of my web page (www.bayoubill.com) will help one find additional information, and many pictures.

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All columns 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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