Probe the Depths For Lake Hartwell Winter Bass

Troy Morrow and his partner won a January 20 pot tournament at Hartwell. They used a pattern they say will work well into February

Don Baldwin | February 1, 2007

Troy Morrow of Toccoa with a Hartwell largemouth that won him big-fish honors in a January 20 pot tournament. The fish weighed 4.4 pounds.

Tournament bass anglers are a serious and dedicated bunch. You’ll find them lined up at first light at boat ramps on most of our Georgia reservoirs, ready to blast off for a day of competition. Winter is no exception. While most of us prefer to sit at home on blustery cold days and sharpen hooks, rearrange tackle boxes or watch fishing shows, these guys are out there striving to win their next event. Rain, snow, high winds, it doesn’t matter; these “tough guys” of fishing brave the elements to move their tournament careers forward.

Troy Morrow of Toccoa is one such tournament fisherman. At 35 years of age, he has already made a name for himself on a couple of the more prestigious trails like BASS and BFL, and he still competes with his buddies in local pot tournaments on his home lake of Hartwell. He qualified and fished the BFL All American last year and was headed out for a BASS event the day after we met.

I caught up with Troy and regular fishing partner Jim Smith at the ramp at Poplar Springs on a Saturday afternoon in mid January. Troy and Jim had a nice sack of fish and were preparing to weigh in for the pot tournament they had fished that day.

It was clear that they had done well, and they seemed confident that they had a good chance to win the 23-boat event. When all was said and done, Troy and Jim captured the first-place check with a 17.17-lb., five-fish string and landed the big-fish pot as well with a chunky 4.4-pounder. All of the fish were largemouth. Not a bad day considering that there had been a substantial amount of rain the previous week and that the morning low that Saturday hovered in the mid- to high-20s.

Troy and his tournament partner Jim Smith (left) with their 17.17-lb. winning string. All of the fish came out of deep, cold water in the mid-lake area.

Troy and Jim started their day in a major mid-lake creek near Portman Shoals. They chose that portion of the lake because the water upstream was dingy and the temperatures were likely to be a little warmer farther downstream. Even so, the surface temperature gauge showed a frigid 44 degrees when they made their first cast. Their first target was a bridge about midway back in the creek, and they focused on the points where the rip-rap met the channel under the span. Troy made long casts with a Blade Runner along the points of the rip-rap, let the bait sink to the bottom and began a slow retrieve keeping the bait in touch with the bottom as long as possible. They had a keeper in the boat right away but then the action slowed, and they moved to their next spot.

Next, Troy selected a deep-water dock and probed the area in front of it with a Blade Master jig and rubber trailer.

“I like docks that have deep water, 15 feet or so, and plenty of brush in front of them,” Troy said. “I usually work the outside corners first and then move in front of the dock and fish the brush.”

Troy recommends that you fish the jig slowly and work the brush thoroughly. In extremely cold water you have to put the jig right in front of the fish to get it to strike.

After they picked up a couple of fish around the dock, one of which was a keeper, Troy moved to a smaller creek and pulled up over a submerged roadbed that topped out in about 29 feet of water.

Troy swings a nice largemouth aboard to add to the already hefty string.

“I knew that this roadbed had a small culvert under it and that the upstream side was slightly deeper than the surrounding water,” said Troy. “Sometimes a difference of only three or four feet can cause the bait, and bass, to congregate in an area.”

When they settled over the spot, Troy watched his graph for signs of bait and feeding fish. The water temperature had warmed a couple of degrees from the morning low, and the fish may have been getting more active.
What he saw on the graph got his attention, and he quickly dropped a jigging spoon over the side. There was plenty of bait in the area and he could see it in numerous small patches on the graph.

“When bait is in big thick clouds it is usually an indication that nothing is feeding on them and they are inactive,” said Troy.

When bass or other predators crash into the schools of bait they tend to break it up into smaller pods and move around a lot. It was these small pods that cranked up Troy’s adrenaline. Dropping a 5/8-oz. Hopkins spoon to the bottom, Troy made a couple of quick jerks with the rod and a bass slammed into the bait. When Troy fought the fish to the boat he could see several other fish following it, and he knew he was in for some quick action. Jim played net man and helped Troy get the bait back into the water quickly, and he was hooked up again within a matter of seconds. Before the bite turned off they had their winning string, and it was just 10:30 a.m.

For wintertime success, Troy listed a few basics that he has found to continually be effective. The jigging spoon is one of the all-time favorite mid-winter baits. If you can find a school of fish, it will almost always produce. It is simple to fish and will draw strikes from many different species. In the mid-winter, fish tend to congregate in deeper holes and wait for bait to come by. Slight differences in bottom contour can make a big difference in your fishing success. Look for isolated areas that are slightly different from the surroundings, and you are likely to find fish. Use your electronics religiously. If you don’t see bait in an area, you are less likely to catch fish than in areas where there is a lot of bait holding. Slow down and fish an area thoroughly. Fish are lethargic in the cold water and won’t chase a bait very far. You may have to make multiple casts to the same spot to entice a fish to strike.

On warm days with a light breeze fish the backs of short windward pockets. Bait will be pushed into the pockets by the wind and stack up, attracting bass to feed.

Since most of the fish they catch in the winter are from deep water the fish “blow up” when they are pulled to the surface due to the reduction in pressure. This can make it difficult to release fish since they are inflated like a balloon and can’t get back down below the surface. While some anglers who practice catch-and-release deflate the fish’s swim bladder with a hypodermic needle, this can be difficult and an angler can harm the fish if they don’t know the proper technique.

Instead of using a needle to release air from a deep-caught bass’ swim bladder, Troy Morrow uses this apparatus to release fish. Using his depthfinder, Troy watches the 3-oz. weight return the fish to deep water. When the fish is deep enough, he’ll pop the line, releasing the gently placed hook from its mouth.

Troy and Jim have come up with another solution to get the fish down. The rig consists of a heavy weight (three or four ounces) attached to a hook eye with a short piece of line (about 12 to 15 inches). The rig is tied to a rod line at the curve of the hook so that the hook is facing downward, with the weight below it, when suspended from a rod. The fish is hooked on lightly and dropped overboard with the weight pulling the fish to the bottom in about the same depth from which it was taken. Once the fish reaches the required depth, a light jerk of the rod tip will free the hook and release the fish. With the pressure equalized, the fish stays down and swims off. I watched Troy and Jim release several fish with the rig, and I could follow the whole process on the graph. Not one fish came back up. Troy believes this method greatly increases the survival rate of bass released in the winter that were caught in deep water.

Troy says the patterns he and Jim fished in January will work well through February and even into early March if the weather, and water, stays cold. So why don’t you turn off that fishing show and head out to fight the elements like the tournament boys do? You might find out that cold weather angling is more than worth the effort.

Troy’s deep-winter arsenal: A spoon, jig and Blade Runner probe the depths while the jerkbait can be dynamite in the early morning around bridges and rip-rap.

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