The plan I’ve been collaborating on with my buddy Brent was to meet at a small community lake in northern Virginia. We had fished and filmed there several times in the last year. He had caught two largemouth in the six pound range, and I joined him a few times breaking the five-pound mark. We also caught many quality crappie on bass-sized lures like spinnerbaits and crankbaits. He had checked on the lake Thursday evening to make sure it wasn’t frozen over.
To my disappointment, when I arrive I see solid ice. Walking down to the edge, I pick up a football helmet-sized rock and smash the ice. It’s an inch and a half thick. Brent joins me shortly. His boots crunching the icy snow pack as he approaches, he asks “Plan B?” Without looking up from the lake’s new clear ice, I reply, “Yeah, I think I have something good... How far are you willing to drive?”
Brent follows me another two hours into Virginia before we reach the destination. Along the way, each river or stream we cross is either frozen solid or slushy on its way to grinding to a halt. As we unload kayaks, I notice Brent’s lack of faith. He hasn’t seen the water yet. We drag boats down a snowy shoulder and lift them over a guard rail at a bridge. I monitor his face regularly, waiting for the moment when his eyes see the water. They do, and a broad grin crowds out his look of doubt. The small river, barely a cast across, is completely ice free.
“What’s the deal with this place?” he asks. “Springs - this entire valley is oozing with 52°F water. Look at the green on that far bank.” He glances upstream, seeing the abrupt end of white snow cover meeting with the kind of lush green that you see in May. We hop in and paddle upstream. Within the first five casts, I catch caught two small bass. Brent’s second cast hooks a chunky 17.5” fish. Now these are largemouth and spotted bass, but this scenario plays out on smallmouth streams as well.
Brent dips his hand into the water, and holds it in place a moment or two before he calls to me, “You bring a thermometer?” I didn’t bother. “No, but it usually runs in the mid-40s here,” I call back. We slowly make our way upstream, picking apart the laydowns on opposite banks. For the most part, we are catching 9” to 13” bass, but the occasional 16 -- 17 incher takes the 3.5”shakey head-rigged finesse worms we are throwing.
By mid-day we catch more fish than we would have on a July day on the same water. They are stacked up on woody cover in a series of 8’ to 15’ deep pools. Brent asks, “So they all come here to stay warm all winter?” I shake my head and answer, “No, they would be here even if this river was iced up. Just like power plant warm water discharges, they don’t move the area to stay warm. If the hole is a good one, and it coincides with warmer water, they will be actively feeding all winter.”
I go on to explain that I’ve found plenty of spring-influenced waters that are too shallow, have too much current, and are void of fish despite the warmer water temperatures. “So who told you about this spot?” Brent prods. I laugh before answering, “Cheap 87 octane gas, an old Dodge Ram pickup, and lots of time on my hands told me about this place.”
I fish when it’s hopeless in the dead of winter, but I learn things in doing so. I see green banks when there shouldn’t be any. I see birds congregating in certain areas that don’t have ice. I drive around and see signs like “Carson Springs Road” or “Luray Caverns” The same underground water movement that opens up caverns will pump 52°Fwater into nearby rivers. I paddle miles and miles of river with a thermometer dragging along in the water. Occasionally, I find water that spikes its temperature in a specific part of a pool. I see the water gurgle out of a clay bank, and notice that the shadows in that pool are moving.
But the pool directly in front of a big spring may not be the sweet spot. It’s more about a region. Headwaters of a watershed are usually the most spring influenced. You might find 49°F water in a 3’ 4’ deep pool, and have no fish. Three miles downstream, that spring water influence might have faded to 40°F water. That pool is 9’deep with a big ledge at the head that diverts all the current to the opposite shore. A calm-water eddy forms on the ledge rock side, and there you’ll have a pile of big fish waiting for a mid-winter snack.
And that’s what happened next as Brent and I pushed upstream. I flicked a shakey head finesse worm to the barely moving foam swirl at the head of the pool. Imagining the subtle quiver of the soft plastic on the fall, I watch the bright yellow braided line pendulum swing into the depth. Looking downstream to Brent, I call out, “Come join me up here!” When I look up at my line again, it has moved about 4’to the left. I question my observation, not having felt a hit and give the rod tip a gentle lift. It throbs, I set, it doesn’t budge. “BREEEENNT!” I call out. He’s paddling up immediately, pulling out the video camera as he glides closer to me.
A 4lb 7oz, 20.25” largemouth turns down deep. I see the silver, black, and green glint through the clear emerald-green waters. The broad fish turns my kayak around before I am able to insert my thumb into its mouth and hoist it out of the water. It’s 33°F outside, but that sort of thing makes me all warm and happy inside.
To see Jeff and Brent’s day unfold on film, subscribe to the Tight Line Junkie’s Journal.