Tilt the Odds in Your Favor for February

by Chris Gorsuch

  For most open-water anglers, February can be a depressing time of year. And while cabin fever can hit us all this time of year, I still look for opportunities to target bass and walleye on the river. Between outdoor shows and seminars, I enjoy a few days of fishing when conditions allow. Hands down, February can be one of the most challenging months to target smallmouth.

 As I write this, winter 2023 has started off unseasonably mild.  Finding and catching active bass the first three weeks was fairly easy compared to previous years. But no matter how mild a start, we all know that winter is coming, and cold weather is right around the corner. Anglers (myself included) will be watching the weather daily to see how far the evening temperatures drop. Overnight temperatures will impact the water temp, and just a few nights in the 20’s will drop the river into the low to mid 30° mark.  This is when targeting bass in true winter conditions takes a bit more effort.

  The old saying; “Make hay when the sun shines” fits into this scenario perfectly. While figuratively, this refers to making good use of a given opportunity, the words ‘sun shines’ also play a key role here.  When it comes to targeting smallmouth in the winter, here are a few things to set anglers up for such an opportunity. 

  First and foremost, is keeping a close eye the weather.  Weather is the largest factor for setting up the best opportunities to find February fishing succes. 

Warming Trend

  For nearly two decades I have subscribed to the notion that a three-day warming trend will really improve the odds of success during the winter. A string of warmer weather days will start to increase the water temperature a few degrees and increase the probability of active fish. Even a modest rise from 33-34° to 36-37° can make a huge difference in bass activity.

 When doing seasonal seminars, I describe it this way.  In early fall, those first few days in the upper 30’s has us all reaching for our jackets. In sharp contrast, give us an upper 30’s day in February and we are out greeting the neighbors in a t-shirt. The neighborhood sidewalks start to come alive as people come out of hibernation mode and take advantage of the warm up, however brief.

  Being able to launch on that third or fourth day has proven to be the best scenario to finding active bass in the winter. 

Wind Speed & Direction

  Every successful lake angler I know prefers a little wind during the regular season. The surface disturbance created by the wind helps to hide the angler’s location, move baitfish or more appropriately the forage baitfish feed on, increasing the odds of finding active fish. On the river, we have current for this sort of thing and outside of a cool light breeze mid-summer, I prefer low to no winds when fishing on the river… especially in the WINTER! 

  A strong wind will impact anglers on a few levels. First, it can make boat control more of an issue. Winter fishing generally means fishing slowly and boat control is key. If the wind is swinging the stern of the boat back and forth, the ability to feel what the lure is doing is diminished. Wind can also impact casting accuracy and line control. For those of us who watch our line, large bows created by the wind make it interesting to say the least. Lastly, wind in the winter has a terrible effect on faces and fingers. I would prefer light winds on a 38° day over a windy day at 45° this time of year. 

  Wind can be managed when the direction is favorable. On narrow rivers or those that wind and bend through mountains, wind can be mitigated by dialing in areas that will offer more protection. If the primary wind direction is west, locating areas where wintering areas are found on the west shoreline or the western  side of a string of islands is a good call. The Susquehanna main stem is a wide river and many of my best wintering areas are mid river. So here, wind direction is a key factor in determining where I launch in the winter. 


  With the exception of throwing spinnerbaits, there are few times when bright sunshine is desirable. Having the morning sun reflect and flash off the blades of a spinnerbait in moderate current can truly be magical for catching smallmouth. Outside of that, sunshine is rarely a welcome friend. 

  In the winter however, bright sunshine is truly your friend. Beyond the effects direct sun has on keeping the angler warm and comfortable, it can warm up areas on the river. It is not uncommon for surface temps on the river being 2-3 degrees higher in the afternoon on banks with direct  sun. These banks are worth serious consideration in winter months.

  The one possible negative to sunshine in the winter is fishing low, clear water.  In these instances, keeping the boat well away from the target area and making longer casts may be a good move.

River Levels

  Warming trends in the winter can often add some level of precipitation into the river basin. Rain causing a moderate rise in the river is rarely a bad situation.  I talk to many anglers who shy away from stained high water. If debris is not an issue, these situations offer a bonus. As the river rises, bass will draw closer to structure giving anglers predictable areas to throw to. The casting target is smaller in the winter, so situations that draw them into the best spot in a larger wintering area helps.

  Targeting fishing days when two or more of these situations are in play will improve chances for success. Open water fishing during the winter can be a great cure for cabin fever.

Author Chris Gorsuch is a licensed charter guide in the state of Pennsylvania. He started the Reel River Adventures guide service in ‘07 and spends 225-250 days on the water annually. His home base is on the Susquehanna River where he operates 20’ jetboats. Chasing smallmouth is his specialty, however he enjoys catching walleye and other freshwater gamefish on the upper North Branch. He has written 100’s of articles. You can follow his daily fishing reports on Facebook ‘Reel River Adventures-RRA’ & Instagram @Chris_Gorsuch

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