FLW Pro Matt Arey of Shelby, North Carolina spends much of “fishing season” on the road, and so from the end of February through the summer he will usually be found traveling around the country to FLW Tour Events. When he’s not traveling he’s often guiding and tournament fishing on his home lakes, Lake Wylie and Lake Norman, and throughout the year he also spends plenty of time on some of the smaller lakes near his home. But around middle to late February Matt will usually be found on Lake Murray, and for the last few years he has fished the BFL event the third weekend in February. I was lucky enough to get to join Matt for his pre-fishing this year. Little did I know that a couple of weeks later my fishing “partner” (actually guide) would be finishing fifth in the first FLW Major of the year on Beaver Lake!
Late Winter Pattern
Spring came later last February than it did this year, and when Matt was pre-fishing Lake Murray in 2010 water temperatures were still in the 40s. Because of cooler water temperatures fish were essentially in a late winter pattern last year.
In late winter Matt says that one productive pattern is to fish a medium running crankbait in the more stained part of the lake from Bear Creek on up. He looks for fish that are moving up into 4-6 feet of water. Whether it’s a long winter or an early spring, though, Matt generally prefers to fish the clear lower lake on Murray. He spends a lot of time on Lake Norman, and so clear water doesn’t intimidate him.
Down the lake in late winter Matt looks for fish off the deep ends of points where bait is present. He searches for areas with deep natural rock, bottom transitions and depth changes like channel swings. Last year Matt found fish as deep as 18-20 feet in practice. Like the lakes he fishes on the FLW Tour, Lake Murray is so big that it is impossible to prefish everything, and so before a tournament Matt spends a lot of time looking at lake maps on his computer and marking spots. He can then plug areas that he wants to try into his electronics as waypoints. To eliminate water he also studies the history of tournaments to see what parts of the lake tournaments are won on at particular times of the year.
Finding productive late winter locations is only half of the challenge, and Matt also needs to make them eat. For deep, late winter fish on Lake Murray his go-to lures are football jigs, jerkbaits and grubs for finicky, suspended fish.
Early Spring Patterns
When Matt arrived at Lake Murray on Thursday morning before the BFL, he was pretty sure that the bite was going to be totally different than a year before. Instead of water temperatures in the 40s temperatures were up in the 50s, and the air temperatures had been in the 60s and 70s for approaching 10 days. More warm weather was predicted straight through the weekend. Matt suspected fish would have started to move shallower in an early spring pattern, and he set out to confirm this.
On Thursday Matt put in at the dam to fish his preferred lower lake areas, and he pretty much stayed within a couple of miles of the dam all day. He knew that water temperatures would be a couple of degrees cooler in the clear water of the lower lake than further up, because he finds that stained water generally holds heat better. Throughout the lake Matt finds that the north side (Chapin side instead of the Lexington side) is warmer than the south side right now – the sun from the south heats it up faster, and so he spends more time on the north side.
One of his main early spring patterns on Lake Murray is fishing docks. Matt often finds that one of the first places where fish move up at the end of the winter is to docks which are close to deep water, and Thursday was no exception. The pattern was even more specific in that floating docks with black floats, which heat up the fastest, were most likely to hold fish. Matt flipped a jig at the docks and at one point hooked a 3pounder. The fish were so aggressive that as he was winding in the 3 pounder, a 6 pound fish tried to fight the 3 for his jig! In the clear water Matt also saw big groups of bass, up to 9 or 10, hanging around some of the docks.
Another place Matt concentrates on in early spring is fishing around secondary points at the mouths of major creeks. Fish will group up here before spreading out to feed and search for spawning grounds. Matt also likes to find points with a rock or clay bottom, in part because they warm faster. He generally does not want to fish over sand bottoms, although having sandy spawning areas nearby is beneficial.
The third major pattern Matt likes to fish in early spring on Lake Murray is targeting bass that have moved up into warm, shallow pockets feeding on bait. By Thursday before the BFL, Matt found that significant numbers of fish had made their move towards the banks, and they could be found in 5 feet of water or less. The best pockets at this time of year are flat, with gently sloping banks, which means they warm quickly and draw in baitfish. Again, hard bottoms (especially rocky ones) are ideal.
Although not essential, Matt finds that the best pockets have wind blowing into them. Relatedly, they are filled with bait, usually threadfin shad. Many of the flat pockets that Matt fishes are in the very backs of creeks, and he suspects that a lot of the fish he catches during early spring are resident creek fish that stay there all year.
Most pockets have ditches, identifiable by dark areas running through them, and the bass will move in and out following the ditches. At this time of year fish are generally still schooled up, since they have not yet spread out to search for spawning grounds. This means that some pockets will hold fish, while others will not. Still, if you find wind blown, warm pockets filled with bait, it’s a good bet that bass will also be present.
Matt’s go-to lures for fishing shallow pockets are crankbaits and Rattle Trap-type baits. The latter create a huge commotion and so he is less likely to fish them in clear water, but they certainly have a place fishing pockets in stained water up the lake. His favorite crankbaits are Shad Rap-type baits, size 7 or 5, with a nice, tight wobble. In clear water down the lake he generally likes a smaller bait. In cool weather Matt frequently throws a jerkbait, but since spring arrived early this year, Matt found that by the end of February the jerkbait bite was dropping off.
A couple more adjustments that Matt makes for fishing in clear water are that he backs off of the fish and makes long casts. He also employs light fluorocarbon line to minimize visibility. He usually finds, though, that fish which have just moved up shallow are not as spooky as they will be as spring progresses.
Our Friday on the Water
After a successful Thursday on the water by himself, Matt wanted to check out a few other areas Friday and make sure he wasn’t overlooking anything. We started out by heading up the rivers, but on the way up we ran over a few offshore areas where Matt usually finds bait and fish at this time of year. The graph was blank, and it reemphasized to Matt how much the fish had already moved up.
A couple of hours later we were pretty sure the rivers weren’t where Matt needed to be fishing, unless he wanted to try and catch catfish around shallow laydowns! We eventually headed down the lake, and spent the rest of the day catching a mix of small stripers and keeper-sized largemouth out of the banks of mid-lake, wind blown pockets. The best pockets were filled with bait, including big gizzards shad which darted around the boat. We eventually got to the point that we knew whether a particular pocket was going to hold fish – if the wind was blowing into it and it dropped off slowly to form a nice flat, striper and bass were going to be up feeding. We also discovered that pockets which were too big did not seem to hold bass, and Matt suspected that if they weren’t compact the fish couldn’t effectively corral the bait.
The non-game highlight of the day came when Matt managed to tail hook a 50-plus pound grass carp with his favorite crankbait. It swam alongside the boat, then saw us and jumped out of the water like a tarpon, while another equally large grass carp followed suit about 25 feet away (they must have been feeding as a pair)! Anyway, 45 minutes later we managed to recover the bait from its tail, after passing his rod under dock pilings several times – a sure testament to the quality of his 6 pound fluorocarbon and how badly Matt wanted his lure back!
We caught a bunch of bass, but after spending several hours fishing the mid-lake pockets Matt was convinced that he was better off fishing the lower lake. The quality of fish had been superior the day before, and he also suspected that he could take some nice fish off a jig on lower lake docks. While he didn’t end up winning the BFL tournament, Matt did take home almost $1,500.00. I was glad I had been along for the practice!
February and March are unpredictable in terms of weather, and temperatures can vary from frigid to very warm. If water temperatures stay cold fish are more likely to be found in a late winter pattern, but as they rise fish will move into an early spring pattern. Either way, FLW Pro Matt Arey has a plan!
My thanks to Matt for this guide to late winter/ early spring on Lake Murray. If you’d like to fish with Matt on Lake Wylie or anywhere else, check out his website http://www.rackandreeloutfitters.com. You can email Matt at firstname.lastname@example.org, private message him on the message board to “Matt Arey”, and he can also be reached by cell phone at 704-484-7715.