Winter can be a tough time for diehard anglers in the lower Midwest, or anywhere the weather is mild and pleasant one day and painfully frigid the next. Sometimes you wish you lived in the Southeast, where good action can be had 12 months a year, or even up North, where frozen water offers a season unto itself. For those of us trapped between the Ice Belt and the Sun Belt, we may cringe at the sight of our utility bills, but at least the power companies give us some nuclear hot fishing throughout the winter—and into early spring.
Most years in the nation’s heartland, the volatile winter weather produces lake temperatures too warm for ice fishing yet too cold for much else. Granted, some of the best crappie fishing of the year often takes place from December through March in the region, assuming there’s open water. Bass anglers, however, are usually forced to endure three to four months of virtual hibernation. That is, until they discover the potential of area power plant lakes.
The water in these reservoirs provides a vital cooling component to coal and nuclear power plants, and once it does its job, it’s discharged back into the lake at a temperature that may be almost twice that of the main lake’s winter range. Thus, when every other lake is hovering above freezing or worse, power plant lakes, or parts of them at least, may boast water temps in the 70-degree (F) range.
Power plants can serve up some white-hot fishing for a number of bass species.
Where present, bass—largemouth, smallmouth, white, striped and hybrid—can be completely unaware how miserable it is above the lake’s surface. They’re too busy enjoying the warmth. Anglers who time things right (and can handle the elements) can enjoy spring-like action in the dead of winter.
Mixed Bag Meccas
Besides the fact that you’re actually catching fish in February, perhaps the best part of winter at the power plant lakes is the variety of species that may be caught by day’s end. It’s often possible to tangle with six or seven species, all from the same piece of structure. The warm-water areas don’t draw in every fish in the lake, but sometimes it seems that way. A recent trip to an eastern Kansas coal power plant lake proved this point, when I witnessed largemouth, wiper, white bass, white crappie and channel cat all taken from the same 12-yard stretch of water. All were caught on bass lures.
Such events may not be common everywhere. Typically it’s a two- or three-species mix of black (largemouth, smallmouth and spotted) and temperate (striper, white and wiper) basses. Lure selection that favors a particular species can certainly sway the numbers in one direction, but using “bass” lures with multi-species appeal will generally put the most fish in the boat.
Power Generation: The Ultimate Wild Card
Before venturing in to specific lures, locations and techniques, it’s important to understand a few of the qualities unique to power plant lakes. First and foremost, during winter, you don’t want to be on the lake when the plant isn’t generating power. No power means no hot water discharge, which can send water temperatures into a nosedive. It can be the equivalent of the worst spring cold front imaginable.
Depending on demand, power generation can be constant or intermittent, sometimes with several days in between production periods. Water temperature—and fish activity—can remain positive during brief interruptions in production, but prolonged lapses definitely spoil the fishing. On the other hand, the periods just after a stoppage and following a restart in production can really turn on the action. In general, steady production means warm, stable water temperatures and the most consistent fishing.
When the plant is generating power consistently, largemouths can be in a prespawn mode long before spring arrives.
When warm water is flowing into the lake, bass and other species naturally concentrate in areas near the discharge and in the discharge canal itself. Water temps at the discharge may be 30 degrees (F) warmer than the main body of the lake, and downstream portions taper off in temperature the farther you get from the outlet.
All the hot-water lakes that I’ve fished discharge the heated water in the upper ends of the reservoir, creating a rather small area (relative to the lake’s total acreage) in which to fish. This often means several boats will be competing for the same limited space. But many anglers make the mistake of fishing only the warmest spots nearest to the outlet. Warm water flowing from the outlet creates a plume that may extend for several hundred yards—or even miles—in the direction of the flow. Oftentimes the fish actually prefer water that’s 10 or 15 degrees cooler than what is found right at the outlet. Preferred structure, cover, current or foraging options may exist for fish away from the outlet, too, so don’t be afraid to fish the cooler water—it’s still warmer than most of the lake.
Patterning Power Plant Fish
Despite what is clearly an artificially warm environment, largemouth bass in power plant lakes act pretty much the same as they would in a natural setting. Water temperature being the key factor, as it is on conventional waters. As noted earlier, rising temperatures usually put the fish in an active feeding mode; steadily falling temperatures tend to slow the bite; and stable temperatures have the fish in an overall positive mode.
Air temperatures don't seem to matter to power plant fish. This healthy largemouth came from 3 feet of water on a 20-degree morning.
Bass will relate to whatever structure and cover options exist in the hot-water area. Riprap, bluffs and other rocky banks are good places to start, especially if they’re drawing sunlight. They’ll retain heat from the warm water as well as from the sun. Baitfish, crawdads and other food sources usually congregate in these areas too, giving bass everything they need to pass a winter day. Look for anything above or below water that breaks up the uniformity of a long stretch of rocks. Standing timber, underwater rock piles or formations, log laydowns and the like will hold more fish than the featureless rock banks.
Not that fish can’t be caught at any point on the riprap or bluff bank. Most winter anglers comb the open stretches with crankbaits and spinnerbaits, looking for roaming fish, then flip or pitch a jig-n-pig or soft-plastic bait when they come upon a good-looking piece of cover.
Rock banks are usually found nearest the outlet (discharge culverts are usually housed in several hundred yards of riprap), but further up the lake, shorelines and lake bottoms resume their natural contours. Here, the water is still warm enough to hold active fish, but it’s cooler to the point where a different presentation is often in order. The terrain and structural features may also lend themselves to something other than cranking or flipping. I’ve found that jerkbaits (both hard and soft) and Carolina-rigged plastics, tubes, creature baits and other soft-plastic lures on jigheads catch more fish on the cooler offshore humps, flats, points and channel edges in the cooler water.
Winter brings all sorts of bass into the relatively confined areas of warm water.
If there’s such a thing as a can’t-go-wrong lure for power plant lakes, it has to be a lipless crankbait. If largemouths are the predominant target, 3/8- to -oz. versions seem to work best, though a smaller -oz. lipless bait will catch white bass, wipers and other species without sacrificing many largemouth bites. Personally, I prefer chrome or foil finishes in clear water and on sunny days; white, chartreuse or bone colors for stained water and cloudy days. However, I’ve seen that logic thrown out the window by partners occasionally schooling me on whatever color they happened to have that day in the right size.
On a recent sunny but frigid outing this winter, I caught the day’s first 10 fish—mostly largemouth and a few white bass—off a mile-long riprap bank. A -oz chrome-colored Rat-L-Trap took all but one of them. My partner had opted for a 3/8-oz. multi-colored ‘Trap and managed only one largemouth. When we left the spot to fish an open-water area closer to the discharge, he immediately started hooking up with several healthy wipers. The bite got so fast and furious that eventually my chrome bait started working again, but one more fish in his favor would have had me digging for some wacky color-schemed bait to save face. Ultimately, both patterns took approximately half the catch.
We wound up with just under 50 fish in less than five hours that day, most of which came in a flurry of 35 wipers. Of course, we were after largemouths, but during winter you take what you can get, and waylaying a bunch of hard-fighting wipers or white bass is as good as it gets. Action like that is what makes power plant fishing such a great means of getting through the winter doldrums. Kind of makes you wish winter would last a little longer…well, almost.