When you start talking about where to look for the first bass that begin biting late in the winter, three words should immediately come to mind: clear, deep, steep.

We have got a lot of lakes in North Carolina that can have good bass fishing in February, some pretty good early lakes, and one of the main things that they have in common is that there’s plenty of clear water to fish.

Clear water is a key to finding bass that are ready to bite before March arrives. You’re already going to have the days getting longer in February, and fish starting to stir and beginning to move, but clear water is the one thing you have to have. Dirty, cold water is not the place to find bass that are going to be feeding actively.

If you think of some of our better winter lakes, they’re clear: Norman, Badin and Gaston. A lot of the mountain lakes are clear, but the water is so cold up there, you get the kind of fishing we’re talking about more into March. On some of our Piedmont lakes, I automatically start on the lower end of the lake because that’s where the water is the clearest. Fish seem to be more aggressive in clear water when it’s cold.

One of the reasons you need clear water is that bass are feeding by sight, and they’re going to be in deep water and coming up a good ways to hit a bait. That’s where deep comes in. And the deep water they’re going to be in is going to be close to shallow water, which is where steep comes in. Bass are going to be holding close to steep drops like a drop from a short flat off into a creek channel or a bluff wall. They might come out of 15 feet of water to hit a bait that’s only a couple of feet below the surface. They’re going to be looking to the surface, because the baitfish are usually going to be above them. If they’re not looking at the surface, they’re going to be looking at rocks where crawfish might be hanging out.

So look for places where you can have your boat in 20 to 30 feet of water and be able to hit the bank with a cast. They aren’t going to come up on wide flats. They’re going to move up on places with rocks or other kinds of hardbottom. Those are the kinds of places bass are going to be living when February arrives and March is just over the horizon.

Now, how do you go about catching them? I like to fish crankbaits and, to an extent, jerkbaits. I like the Berkley Bad Shad for a shallow-running crankbait, the Warpig, which is a lipless bait, and the Cutter, which is a jerkbait. if you are fishing a little farther to the south, a lipless crankbait is the real deal. As far as colors, you should stick with shad colors until maybe late in February, when crawfish colors start to come in. Oranges are always good colors to fish in clear, cold water.

The Cutter jerkbaits are all good baits; they come in 90, 110, 110+ and 100+ Skinny sizes. If you’re fishing water that’s less than 50 degrees, I like to go with the Skinny, which is just a little smaller. If the water temperature is over 50, you can fish the 110+.

These are smaller baits, so you can’t cast them as well on big, long rods. I like to fish Lew’s crankbait rods in 6-foot-6 or 7-foot lengths, matched with BB-1 baitcasting reels spooled with 6- to 10-pound Trilene. A big key is to use the reels with a 5.1-to-1 retrieve ratio; you get 21 inches of line back with each turn of the reel, which is important. We tend to be too fast, and that kind of reel will slow us down, which makes a big difference in cold weather.

So don’t wait until spring is getting close to break out your tackle. There are plenty of fish to be caught in February, and some of the year’s biggest fish will be those big females that start to stir first. If you’re sitting on front of the TV, you might miss out on them. Just remember: clear, deep and steep.