I remember the planning meeting when the GON editorial staff was sitting around a table deciding which lakes to hit in February. Brad Gill, the in-house Lake Varner expert, said, “February is the time to go roll a big un.”
I was pleased to draw such a plum assignment because I had never had the chance to fish Varner, a Newton County reservoir known as a haven for lunker largemouth bass. The lake, which sits only a few miles from I-20, is a regular stop for the various jonboat tournament trails and is known for producing heavy limits of fish.
I called Lake Manager Mike Henderson to find an appropriate guide for my first foray to Varner, and he immediately gave me the phone number of Jimmy Golden, of Covington. Jimmy owns a landscaping company, and in his spare time, he loves to bass fish. He is a regular on big lakes like Sinclair and Oconee, but when he is in the mood to chase trophy-class bass, all he has to do is hook up his G3 aluminum boat rigged with a trio of trolling motors, make a couple of turns, and in about five minutes, he is fishing at Varner.
Jimmy has fished some tournaments with the jonboat boys, and he hooks up his Triton to test his mettle on the big lakes with the Berry’s Tournament trail, as well. While he likes Oconee and Sinclair, he loves Varner because he knows every cast could mean the fish of a lifetime.
“You have bad days here just like at any other lake,” Jimmy said as we began fishing on a warm day in January. “But the thing is, you know you can catch a big bass on any cast out here.”
Jimmy should know. He’s got three fish mounted in his home office, all of which came from Varner. The smallest of the three tipped the scales at better than 9 pounds, and the other two, which went 12-plus and 13-plus pounds, were caught on the same day.
Most people will never catch a bass that weighs 12 pounds. Jimmy bested that mark twice in a day. Think about that. And now ponder this: Jimmy caught two fish that went more than 10 pounds on a trip back in December, had the fish weighed on a certified scale, took them back to the boat ramp and released them to grow some more.
“The three I’ve got mounted are the first three really big fish I caught,” Jimmy said. “Unless I catch something bigger, I’m not going to have any more fish on the wall.”
There’s always hope. Jimmy says he believes somebody is destined to catch a 17- to 18-lb. bass out of Varner one day.
“It’s just a matter of time,” he said.
I asked Jimmy what he thought made Varner such a productive lake for big fish, and he gave me a couple of theories. The first is sort of local legend.
“The man who owned some of the property the lake now sits on had a little pond that people say had a bunch of really big bass, and maybe that’s got something to do with it,” Jimmy said.
He gives the rest of the credit to the Department of Natural Resources, and well, natural resources.
“There are a lot of shad in here for a lake this size, and DNR does a great job of keeping the numbers of fish right,” Jimmy said. “I think having hybrids in here has helped.”
When we began our day of fishing, Jimmy and I took a boat ride that in your standard bass boat would have been about a 45-second jaunt. In a boat that has two transom-mounted 54-lb. thrust motors and an 81-lb. thrust, bow-mounted, foot-controlled trolling motor, the ride takes considerably longer. Still, a boat equipped the right way can cover a pretty good bit of water in a hurry at Varner. We had run straight across the lake and ducked under the bridge before we began fishing. As we made the run to the first fishing hole, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing on Jimmy’s graph; close to 30 feet of water in the middle of a lake I incorrectly anticipated was much shallower.
When we got to our first fishing spot, between a small island and a rip-rap bank by the bridge, Jimmy opened up about his winter patterns on Varner. He always likes to start with a crankbait, and many days, he’ll start fishing the same rip-rap we were starting at today. When he starts fishing, Jimmy is looking for two key elements: water 8 to 10 feet deep and shad.
“If it has been warm, the fish are likely to be up close to those rocks,” Jimmy said as he picked up a rod rigged with a Bomber Model A and began casting toward the rip-rap bank.
Jimmy likes the Model A and other similar baits this time of year because they have a tight wobble. He believes crankbaits with too tight a wobble aren’t as successful when water temperatures dip below 50 degrees.
“You have to crank slow because the fish aren’t going to chase a bait far this time of year,” Jimmy advised. “If it is warm for several days, bass like to get shallow to feed, but they’ll want to be close to deep water, so I like to find big flats.”
Jimmy says water temperatures from the high 40s to around 60 degrees are a green-light special to a crankbait fisherman. Jimmy will throw a crankbait a lot, and he prefers to stay on the main part of the lake this time of year.
“You can probably catch some bass back in the pockets, but I like fishing flats and points,” Jimmy said.
Another thing that leads to Jimmy’s success on Varner is his ability to read the water and find out what the fish are looking for. On the day we fished, the water wasn’t what a crankbait fisherman wants to see.
“It’s so still out here it looks like July,” Jimmy commented. “We’ll try this anyway and maybe pick up some aggressive fish. It might blow a little more this afternoon.”
It didn’t take long to figure out a crankbait wasn’t on the menu of any bass holding near the rocks, so we switched spots and Jimmy slowed down his presentation a little. We had run up the lake from the bridge and were fishing around a point when Jimmy started casting a Lucky Craft StaySee and reeling it slowly back to the boat.
“This blueback is a new color for me. They have been tearing up this same plug with some purple, so we’ll see if this will work,” Jimmy said.
It worked a little better than the crankbait as Jimmy got a couple of strikes but no takers.
That’s when Jimmy knew it was time to really slow things down. He says his father, who himself has fished a ton of tournaments, taught him a lot about catching bass.
“One thing he always said was, “There’s a time to put down those crankbaits and pick up the plastic,’” Jimmy recounted. “I learned most everything I know about bass fishing from him.”
After striking out with the crankbait and the jerkbait, Jimmy did what his father would have suggested, he switched to a plastic worm and slowed the presentation down to a crawl.
“Jigs and worms are a backup for me,” Jimmy said. “It’s hard for me to fish this slow, but sometimes it’s what you have to do.”
Jimmy picked up a spinning rod, tied on a 1/8-oz. jig head and threaded a Yamamoto Cut Tail worm onto the hook, which he turned and stuck back into the worm to make a weedless presentation. Jimmy paralleled the bank and started making casts. He lets the worm settle on the bottom and moves it in slow, short pulls to entice a strike from often-finicky bass.
Don’t expect to get the kind of certain “that’s definitely a fish” strikes from bass in February, even in a honeyhole like Varner. Instead you must be able to feel and see the slightest movements your line makes.
“The bites this time of year are really subtle,” Jimmy said. “Sometimes it just feels like you’re hung on something and the fish will spit a bait back out before you know what’s happening,” Jimmy said.
Jimmy had only made a few casts with the worm when he felt what he thought was a strike and set the hook. The bass wasn’t on the other end when Jimmy tried to drive the hook home, but with the way the worm was pulled off the jig head, it was apparent it had been there. A couple of casts later, Jimmy got the same mushy feeling, made the same sweeping hookset, and came away with his worm almost pulled off the hook.
“Awwww, Jimmy, you gotta be quicker,” Jimmy said to himself.
As he rehooked his worm, he turned to me and asked, “See what I mean? I just got bit twice, and even on a light rod with light line, it doesn’t feel like anything.”
The third time the fish tried sucking the cuttail in, it paid the price. Jimmy made a hard hookset and soon boated a small Varner bass. Not what we were looking for, but it was a start.
While Jimmy worked the lead-head worm, I threw a jig at every irregularity I could see on the bank. A stretch of bare red clay, a clump of grass that looked a little different from the rest, a pine tree that looked like it was growing out of the water; they were all targets. I was hopping the jig through the limbs of a blown-down pine tree with short twitches when I felt the slightest tug. I pulled up on the rod tip and nothing pulled back. The next cast, I felt the tug again and raised the rod right before the line went limp.
“I think that was a fish,” I told Jimmy as I fired the jig back toward the blowdown.
That time when I felt the tug, I set the hook, just for the heck of it, and a fish was securely attached to the hook at the other end of my line. The bass was another shorty, but nonetheless, we might have hit on the right pattern, so Jimmy and I kept fishing the same stretch of bank for a while. We didn’t catch any other bass there, but feeling confident, we motored farther up the lake to where two creek channels converge, forming a great area in which to target bass this time of year.
Jimmy and I fished one of the channels and the adjacent flat with the lead-head worm, the jig, a Rat-L-Trap, a Model A and the jerkbait with only a few more strikes. We moved back into a pocket and fished around some timber and blowdowns before Jimmy had us underway again, back down near the boat ramp to one of his favorite fishing holes on Varner, the old pond dam.
The old farm pond that Jimmy said could have held some of the ancestors of Varner’s big bass is right across the lake from the boat ramp. If you launch a boat and are moving away from the ramp, the old pond is over by the bank to your left, right in front of a gazebo.
Jimmy said some of his Varner monsters have come off the old pond dam, which is a favorite spot for anglers in the spring. The old dam runs roughly in a half-circle from the point where the gazebo sits back to a point directly on the other side where a small cluster of pine trees is growing. The dam is under 20 feet of water.
Jimmy said this old pond has some interesting structure that holds bass all the time, including an old concrete boat slip.
“I’ve caught some nice fish here,” Jimmy said. “In the spring, they’ll pile up around the break in the old dam. If you can find that break, there’s often some nice fish laying there.”
Jimmy and I fan casted all around the area with several different lures but never caught a fish. Finally after several hours of fishing, we decided to put the boat on the trailer and head home. As we talked back at Jimmy’s house, he laid out a stack of photos that featured just some of his big Varner largemouths.
Jimmy said February can be a great time of year to put a trophy bass in the boat at Varner if you follow some of his advice.
“If it has been warm, the fish will be on big flats feeding,” Jimmy said. “They might not be there all day, but they will move up at some point to feed.”
Jimmy said on days where the wind is putting a little current on the water, the crankbait bite should be good. On sunny, clear, cold days, you will most likely have to slow down with a jig or worm fished right around cover. Also, think about how you feel on cold days and try to translate that to bass brain. When we are cold, we are looking for the sunlight. Jimmy said the same thing often applies to bass.
“I like to fish near banks that get the most sunlight,” Jimmy said. “If you’ll notice, some of the places that were shady this morning when we got here never got any sun on them.”
Jimmy keeps his boat a good cast off the bank, and he keeps his trolling motor batteries charged because he’ll cover a lot of water searching for bass that will most likely be bunched up this time of year.
“Once you find some bass on Varner, you can usually stay on them and catch several from one place,” Jimmy said.
The lake is open from 7 a.m. until 6 p.m. between November through March. From April through October, the hours will be between and 7 a.m. and 9 p.m. Mike Henderson says anglers should be out of the park by closing time. Jimmy will get out by closing time, but it’s a safe bet he’s spent hours on the water.
“He’s a die-hard,” Jimmy’s wife Beverly laughed. “He’ll stay out there until he can’t stand it anymore.
“That’s what you have to do to catch a big one sometimes,” Jimmy said.