January Largemouths In The Sunshine State

The angling may differ on these bodies of water, but the results can be the same this month. Targeting bass can put you on some hot winter action! (January 2007)

Rick Rawlins finds big bass in the quiet back creeks off the St. Johns River near DeLand.
Photo by William J. Bohica

Although there's really no such thing as a "bass season" in Florida, you'd be safe if you said that January is the start of it. Not that you can't catch bass during the preceding months. You certainly can.

But when it comes to that frantic spring spawning period when even the biggest, wisest, and most elusive bass in the lake have to come into shallows within the easy range of anglers, January starts the ball rolling.

Just how quickly that ball rolls depends a lot on latitude and, given the north-to-south length of the state, that can vary quite a bit. Top tactics on one lake might be a month or so away from being effective on another.

If you time the tactics to the lake, however, bassin' success can follow quickly. Here are four top lakes to check out this month.

LAKE TOHOPEKALIGA

Like the rest of the Kissimmee Chain, Lake "Toho" was impacted by the hurricanes of 2003-04. But it didn't suffer as much damage to vegetation as did some of the other lakes. Currently, native vegetation is healthy and in good supply, along with what some anglers consider the "perfect amount" of hydrilla.

Like the rest of the chain, Toho was also drawn down to a lower than normal level last summer in preparation for hurricane season. If heavy rains materialize, that could result in high water this month. If not, expect levels lower than normal. However, that won't do much to alter fish- catching patterns.

"This is traditionally the month where we see the first major spawn on Toho," said guide Reno Alley. "If we have a real mild winter, it might occur early to mid month. If not, it'll happen by the end of the month. Regardless of when it happens, anglers need to think shallow cover with spawning and pre-spawn fish."

If water levels remain low, Alley starts his search along the outside edge of emergent vegetation in 4 to 6 feet of water, where the big spawning females will be staging up. Although plastic worms, soft-plastic jerkbaits and spinnerbaits can be effective, Alley favors a different technique when searching for bigger bass.

"Flipping those weed edges is a key tactic for bigger bass this time of year, much more so than on the other lakes in the chain," he observed.

"That will hold especially true if we don't get a lot of hurricane water, and the lake stays lower than normal. There is a lot of overhead cover, and the bigger fish are going to spend a lot of time under it until they are ready to hit the beds. If you find mats of overhead cover near any quality spawning area, you definitely want to spend a lot of time with a flipping rod."

Alley favors the Gambler crawfish line for flipping, and invariably inserts a plastic Woodies Rattler into the soft-plastic bait.

Should water levels be higher, the outer edge of the emergent vegetation is still a top spot for pre-spawn fish, but Alley will be pushing shallower. Higher water brings floating vegetation into the 2- to 3-foot spawning areas, and the bigger fish seek cover there.

While shallow bass should be the rule this month, don't overlook offshore hydrilla beds in 7 to 8 feet of water -- especially if a cold front blows through.

"A sharp cold front can stack some fish up on that deeper grass," Alley offered. "And there will also be a fair number of fish out there that won't be spawning for a couple of months. Plastic worms are a good bet, but quick-moving shallow crankbaits can trigger a lot of strikes when the fish aren't actively feeding."

For more details, or to book a day of guided bass fishing on Lake Toho, you can reach Reno Alley at Memory Makin' Guide Service by calling (863) 635-6499.

HARRIS CHAIN

It wasn't that long ago that water-quality problems turned the traditionally productive Harris Chain into the proverbial "Dead Sea."

How times do change!

"The bass fishing on the Harris Chain is darned near as good today as it was during its heyday," pointed out bass guide Eddie Bussard. "And during January, it's not hard to get into -- just concentrate on the manmade canals."

All the lakes in the chain are rife with manmade canals, and their draw for January bass is simple -- those waterways provide the best spawning cover on the chain. They're sheltered from high winds, offering stable water that warms more quickly than the main lakes' open water. And given that many are dredged to depths of 10 feet or more, they also provide a quick deepwater access.

Among those traditionally productive canals is the Yale Canal on Lake Griffin, the 9th Street Canal on Harris, and virtually any of the canals on Eustis and Dora.

A number of tactics can produce action for canal bass. The top tactic of the guides is no more complicated than slow-trolling a live shiner about 5 feet under a float, right down the middle of the canal with a trolling motor on slow speed.

Those favoring artificial lures find 6-inch Texas-rigged plastic worms in June-bug, red shad or black with a blue tail color scheme effective when fished slowly around shoreline grass patches and dock pilings. Savvy anglers downsize their line to the 10- to 12-pound range and opt for bullet weights in the 1/8-ounce range.

Should a cold front intervene, bass seldom leave a canal immediately. It often takes several days of freezing nights to push them out. For the first couple of days immediately after a front, a deadly technique is to fish a countdown crankbait like a Rat-L-Trap very quickly down the middle of the canal, and around any wood, like dock pilings or shoreline brush. A fast retrieve can often trigger strikes from those sluggish cold-front bass.

If canals don't pan out, local experts don't get too far away from them in their search for bass.

"A lot of canals have some pretty deep water just off their mouths, where they were dredged out," noted Bussard. "These holes can hold a lot of fish before they move into the canals, or if they are run out by a bad front. Carolina rigs, or ultra-deep diving crankbaits, can catch them."

While can

als are normally a sure bet, not all fish use them. One pattern that has emerged in recent years is fishing a spinnerbait around the bases of shallow cypress trees located near canal mouths. It has produced some prodigious bass!

For guided fishing trips on the Harris Chain, contact Eddie Bussard though Bass Challenger Guide Service at 1-800-241-5314.

ST. JOHNS RIVER

The St. Johns River area, around lakes Woodruff and Dexter near Deland consistently ranks among the top waters in the state during annual creel surveys. This month, however, anglers will want to forgo the main flow and seek quieter waters.

"Our bass won't be spawning for a couple months," cautioned Rick Rawlins, who grew up guiding anglers in this area. "And they are looking for the calmest, warmest water they can find. That means that the back creeks, and lakes Woodruff and Dexter, are better bets than the main river."

Among those creeks that have proven highly productive during January are Harrys Creek, Scoggins Creek, Shell Creek and Hontoon Dead River.

Regardless of whether he's fishing the lakes or the creeks, Rawlins' guide tactics are simple.

"Live shiners are the top tactic this months," he assured. "And in the lakes, I want to find floating vegetation that forms an overhead cover in 3 to 5 feet of water and tuck a shiner right up on the edge under a float.

"You can also find this cover on sandbars in many of the creeks. But in the creeks, I also concentrate on those treetops that have fallen over into the water and collected floating vegetation around them. Shiners in this kind of cover usually produce the biggest bass."

If lures are on the menu, Rawlins recommended that anglers arm themselves with a Texas-rigged plastic worm of 6 to 7 1/2 inches in darker colors like black, June-bug or purple, or a flipping rod rigged with a compact crawfish.

"Flipping a craw in the matted cover in the lakes, or around treetops in the creeks, can produce good fish," he noted. "But the plastic worm is probably the bait I would use the most. You can toss this up on top of the cover and ease it off the edge to drop straight down. Or you can toss it into holes in the cover, or swim it very slowly through thinner sections of grass. It's also the best bet for fishing shoreline wood in the creeks.

"You just want to take your time and fish the worm slow," he concluded, "because the water is still a bit cold, and the bass aren't quite ready to chase yet."

For information on guided trips on the upper St. Johns River, call Rick Rawlins at Highland Park Fish Camp at 1-800-525-3477.

LAKE TALQUIN

This Panhandle lake won't see actively spawning bass for several months. But some solid fish are available to be caught, and veteran guide Mike Mercuri has a three-part strategy for tangling with them.

"The first place I would look in January," he said, "would be the main river channel down in the main pool. As the channel snakes towards the dam, it produces a lot of bends. On the outside of each bend, you'll have a sharp dropping ledge that may go down to 25 feet, while the inside of the bend will have a slow tapering point from about 12 feet that drops into the channel. These bends will hold most of the winter bass in the pool."

A depthfinder is mandatory, but an angler so equipped should have no trouble locating the submerged channel bends. Mercuri's tactics are simple.

"Vertical jigging with a 3/4-ounce Hopkin's Shorty Spoon is the most effective way to catch these fish," he explained. "If the weather has been cold, I'll usually start on the sharp drop on the outside of the bend. The cooler the water, the sharper the ledge the fish seem to prefer. Then I'll check the inside point of the bend.

"Once I find fish, I note whether they are on the outside, inside, and what depth they are. The chances are excellent that's the same set of conditions I'll find fish at on other bends."

If the action in the main pool is slow, Mercuri heads up the lake and starts prospecting the tributary creeks.

A number are fed by springs, and their water temperature can be warmer than the main lake, which can encourage bass activity.

"These creeks all have a defined channel," he noted. "And drifting a shiner under a float along the edge of that channel is one of my favorite tactics. With a depthfinder and a trolling motor on slow speed, you can cover a lot of water, and some of the biggest bass I catch each year are caught this way."

For those who prefer lures, Mercuri recommends fishing lightly weighted Texas-rigged worms in black or red shad, in the lily pads bordering channel edges.

Another effective bait is a shad-finished Rat-L-Trap worked quickly along cover edges, or in cuts and pockets within the pads.

If the weather is warm, especially near the end of the month, main lake creek mouth points become productive targets.

"These submerged points at the mouths of the creeks are where a lot of bass stage in the pre-spawn period," he explained. "Depending on the weather, the fish may move right up to the shallow shoreline end of the point, or hold back on the dropoff to the main channel, or anywhere in between. With a Carolina worm rig, or a Little George, I can cover the entire point, and it doesn't take long to find out which points are holding bass."

Mike Mercuri can be reached for guide service at (850) 875-2206.

Tactics can differ sharply from the central portion of the state to its northern edge. But if you match the tactics to the lake, January can be a great month for Sunshine State largemouths. l

Find more about Florida fishing and hunting at: FloridaGameandFish.com

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