Winter'™s Best In The Sunshine State

Largemouth bass get an early start on the year in Florida, especially in the southern reaches of the peninsula. Here are some places to join in the action this January.(January 2008).

Photo by Bud Reiter.

There's no better way to start the New Year than with a day spent tangling with bass. That's not something anglers in more northerly climes can count on. But here in the Sunshine State, it's not hard to do. Here's a quartet of lakes where that's not only possible, but highly probable!

LAKE OKEECHOBEE

Few lakes anywhere have undergone the rapid changes that this veritable inland sea has experienced recently. Within less than two years, the Big O went from record levels of high water that threatened to collapse the surrounding dikes, down to record low-water levels that virtually dried up the shallow bays, even impeding navigation in dredged shipping channels.

That's a lot of change. But one thing that didn't change was the bass fishing.

"We hit record low levels during the summer of 2007," said Jim Wells of Roland Martin's Marine Center in Clewiston. "But the bass fishing was still excellent. Local tournaments with a five-fish limit needed 25-plus pounds of bass to win, and my guides fishing shiners would load up with five to six dozen and be out of bait and back on the dock before noon.

"Twenty-plus fish mornings were common, and they were a good grade of fish."

Wells doesn't see that changing this month. The big question is just where it will be occurring. That all depends upon how much water the Big O gets this hurricane season.

"With the 9.2 foot water levels we had this summer," Wells noted, "the hotspots were in deeper open waters. There really wasn't anywhere you could find enough water to fish any shallow vegetation."

Among those key open-water areas were the Clewiston Ship Channel, and selected portions of the main reef running through the center of the Big O. Among the hotspots were the Hole In The Wall, McMillen's Cross, the Ship Channel and Norman's Channel.

Some of the spoil islands adjacent to the deeper cuts also held fish. Vegetation was in short supply, and this was true open-water angling along channel edges and drops.

Another very productive option, where a number of local tournaments were won, was fishing the Rim Canal along the south end of the lake, from Pahokee to the Old Sportsman's Village south of Lakeport. Shallow-water vegetation such as maidencane, lily pads, and bulrushes lined many areas of the canal. But one of the most productive patterns was to fish the rock humps adjacent to the mouths of the cuts in the canal that connect it to the main lake.

When it comes to the most effective tactics, these would surprise anglers whose previous experience occurred during years when shallow vegetation was a key target.

"This summer, I sold more Rat-L-Traps than I had in the last five years combined," Wells pointed out. "Baby Bass, Firetiger, and gold-and-chrome were the colors most in demand."

Wells also noted that even in open waters, plastic worms continued to produce, with Texas- or Carolina-rigged 10-inch versions in black, black/blue, June-bug or red shad pulling the largest fish.

With schools of shad also confined to the deeper water, surface schooling often took place, and savvy anglers kept handy a rod rigged with a pearl Zara Spook.

That's what existed with water at the 9.2-foot level, and it's likely to be the best pattern if water levels stay low. Add more water, however, and things will change.

"If we can bring the water levels up to the 12.5- or 13- foot level," Wells stated, "January will see a lot of bass leaving the open waters and stacking up along the outer grass and reed lines in about two feet of water.

"They won't be able to get back to the inside, so they have to spawn there and they won't be hard to find."

Two or three feet of additional water can make this month's fishing red-hot. If not, it'll just be the same solid action we've been experiencing.

LAKE WEOHYAKAPKA

Moving north, water levels are again a concern. But unlike the situation on the Big O, additional water won't change the current productive patterns on Weohyakapka, better known as Lake Walk-In-Water.

"Our fish normally start spawning here in February, and spawn up through early April," said veteran guide Dick Loupe. "In years past, the normal pattern was for the fish to move up into shoreline maidencane, bulrushes and cattails to bed, and then drop back to the nearest offshore hydrilla patch between the spawns.

"That won't be the case this year."

The major reason is that there is no hydrilla left. The hurricanes of 2003 and '04 uprooted much of it. That, in itself, wouldn't be too bad -- Mother Nature would replace it. But in this case, she wasn't allowed to.

"Once the hurricanes knocked out the hydrilla," explained Loupe, who lives on the lake and operates Southern Outdoorsman Guide Service, "the state came in and sprayed aggressively to keep it from coming back. They were very successful, because you can't find any -- anywhere."

Considering that Walk-In-Water was well known for lush offshore hydrilla beds that held a lot of bass, that might seem to be a negative. It's not. The bass haven't left, they just shifted habitat. It's still not uncommon to catch 20 to 40 of them a day. You just have to do it differently than when the lake had hydrilla.

"The only offshore cover in the lake now," Loupe continued, "are pencil reed patches in 3 to 4 feet of water. Those are key areas for bass that are not actively spawning. Those bass that are spawning will be looking for shoreline maidencane, bulrushes, and cattails in depths of 1 to 3 feet. It's not a lot of cover, but the bass are still there, and this just makes it easier to find them."

Lower and clearer water also dictates that tackle be downsized. Gone are the 40-pound casting rigs, big shiners and large floats that were effective in hydrilla. The current "hot shiner" rig is a 7-foot spinning rod spooled with 12-pound monofilament line. A 3/0 hook with a 1/8- to 1/4-ounce bullet weight sinker slipped onto the line above it completes the rig. Shiners in the 4- to 5-inch range are lip-hooked and tossed out to lie on the bottom around the outside edge of pencil reed

beds.

Loupe noted that even though the shiner isn't doing a lot of swimming, the bass will find it.

Those who are fishing artificial lures are also advised to downsize their line. Texas-rigged worms in the 7-inch range in hues of June-bug or red shad are deadly. But when working the outside edges of cover, many anglers find a Carolina rig with a 1-foot leader and a 1/4-ounce weight is a better bet. It covers the water more quickly, and the short leader lets the worm achieve a deadly swimming motion.

Topwater plugs in a gold or shad pattern can be effective during the early-morning hours. But don't overlook floating/diver minnow lures like the Rapala, Bomber Long A, or similar plugs. Whether twitched on top or worked a foot below the surface, they often out-produce noisier baits.

In maidencane areas, especially early in the morning or late in the afternoon, a 1/4- to 3/8-ounce spinnerbait can be deadly when slow-rolled through vegetation patches thin enough to allow the lure to pass.

When the bass are bedding along the shoreline vegetation edges, sight-fishing with lighter lines and compact crawfish-type soft-plastics is a sure way to tangle with some heavyweight largemouths.

"It's a different lake than it was in years past," Loupe argued, "but it's still one of the top lakes in the area."

CROOKED LAKE

Water woes complicate things on many central and south Florida lakes, but Crooked Lake that lies just west of Frostproof isn't one of them.

"This is an unusual lake for this area," offered long-time guide Reno Alley, "in that it has a lot of deep water and it is pretty clear. There are holes that go down 30 feet, and a lot of water in the 15- to 20-foot range. That's a great refuge for bigger bass, and January is one of the easiest months to find them."

Bass on Crooked normally have their first spawn of the year in February. This month is their pre-spawn staging period, where a lot of big deepwater largemouths start moving their way to the spawning shallows. The best staging areas aren't hard to find.

"Crooked Lake is actually three distinctly different lakes in one," Alley explained. "The southernmost lake, where the public ramp is on County Road 630A, is Little Crooked. It's very shallow with darker water and lots of lily pads and hyacinths.

"You go through a canal from there to the Middle Lake that has depths to 20 feet, is quite clear, and the west shoreline is a vast shallow flat filled with lily pads, peppergrass, pencil reeds, coontail, and other native plants. Some of these flats are almost 400 yards wide and have a distinct outer maidencane edge in 8 to 10 feet of water and then shallowing out as you move inside to the shoreline.

"The North Lake -- we call it the College Lake -- is the deepest and has a very short shoreline flat that drops off quickly into 8 to 10 feet of water, with a distinct maidencane edge.

"During January and February, the Middle Lake is definitely the best," he noted. "That's where the big fish want to go to spawn, and the west shoreline has the best spawning cover of any of the lakes."

Alley's most productive tactics are simple: for most of the month, he's going to stay on that outside maidencane edge in 8 to 10 feet of water. Slow-trolling shiners along the edge is a quick way to find fish, and he often places one right along the edge of the grass under a float, while freelining another on the deeper side.

Another effective tactic is tossing Texas-rigged plastic worms. Alley favors the larger Culprit curly-tail models in red shad or motor oil. In thinner sections of grass, spinnerbaits in a gold blade/white skirt combo produce. However, during the morning and evening hours, top water baits can be deadly!

"You can catch a lot of big bass in this area with a 1/2-ounce black buzzbait early or late in the day," Alley suggested. "If they boil up but miss the bait, try a gold Spook-type lure."

When Alley finds fish early, he doesn't abandon them during the middle of the day. He just drops back off the edge to drops in 12 to 15 feet of water and freelines shiners, fishes Carolina-rigged worms, or slow-rolls large spinnerbaits down the dropoff.

Bass hold to this pattern until they actually move onto the flats to spawn. And if winter temperatures are not overly frigid, that can happen on this lake in the latter part of the month.

Alley has a plan for that as well.

"When those bass move up onto the flats, they can fan out and be a bit tougher to find," he said. "But the first type of cover that they stage on is the pencil reed patches in 4 to 5 feet or water. It's the first hard cover on the inside. When I start finding less bass on the outer edges, that's the first place I look."

RODMAN RESERVOIR

Mother Nature provided the low water experienced by anglers to the south, but man provides it this month on Rodman. And that's a good thing here, too.

This year, Rodman underwent a regularly scheduled drawdown intended to reduce hydrilla and help dry out the silt buildup in the extreme shallows.

If past drawdowns are any indication, the fishing should be superb.

During the last drawdown, one of the most productive patterns for numbers of fish was crankbaiting the edges of the original river channel anywhere you could find fallen timber -- which isn't hard on this reservoir. The most effective crankbaits were compact diving models in a combo of green/white, gold with a black back, or light crawfish.

The most effective models were those designed to run to the 4- to 6-foot depths. Key target areas were outside bends where the current runs a bit stronger and the banks are a bit more undercut. But many anglers find the 50- to 100-yard stretch downstream of a bend to be productive too.

Another river-channel pattern was to simply slow-troll down the current, dragging a 12-inch brown/black worm along the bottom. This often produced bigger bass that wouldn't come off the bottom for a crankbait.

Bass roam the deeper river channel, and savvy anglers stay on the move until they find a school, and then work the area thoroughly.

The Barge Canal was another producer, and for the same reason -- it represented some of the deepest remaining water. During the late afternoon, when water temperatures are at their highest, subtle topwater plugs like the Rapala minnow are very effective along the edge of the berm wall -- especially in any areas where there is hydrilla.

During the brighter portions of the day, Carolina-rigged worms and lizards, or freelined shiners, produce a number of good fish from the deeper po

rtions of the canal.

Anglers also shouldn't ignore the deeper creeks intersecting the Barge Canal or the original river channel. With the lower water levels, any deeper water becomes productive.

Under normal conditions, largemouths in Rodman show some signs of spawning in early February. But lower water levels allow many of the shallow flats with dark silt bottoms to warm up sooner.

During the last drawdown, I found a number of fish right out in the middle of a 3-foot deep mud flat, bedding around nothing more than an old stick or sunken soda can -- and that was in mid-January!

Several of those bass weighed more than 10 pounds, and the largest pushed 12 pounds.

The Doctor's Cove area and the Orange Springs flats seem to hold the most fish. But any flat located close to a deeper channel that has 2 or 3 feet of water can hold some fish.

On these open flats, the fish get spooky and require finesse tactics and a lot of patience. But the rewards are there for those who have a solid handle on both.

Although water levels may be low on many of Florida's top lakes, that's not really a drawback this month. It just makes the bass easier to find!

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