Start The Bassin' Year Right

Start The Bassin' Year Right

Some fast fishing action starts off the New Year on the right foot. For winter angling in South Florida, these three destinations are hard to beat.(January 2009)

Guide Reno Alley hoists a largemouth taken from a bulrush bed on Lake Walk-In-Water.
Photo by Ernest Schribbler.

There are lots of things to like about South Florida, but winter is certainly near the top of the list. Even while successive cold fronts hold the state's northern portion in their grip, those fronts that make it to the state's lower portion are seldom severe. Normally, a light windbreaker is enough to ride out the "cold" front that has anglers in the upper portion of the Sunshine State slipping on their snowmobile suits.

Traditionally balmy winters give South Florida's bass a head start on their spawning cycle. And on most waters, January sees the first significant spawn of the year.

When that initial spawning cycle occurs, a lot of bass are going to be finning their way through easily recognizable shallow-water cover where they are very accessible to anglers. Also, studies have shown that the very largest bass normally spawn on the first cycle, which gives trophy hunters a better than average chance for success.

That opportunity for success also extends to the several-week period before the bass actually go on the beds. During this pre-spawn phase, these fish are moving up from their deep-water winter haunts to stage close to the spawning sites where they will bed.

If you know where they spawn, as well as the types of covers they stage on during the pre-spawn, the entire month can be a bass bonanza.

Here are two lakes where those goals aren't hard to achieve, plus an overlooked river that can be your bad-weather ace in the hole.

Lake Walk-In-Water
During the last five years, this Frostproof-area lake has undergone some significant changes.

Thanks to the Year of the Hurricanes and continued spraying of aquatic weeds, the abundant offshore hydrilla that once characterized this bass factory is gone. What hasn't changed is that Walk-In-Water still offers one of the top bass fisheries in the region, and January is a great month to get in on the action.

"The first spawn of the year will normally happen in late January," said veteran guide Reno Alley of Frostproof. "That makes most of the month a pre-spawn period, and some of the biggest fish of the year will get caught then."

On some lakes, locating concentrations of big pre-spawn females can be tough, but here it's a lot easier.

"The first spawn of the year is going to happen in canals," Alley explained. "And on this lake, there are two major canal systems. The Indian River Lakes Estates has a major canal system on the east side of the lake, with two canals leading back to the maze. On the northeast corner of the lake is the Nelcrest/Fedhaven system.

"The access canals run from the lake and then open up into large shallow ponds. These warm up faster than the main lake and are prime spawning sites. For most of January, bass are going to be making their way towards each of these canals systems and staging off of their mouths."

Where they stage is determined by the paucity of offshore cover. There is some bottom-stubble hydrilla and milfoil, but it'll take a depthfinder or a bottom-banging crankbait to find it.

There are also bulrush patches of varying sizes dotting the four- to five-foot depth range. This is where the bass stage, although they won't always be right in the middle of the patches.

"Bulrush is the most obvious cover," Alley noted, "and bass relate to it very well. But they may not be actually on it. They could be holding as far as 100 yards off of it -- upwind or downwind. And if anglers fish only the bulrush patches, they may miss those fish."

Alley's approach is to circle the bulrushes and work the edges with a hard-plastic jerkbait like the Bomber Long A or Rapala X-Rap. Gold with a black back is a good color for these. Or try a 7 1/2- to 10-inch June-bug-colored Culprit worm rigged Texas-style on a 1/4-ounce Carolina rig with an 18-inch leader. This bait isn't fished in a standard manner, but swum slowly and steadily.

If the outside edge doesn't produce, Alley moves in and pitches or flips a Culprit worm into the reeds. If no action results, he's not finished. He then moves progressively outward and to the water surrounding the reeds.

"You may find a school of bass holding more than 50 yards off the cover," he said. "And if you find them on a specific point -- like upwind or downwind -- it's a good bet that bass on other reed patches are positioned in the same way."

When prospecting short-growing hydrilla and milfoil, the same lures work well, but some anglers have experienced good success using a high-speed retrieve with a 3/4-ounce Rat-L-Trap in gold chrome or bleeding shiner.

Once the fish move into the canals, the tactics change.

"The canals are cut deep," Alley warned. "But they have a taper to their sides that allows bass to fan a bed. When they're not actually on the bed, they can stack up right in the middle of the canal."

A deadly tactic used by many guides is to slowly move down the center of the canal on the trolling motor, while trailing a live shiner under a cork 50 feet behind the boat.

The customer mans that rod, while the guide scans the bank for bedding fish. When one is found, it can be sight-fished with soft-plastics, but the trailing shiner often catches more and bigger bass.

If live bait isn't an option, anglers can do well running a crankbait down the center of the canal ahead of the boat while they look for shoreline beds.

With canals, the key point is that most of the fish will be in the deeper mid-section, and anglers who devote all their attention to the banks miss many of them.

LAKE ISTOKPOGA
There's a lot of water to sort through to find bass on this big South Florida lake, but anglers can narrow their search this month.

"The first spawn of the year will happen in January, and the first place the bass will spawn is in canals," said veteran guide Dick Loupe. "If they haven't already gone into the canals, you can find them staging on offshore cover outside the canals' mouths."

On Istok

poga, the key areas for canals are on the mid-eastern side where the Istokpoga Canal flows from the lake and into the Kissimmee River; the southeast corner in the Sunvale area; and in the northeast corner where Arbuckle Creek enters the lake.

Early in the month, expect to find bass staging on cover in the vicinity of these canal mouths and along the cuts and channels leading into them.

Just what cover will they hold on? Loupe zeros in on one type.

"There's enough offshore hydrilla in the lake to make it the top cover for the bass to stage on," he offered.

"I'm going to start looking at those patches in six to eight feet of water outside of those canal mouths. You'll get bass roaming along the thinner outer areas during the morning and evening, and then slipping back under the crowned-out surface mats during the middle of the day.

"It's really not a lot different than the patterns they use during the summer, except that they aren't going to hold there for weeks at a time. When you find a patch of hydrilla that's holding fish, expect them to have moved to cover closer to the canals by the next week."

Given the "Here today, gone tomorrow" nature of pre-spawn bass staging on offshore hydrilla, important for success is to quickly locate just which patches are holding fish at the moment.

Loupe is a firm believer in getting out early and fishing lures that cover the water quickly. Which lures he favors depends on the density of the hydrilla he's fishing.

"A hard-plastic jerkbait, like the Bomber Long A in gold with a black back, is a very effective lure early in the day on lightly scattered hydrilla edges," he noted. "When the fish move out from the thicker areas, this type of bait lets you work it as a topwater plug, as an aggressive jerkbait or as a quick-moving shallow crankbait.

"You can cover a lot of water quickly, and by varying the retrieve, you can pretty much figure the mood of the bass."

If the hydrilla's a bit too thick for plugs laden with treble hooks, Loupe shifts to a spinnerbait.

He favors a 3/8-ounce model with twin Colorado blades in No. 4 and a white/chartreuse skirt. One of the blades should be gold in color, and the other nickel. He feels it's also important to add a white plastic trailer. In deeper scattered hydrilla, slow-rolling this bait puts out a lot of vibration and triggers reaction strikes.

If the hydrilla is approaching the surface, neither of the above lures may be effective. In this situation, Loupe opts for a surface frog like the Zoom Horny Toad. He favors the watermelon-red color and rigs it to run weightless on the surface.

Heavy enough to toss on 20-pound casting gear, the Horny Toad can zip smoothly across the surface and "walk" over just about any grass it encounters. It can produce explosive strikes from areas where other lures cannot be worked effectively.

While these lures handle a lot of offshore hydrilla chores, on any trip, Loupe keeps one other bait rigged and often spends most of his time with it.

"This time of year, my favorite lure is a Texas-rigged 10-inch Producto worm in June-bug color," he stated. "By varying the weight of the sinker, I can bounce it along the bottom on hydrilla edges, swim it through scattered grass or flip and pitch it through matted hydrilla during the middle of the day. It's as close to an 'all-around' lure as there is on this lake."

The action on fish staging offshore can last for several weeks before the first wave of them moves into the canals. Once they do, Loupe's canal tactics are no different from the techniques that Reno Alley uses on the Walk-In-Water canals.

But as February approaches, Loupe doesn't spend all his time in canals.

"Once the first wave gets done in the canals, there is a second spawning stage," he noted. "That also begins around the canal mouths, but you'll get a good bunch of fish that spawn in shallow water outside the mouths."

Cattails in two to three feet of water, especially those lying near channels leading into canals, are top bets.

An even better bet in the area is wherever bulrushes join cattails. Bulrushes often grow from four to five feet and provide an ideal holding point for bass spawning in or along the shallower cattails.

One quick way to find out if the second spawning stage is occurring is to work a Bomber Long A along the outer edge of appropriate bulrushes early in the day, or once the sun gets up, to pitch a worm or jig into the reeds. Once you find fish, don't overlook the shallower cattails behind them. Loupe pitches these, while working any boat trails and cuts through the cattails with a Rat-L-Trap or spinnerbait.

PEACE RIVER
Lakes can provide superb bassin' this month. But following a front, even South Florida can experience very windy days that can make open-water angling tough. That's one reason why experienced anglers keep a river or two in their "back pocket" for days of adverse weather.

In a narrow river, even the strongest wind won't create problems. And even the coldest front has little effect on bass in a moving-water environment.

During bad weather, a river can save the day, and one of the best bets is the Peace River.

The Peace wanders from Bartow to its junction with the briny waters of Port Charlotte Harbor at Punta Gorda. Like most Florida rivers, its banks are intersected by numerous inflowing creeks and lined with lily pads, fallen timber and brushtops.

It's an excellent habitat for bass, panfish and catfish. But in the lower reaches during the winter months, don't be surprised to have snook, redfish or trout assaulting your lures. The entire Peace River holds fish, but this month, the best section is normally from Nocatee on the west, to the point where the salt water from Port Charlotte Harbor starts turning brackish.

In virtually all the Florida rivers that empty into coastal waters, many bass migrate to the lower brackish section during cold weather to take advantage of the saltwater forage species that enter the rivers each winter.

Rivers offer some of the most interesting angling you'll find during the winter months, and it doesn't take a big selection of lures to get in on it.

River bass seldom get the pressure of their lake-bound counterparts and are remarkably unsophisticated. If the current brings them a morsel, normally they won't spend a lot of time analyzing it.

One of the most universally effective river baits is a safety-pin spinnerbait featuring one or two gold Colorado blades with a white-and-chartreuse, black or crawfish-colored skirt. It'

s an ideal tool for fishing around fallen timber, shoreline pads or any other "fishy-looking" cover.

Weedless soft-plastics are another top choice. A Texas-rigged plastic worm or lizard in June-bug, black-and-blue or black-and-grape colors can be fished just about anywhere.

Another option -- and one that few savvy river anglers leave at home -- is a compact 3-inch plastic crawfish rigged Texas-style, with a heavier weight for pitching or flipping.

Most rivers hold crawfish, and the bass love them.

Add to the list a hard-plastic jerkbait that can be worked as a surface lure, shallow crankbait or jerkbait. Also try a medium-diving crankbait like the Bomber 6a or 7a in crawfish or gold-chrome color schemes.

One problem with rivers is that every bit of cover can look "fishy." But some areas are fishier than others.

Veteran river anglers never pass up the cover around the mouth of an inflowing side creek. Drifting a worm or bouncing a crankbait down the drop in front of these is effective.

Fallen treetops that form a hard cover or roof are also top bets. They are bass houses, and flipping a crawfish through them can produce.

Fallen timbers on an outside bend with undercut banks and a sharper drop to the main channel are always worth a cast. If the current is running a bit stronger than normal, don't overlook the edge of lily-pad beds on the inside bends.

Rivers aren't complex, and when the weather turns nasty, they can save your fishing day.

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