Florida's Winter Bassin' -- North To South
September 30, 2010
These waters stretch down the Sunshine State peninsula, but they have one thing in common. In the winter months, they provide fast action for largemouths! (December 2009)
Winter in Florida isn't quite like winter elsewhere. We do get some cold weather, and most veteran anglers have a snowsuit they can throw on for the first run from the dock in the morning. But that suit is generally shed by noon.
Gary Simpson finds that flipping in the shallow weed mats on Rodman Reservoir is the ticket for fast action during the spawn.
Photo by Rod Hunter.
Winter in Florida means a day or two with freezing nights somewhere around Thanksgiving, followed by a repeat performance at Christmas and periodic freezes from then through the end of February. However, the bitter cold seldom lasts more than a few days at a time and the weather warms quickly in the wake.
The brief cold snaps are annoying but hardly debilitating. The bass shut down for a few days, but they're back in action on the following warm up.
While annoying, those brief interludes of frigid weather do play an important role in the seasonal cycles of largemouths. They tell the fish summer is over, and that the spring spawn is just around the corner. The result is that bass make a steady transition from their deep-water summer habitat to the shallow flats where they spawn.
In that respect, the period between November and late January is one of the most important "transitional" periods of the year for the bass. It's a major shift in their feeding habits and their locations. It can be a very active period, and a productive one for anglers who can stay on their toes and think on the fly. Here are three top waters where that philosophy can pay big dividends this year.
Summer normally departs this northern Florida lake in October and shakes the fish out of their hot weather doldrums. By the time November rolls around, cooling temperatures have the fall feeding frenzy in full swing, and getting in on the action is easy.
"The key pattern in November is for bass to be chasing shad," said veteran Gainesville angler Gary Simpson, who in addition to handling the fishing columns for the Gainesville Sun newspaper also manages the area's premier tackle emporium The Tackle Box. "The young-of-the-year shad have grown to the 4- to 5-inch range, and the bass are feeding heavily on them."
Bass munch shad anywhere they can find them. In the open waters of the lake's main pool, however, moving shad schools often mean moving bass. It can be tough to zero in on specific feeding areas.
There are, however, a number of submerged points and bars located along the original river channel and intersecting creek channels where bass can wait, instead of chase. The same can also apply in areas where topped out surface hydrilla patches create funnel areas where wind moves shad schools through.
Simpson has a better plan than just running around these areas and searching.
"The Barge Canal can be a real hotspot during this fall feeding period," he explained. "The lower section of the canal leading to the locks provides a deep-water refuge, with the berm wall cutouts providing ambush points. The cutouts were made to allow water to drain off the flats during drawdowns, and on a windy fall day, a lot of shad can be pushed through those cuts. Bass can move up and down the canal and park themselves at any cut that has shad moving through it."
Another plus for the Barge Canal is that anytime the locks are activated, a current flow is set up in the canal that can suck shad schools off the adjacent flats and through the cuts. It's the perfect place for bass to roam deeper water, while finding compressed shad schools moving into it via shallow cuts. Many a fall tournament has been won in the canal by anglers who concentrated on those cutouts.
Given that shad are the primary menu item, shad-imitating baits are often most effective. Local favorites are shad-finished hard-plastic jerkbaits like the Bomber Long A, Rapala or Rattlin' Rogue. The newer soft-plastic swimbaits, such as the Reaction Innovation Skinny Dipper, are also very effective.
One also shouldn't ignore proven countdown crankbaits. A 3/4-ounce Rat-L-Trap is a local favorite in chrome with a blue or black back or Tennessee Shad finish. They can cover a lot of water while providing the degree of depth control needed to work over submerged hydrilla.
If those fail to produce, Texas- or Carolina-rigged plastic worms of 7 to 10 inches in June bug or watermelon red can be very effective on less than active bass. That's especially true near intersecting creek channels.
This shad frenzy normally lasts until Thanksgiving, and can pick back up in December if there is a serious warming trend. For the most part, though, December fish are a bit more sedate. They're still looking for shad, but are a bit more leisurely in their approach. They often pick a relatively small area and hold there.
Look for December bass on sharp channel drops, where they can move deep during inclement weather and make a short movement to shallower water on warm afternoons. The Barge Canal is still a top spot, especially in those sections of that have topped-out hydrilla on the berm.
If Carolina rigs don't produce deep, flipping the topped-out hydrilla on the berm wall can score.
Another option is the original river channel in what has always been called "the trees." The standing timber has long since rotted away, but the submerged trunks are still there. So are the intersecting creeks channels and spring runs that join the main channel. Any outside bend or intersecting channel can hold fish, especially those that have some floating vegetation drifted into them to form an overhead mat. Fishing a weedless worm or flipping tactics are top choices.
December can sometimes be a slow month for bass. But that changes in January.
"If I had to pick the best month to catch a 10-pound bass in this part of the state, it would be January," Simpson said, "and Rodman would be at the top of my list of places to do it."
The reason for Simpson's opinion is simple -- unless we experience an unusually severe winter during December, there are some bass spawning in Rodman on the full moon in January. Biological studies have also indicated that the largest bass are often the first ones to hit the beds. There are several areas in Rodman where this early spawn can take place, but Simpson knows exactly where he conc
entrates his efforts in January.
"The Orange Spring flats invariably see the first spawn of the year on Rodman," he noted, "and for a couple of weeks before the full moon, there will be a lot of bass heading in that direction."
Bass filter onto the flats through main and secondary creek channels and Simpson hits these first. Crankbaits and soft plastics are key lures, but flipping can be big.
"Any thick mats of surface vegetation along channels are prime for flipping this month," Simpson emphasized. "I like a solid bait like a 5-inch Gambler Paddle Tail or a 4- or 5-inch craw in dark colors. Those fish moving to the flats will come out of deeper water and slip under those mats to catch some warmth."
As the full moon draws closer, Simpson isn't just concentrating on mats near a channel. He looks for any floating vegetation he can find within a couple hundred yards of spawning cover, even if they are in just 2 feet of water.
"As long as we don't have a couple of freezing nights in a row," he concluded, "I'll be pushing shallow on the Orange Spring flats in January."
Like Rodman, November sees a serious shad feeding frenzy on Lake Tohopekaliga. Again, like Rodman, there normally is a January spawn. Unlike Rodman, however, Toho bass don't do a lot of pausing in their migration from deep water to the spawning sites.
"The majority of the bass on Toho spend the summer months in offshore hydrilla feeding on shad," explained long-time guide Reno Alley. "Once we start to get a cool down in November, those bass are heading shallow, and they stage predictably as they make that movement."
For Alley, November means bass are moving or staging on the deepest edges of the maidencane line they can find. The maidencane normally extends to the 6- to 8-foot depths. Extended points of the grass are preferred, and those points that stretch outwards to significant deep-water hydrilla beds are the Holy Grail. They provide the pathway from open lake to the spawning shallows. Some of the key areas are in Gobblets Cove, Browns Point and the area around Red's Fish Camp. Given that the bass are on a direct route to spawning sites, and these are key spawning sites, they become favored fishing areas among local experts.
"I want to start the morning on a deep grass point," Alley confirmed, "and since the bass will be feeding on shad, I want a shad lure to start. Topwater plugs like a Zara Spook or Bang-O-Lure are great choices for the first hour of the day."
If fish are seen actively schooling, some experts work Rat-L-Trap type baits parallel to the grass line. If they're eating shad, give them something that looks like a shad.
That morning feed may be over in an hour or so on a bright day, but may stretch till noon if we have one of those typical cloudy/breezy fall days. When the action dies, however, there is no point in leaving a grass line where you've found fish.
"The fish aren't going to move very far from those grass points," Alley noted, "so shifting to a Culprit worm in June bug, red shad, or black with a blue tail in the 7 1/2- to 10-inch range, and working the edge of the grass line can pay off."
This outer grass line pattern normally holds true through November. When December arrives and if the fish aren't there, some anglers think they have to move deeper. Alley knows the reverse is true.
"In any normal winter we have a January spawn in some areas," the guide offered." Last year, it was in the latter part of January, and an angler sight-fishing the beds won the FLW tournament. He had well over 80 pounds of bass for four days, and there were plenty of other 80-pound stringers coming in. All came from shallow water.
"When the bass leave the maidencane edges, that's where to go -- shallow."
Thus, when the maidencane points no longer produce, it's time to move inside. There's a lot of water to cover, and Alley favors jerkbaits like the Bomber Long A, in gold, weedless soft-plastic jerkbaits in shad colors, spinnerbaits, chatterbaits and other lures that can cover a lot of area of the 3- to 5-foot range of depths.
"Once the fish move inside the maidencane line," Alley said, "they can fan out over a lot of shallow cover. I want to cover as much good green living vegetation as I can find, until I find a group of bass. Once I do that, I can shift to a Culprit worm and work the area more slowly. But you have to stay on the move until you find those concentrations."
Do that and you can produce the same 5-pound per fish type limit that won the 2009 FLW tournament.
The Everglades Canals
Lake Okeechobee is considered the top bass-fishing destination in South Florida. But south of the Big O is a water body that -- depending upon your definition of "great bass fishing" -- can rival it.
The maze of canals and adjacent marshes comprising the Everglades has long been known as a major bass factory. When it comes to trophy-class bass, it doesn't produce the numbers of 8-pound-plus fish that many waters to the north do. In terms of sheer numbers of bass up to 5 pounds, however, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission biologists feel that few Sunshine State waters can equal its constant action. Getting in on that action can take some work.
Major canals crisscross the Glades. Alligator Alley (Interstate 75) on the north and the Tamiami Trail (U.S. Highway 41) on the south bisect the Glades east and west. A number of canals cut across from north to south. Public launching ramps are spaced along all those canals. Some are paved, deep-water ramps that can handle a full-sized bass boat, while others are gravel or sand ramps best suited to a small boat on a tilt trailer. Between the canals is a major marsh system that has a number of intersecting cuts and channels that allow access by shallow draft boats. Best access to these is by airboats.
The largemouth bass population is massive. But during periods of higher water levels, many of those fish choose to remain in the marsh where they are not always accessible to anglers. When water levels are low, however, the bass flock to the deeper canals. The good news for winter anglers is that the low-water period starts in November.
This month marks the end of the hurricane and rainy seasons, and the start of falling water levels. The water continues to drop and reaches a low in February and March. That pulls fish off the marsh flats and moves them to the deeper water. November is the start, and it just gets better in December and January.
Savvy anglers concentrate their canal efforts anywhere there is flowing water, and especially around those access cuts that connect the marsh to the canals. Those are migration routes for both bass and forage leaving the marsh.
For those fish already in the canal, numerous water control structures move
water through the system and also carry forage from the marsh to the canal.
Look for ambush points that provide easy feeding, and any cover or structure downcurrent water control structures. Bridge abutments, pilings, riprap, cattail points and bends in the canal can all be hotspots when water is flowing.
Compact topwater plugs are local favorites, as are weedless plastic worms. Don't, however, overlook diving crankbaits banged along riprap or run deep around bridge pilings.
One area that shouldn't be overlooked, especially in December and January, are shelves along canals with an edge of reeds and an open section between them and the bank. Most spawning in the Glades takes place in February and March in the shallow marsh itself. Some bass, however, spawn at the end of the year, and those reed-lined shelves are preferred spots.
It makes little difference whether you fish north or south. Florida's winter bassin' can be hot right now!