Winter Largemouths in the Sunshine State

Winter Largemouths in the Sunshine State

Winter tends to be a subjective state of mind in Florida. Compared with most of the country, our conditions are outstanding. Still, the cooler temperatures make some lakes better for bassin'.

By William J. Bohica

If you want a good definition of the term "feast or famine," look no further than bass fishing in Florida during the month of January.

If the jet stream takes a sharp dip to the south, the month can see largemouth bass become about as scarce as good manners at a punk rock concert. Should the jet stream confine its efforts to making life miserable for those living north of the Mason-Dixon line, however, things can get fantastic fast! In fact, the heaviest one-day creel yet taken during any B.A.S.S. tournament throughout their long history was weighed in just a couple of years ago during a January warm spell on Lake Tohopekaliga. That stringer of five fish weighed a whopping 45-plus pounds and included two bass over 10 pounds!

Yes, warm is good. If the jet stream minds its own business this year, expect bass to take full advantage of it and flock to the shallows for an early spawn. If that situation occurs, here are four lakes where you are likely to find good fishing.

CROOKED LAKE
Located in Polk County, this lake lies along the east side of U.S. 27 and is bordered on the south by County Road (C.R.) 630. A Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWCC) no-fee public ramp is located on the southern end, just off C.R. 630, while the only other public access is located at Bob's Landing on U.S. 27A, between Babson Park and Frostproof.

While the lake covers a total of 5,500 acres, it is actually composed of four distinct bays. On the southern end, at the FWCC ramp, Little Crooked Lake comprises about 300 acres of open water, with another 300 or so acres of shallow-water marsh. This connects to the other three bays via a relatively narrow canal that maintained plenty of water for a bass boat to easily move through this past summer. After this point, the remaining three bays are connected and accessible.

Although Crooked Lake may not be a household word among even local anglers, some think it should be.

Jimmy Keith displays the kind of bass that Lake Rousseau gives up on warm January afternoons. Photo by William J. Bohica

"There are more good fish in this lake than many anglers realize," says veteran guide Reno Alley, who lives in nearby Frostproof. "I've seen tournaments in August where there were several fish in the 7- to 8-pound class brought in, and that's probably the worst time of the year to fish it. The really big fish show up during the spawn."

Spawning activity begins in early to mid-January during a mild winter. Alley is convinced that early season anglers fare best if they confine their efforts to the southern portions of the lake.

"Little Crooked Lake would be the first spot I would look," he says. "The water in this lake is noticeably darker than the three bays to the north of it, and it is a lot shallower. The maximum depth is about 10 feet, but there is a wealth of shallow vegetation in the 2- to 4-foot range. This darker water warms up first and often sees the first significant movement in January."

It is also worth noting that most of the tournaments held on Crooked Lake originate from the FWCC ramp on Little Crooked, which results in a lot of bass from the other lakes being transplanted to this one after weigh-ins. There are plenty of bass in Little Crooked Lake, but if they aren't cooperating, Alley moves into the main lake and knows exactly where he wants to go.

"All three of the bays on the main lake are quite deep and very clear, and they have a lot of offshore drops and bars," he explains. "There are a lot of 15- to 30-foot depths. But in the middle bay there is a tremendous amount of shallow aquatic vegetation running along the east side of Highway 27. That is one of the key spawning areas on the lake and one of the best bets during the early spring."

While this maze of native vegetation runs all the way to the shoreline, Alley confines his early-season effort to a much smaller portion.

"The first spawn of the year will normally take place in 3 to 5 feet of water and won't be very far from the outside edge," he explains. "Just outside of that is a 10-foot breakline where you have a wall of submerged grass and some bulrush. The bass stage on that 10-foot grassline and move back and forth between the 3- and 5-foot grass.

"I put the trolling motor down and run that shallower depth, looking for bedding fish," he continues. "With the clear water, they're not hard to see if they are there. If they aren't there, I'll drop back and start fishing the staging areas along that 10-foot break. Bulrushes on points are key staging areas for big spawning females, as is any submerged grass on points and other sharp drops connecting the deeper water to the shallows. It's a simple pattern, but it's really productive in January."

While the bass in the darker waters of Little Crooked Lake respond to most shallow-water baits, anglers on the much clearer main lake are advised to consider this to be "worm and jerkbait" water. Plastic worms in the 6- to 8-inch range in black grape, red with glitter, and June bug are deadly, as are hard-plastic jerkbaits in gold with an orange belly or chrome with a blue back. In thicker cover, soft-plastic jerk worms in combos of gold, shad or other natural hues are very effective.

For further information or to book a day of bass fishing with Reno Alley, contact him at Memory Makin' Guide Service by calling (800) 749-2278.

EAST LAKE TOHOPEKALIGA
At almost 12,000 acres, East Lake Toho (as it is locally known) may be the biggest Florida lake that the fewest anglers have ever heard of. Some anglers kind of like it that way.

"There are a lot of lakes in this area that get more publicity and angling pressure than East Lake," notes Eddie Bussard, who has been guiding in central Florida for many years, "but that works out just fine because you don't have to deal with the crowds."

What that limited number of anglers who venture onto this do have to deal with, however, are bass - including some big ones! January is a prime time to do just that.

Spawning on this lake can begin as early as December, and there is almost always some bedding going on in January. During that early spawn, it's not hard to find the fish, because they are usually in one relatively narrow area of depth and cover.

"This is a big, bowl-shaped lake with

a lot of deep water, and the lake is pretty clear," says Bussard. "There is a relatively thin fringe of bulrush that forms the outside weedline and grows from the 3- to 6-foot depth, with shallow-water plants inside of that. The first spawn of the year almost always takes place right on the outside edge of that bulrush. The bass may spawn on the edge, a bit inside the edge, or on stubble grass in open water as much as 25 yards outside of the edge. But that edge is where you want to look, and if you just put your trolling motor down and go, you'll find the fish."

Some of the key bedding areas Bussard searches first are midway down the west side of the lake; the areas on the south side in the vicinity of the Lakeshore Public Fishing Pier; and the area around the outflow at the St. Cloud Canal.

"Bass on this lake tend to bed in concentrations," Bussard claims, "so I like to stay on the move until I start finding signs of bedding activity. You may travel a quarter-mile and not see a thing, then all of a sudden see beds every 10 feet. Even if the bass aren't on the beds, you've found a center of bass activity, and the fish aren't very far away."

Given the water clarity, key baits are hard-plastic jerkbaits, plastic worms and lipless crankbaits, or topwater plugs when there are dim light conditions.

East Lake Fish Camp offers accommodations, launch facilities, guides, bait and tackle, and an excellent restaurant. Their telephone number is (407) 348-2040.

Eddie Bussard can be reached at Bass Challenger Guide Service by dialing (800) 241-5314.

RODMAN RESERVOIR
Few lakes in the state produce as many big bass as Rodman does. Even fewer are as productive during cooler weather.

"This is the best spot in northeast Florida from November through February," states veteran guide Jim Romeka, "and the weather doesn't tend to mess you up. If it's cold, the fish don't shut off; they just drop to channel edges. If it's warm, they move to shallow flats. You can catch them either way by just shifting tactics."

If January is as warm as those in the recent past, look for bass to be doing some spawning by midmonth. The bass have an easier time of it this year because a major drawdown in 2002 dried out a significant amount of bottom muck in many shoreline areas. That provides a lot more prime spawning cover, but it may complicate finding bedding bass concentrations.

"Bass have a lot more water to spawn in this year," Romeka notes, "but there are several key areas where I think they could be thick. Doctor's Cove is a traditional early spawning area, and the drawdown really helped firm up the bottom in there. The shoreline flats southeast of Blue Springs should also be very good, and the Orange Springs flats are another area that often sees an early spawn."

Anglers pursuing largemouths on shallow spawning flats find weedless soft-plastic baits the best bet for sight-fishing for bedding bass, while lipless crankbaits, hard-plastic jerkbaits and plastic jerk worms are highly effective for feeding fish. Gold with a slash of orange on the belly is the most productive color on the hard baits, but savvy anglers often shift to a perch and gold pattern in dim light.

If the flats yield little activity, Romeka starts looking deeper.

"Creek channel edges and deeper holes bordering these flats are where the bass usually stage before the spawn," he explains, "and slow-trolling a live shiner along them is one of the guide's favorite tactics. It's a good way to both catch bass and locate concentrations."

Areas to key on along channel edges are deeper outside bends, particularly if they have a lot of hydrilla on them. Another good situation for soaking a shiner is where you have a significant hydrilla bed lying between a deep channel drop and the shallow edge of a flat.

If the weather turns frigid, experienced anglers move to the original river channel, from Blue Springs and to the south, then slowly work the deeper outside bends with shiners, large plastic brown-and-black worms, or deep-diving crankbaits in green-and-white or brown-and-chartreuse. Also, keep a flipping rod on hand to probe any patch of matted surface cover that might have blown in and stacked up over those channel bends.

"Rodman is the kind of place where you can just about always catch some bass in even the worst weather, and there aren't many other lakes in the area where you can do that," Romeka concluded.

Jim Romeka can be reached to arrange a day of guided bass fishing by calling (904) 291-8052.

LAKE ROUSSEAU
With the controversy over Rodman Reservoir in the last few years, it is easy to forget that there are actually two manmade lakes remaining from the ill-fated Cross Florida Barge Canal project. But winter anglers don't want to overlook Lake Rousseau.

"This lake used to be pretty choked up with hydrilla," says local guide Jimmy Keith, "but the state has done an excellent job of clearing most of it out. That's made a pretty good situation for fishermen, because the bass have been left with few options. When they are not particularly active, they drop down to the deeper channel edges and hold on eelgrass or whatever hydrilla they can find. When they decide to feed, they move up from the channels to the adjoining flats, which are loaded with stumps, lay-down logs and eelgrass. Everything starts and ends with those deeper channels."

While bass seldom begin spawning on this lake before early March, warm afternoons see significant pre-spawn movements to the shallow, cover-laden flats. Locating the flats that contain the right mix of wood and grass isn't difficult. Just put on a pair of polarized sunglasses.

"The drought conditions have really cut the flow of darker water from the Withlacoochee River," says Keith, "so what is feeding the lake is the clear water from the Rainbow River. The lake is so clear that on some days it's like being on a Keys bonefish flat, but that doesn't slow down the bass.

"My basic January pattern," he continues, "is to move along the channels and drift up onto those flats that have sharp drops to the main channel. When you find an area where a 4- to 6-foot-deep flat with good lay-down logs and eelgrass that abuts a deeper channel, you've found a place where fish move up to feed on warm afternoons. It's just a matter of checking those connecting flats until you find some fish. Once you do, there's almost always a lot more of them down there and you can slow down and work the area more thoroughly."

Given the clarity of the water, top baits for locating fish are lipless crankbaits. Keith is partial to the floating Rat-L-Trap in gold. Other deadly lures are jerkbaits in gold with an orange belly, chrome with a blue back, perch pattern or firetiger. When fished on 10- to 14-pound spinning or casting gear they can be used to cover a lot of water in a hurry.

Once fi

sh are found, Texas-rigged plastic worms in 6-inch curly-tailed versions in June bug, black grape, and red with green glitter can often be more effective, especially on bright days. Add some overcast to the mix, however, and topwater plugs can be deadly. Keith favors low to moderate noisemakers that seem to draw larger bass.

If the flats aren't producing, Keith often shifts to slow-trolling live shiners along the channel edges bordering the flats. This is one of the local guide's favored tactics and produces a lot of trophy fish.

While both patterns are relatively simple, they are highly effective during the pre-spawn, and days of 30 to 40 bass are considered "ho-hum" action.

To book a day of guided bass fishing on Lake Rousseau with Jimmy Keith, call (352) 472-7296.



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