By Bud Reiter
Winter in Florida is hard to define. Depending upon the jet stream and how much arctic air wanders down from Canada, winter can be just a few ill-defined months on the calendar. Or it can be some of the same bitter cold – albeit without the snow – that our neighbors to the north normally receive. Or it can be anything in between, and often is.
That’s enough to keep most Sunshine State bassers on their toes this month as they factor in the differing kinds of bass behavior that weather causes. But they also have to factor in different lakes and their environments. That can really change the game plan, and never is that truer than when you compare the winter bass fishing on Lake Okeechobee to that on Lake Tarpon.
Although the lakes are no more than 70 miles apart from north to south with respect to latitude, when it comes to comparing how their bass respond in December, you might as well be comparing Mars to Venus, so differently do they act. But that doesn’t mean the fish can’t be caught. Here’s a look at how you can score on both lakes.
Much like northern relatives, winter may visit many areas of Florida and overstay its welcome. On the Big O, however, it can be the perfect houseguest. It usually stops by briefly, creates a pleasant interlude, and then leaves.
Winter on the Big O isn’t so much an actual event as it is just a period on the calendar. This vast 780-square-mile lake has only two real seasons – the spawn and the summer. And that spawning season can start quicker, and run longer, than on any other lake in the state.
Big O bass can begin spawning as early as October. By December the spawn is normally in full swing. That means that bass on this lake are going to be either shallow or heading to the shallows. Savvy anglers do the same.
“If you have stable weather, warming weather, or even a slight chill after a brief cold front, you find most of your bass on this lake in 3 to 4 feet of water,” says veteran tournament angler Steve Daniel, who guided on the Big O for many years.
Finding 3 to 4 feet of water on the Big O isn’t hard – over half of it falls into that depth range. Finding the right 3 to 4 feet of water is tougher. But you can start with these tips.
The northwest corner of the lake normally sees the first spawning bass of the year, and as colder weather approaches it will see the strongest spawn. That’s because it is the area that is most sheltered from cold-front winds.
Other areas can be productive as well, and all share a few common traits. They have a mixture of native vegetation that includes eelgrass, peppergrass, lotus pads and bulrushes in that critical 3- to 4-foot depth range. They also are close to deeper water.
“When bass migrate into the shallows from the main lake in September and October,” Daniels notes, “they do it in stages. One of the last places they stage on is the ‘hydrilla walls.’ These are the outside edges of the major hydrilla beds in 6 to 10 feet of water, and they are the first significant areas of cover between the open lake waters and the spawning shallows. Find good spawning cover near a channel or sharp drop where a hydrilla wall meets the shallows and you have found an area that bass use early in the spawning season.”
The best hydrilla walls are those located on a point that extends towards the deeper main-lake waters. Any suitable spawning cover inside those walls is well worth the time it takes to fish them.
It is also worth getting aggressive in your approach. Noisy topwater lures are a very overlooked December tool on the Big O. This is especially true early and late in the day, but savvy anglers don’t ignore them at noon on a bright day. A buzzbait not only covers a lot of water in your search for concentrations of bass, but it also can trigger some of the bigger fish to bite. A single plain aluminum blade with a white and chartreuse skirt is normally effective, but if the bass just follow or strike short, shift to a black skirt.
If buzzbaits reveal fish but fail to connect, shift to a noisy floating topwater plug. Sometimes the slower pace of noise and commotion can turn boilers into biters, but you have to get their attention first. Surface plugs and buzzbaits may not catch the most bass, but on a calm, overcast December day they attract the biggest.
If weeds inhibit their use, shift to swimming a 10- to 12-inch plastic worm, dancing a weedless soft-plastic jerkbait, or ripping a big spinnerbait through the cover. There isn’t a lot of finesse involved with Big O bass in December. Power bassin’ rules!
That also applies when an infrequent cold front comes through. It takes one heck of a cold front to move December bass from the shallow spawning flats. What normally happens is that they move to adjacent areas of surface-matted cover and lay up.
If yesterday’s 80-degree weather is 40 degrees this morning, just break out a flipping rod and fish the thickest cover you can find next to the areas where you found the bass the day before. If the front is an exceptionally severe one, the fish won’t move out of the shallows the first couple of days, but after a few days they’ll head back towards deeper water. The place to find them is on the hydrilla walls that they staged on during the early stages of the spawn. Big O bass in December are not complex fish. They want to get shallow and they get aggressive.
Move just 70 miles north to Lake Tarpon and the situation changes. Located at Tarpon Springs in Pinellas County, Lake Tarpon consistently ranks among the state’s top 10 lakes in creel surveys. Yet it is quite a bit different from Florida’s other natural lakes.
Fed by Otter and Brooks creeks, Tarpon is only about 2,500 acres in size, but it fishes a lot bigger because it is considerably deeper than many Sunshine State lakes. Numerous channels meander along the lake bottom and drop to depths of 15 feet or more. A number of deeper holes go down to 27 feet, and on the south end of the lake the manmade Outfall Canal provides another deep-water bass haven, with depths up to 17 feet. That is a considerable amount of deep water, and that is precisely where those bass are this month.
“A good depthfinder is the best friend an angler can have on this lake,” says Capt. Ray Van Horn, who guided on Tarpon for almost 20 years. “This lake has a very good mix of shorel
ine and shallow water vegetation, but the mature bass don’t spend much time there except for the actual spawning period. The rest of the time the bass are going to be on offshore structure – drops and ledges – in 8 to 15 feet of water, and sometimes deeper. If you are fishing shallower than 8 feet, you won’t find many mature bass for most of the year.”
That certainly includes the month of December, because bass spawn here much later than on the Big O. During an exceptionally mild winter, a few may begin to filter into the shallows to bed during the full moon in January. But veteran anglers don’t count on seeing many bedding fish until February, and expect the peak of the spawn to be during March. Although some bass may be making their way to pre-spawn staging points, December anglers on Tarpon see most of the bass still firmly in their winter patterns.
For Van Horn, that means he needs to be probing offshore channels and breaklines in that 8- to 15-foot range. During warmer weather he may begin his search on the shallower side, while colder temperatures may prompt him to start deeper. But offshore structure is his target, and there is a wealth of targets on this lake.
On the northwest side of the lake – a key area on any lake for anglers looking for bass in the couple of months before the spawn – Soloman Bay is a perennial favorite. It is one of the most productive spawning areas on the lake and provides a number of offshore channels and ledges that bass migrate to before the spawn. Soloman Bay also contains the Anderson County Park boat ramp, which provides the best public access to the lake.
Just to the south, along the west shoreline, Dolly Bay comprises about 100 acres. It contains some of the deepest water in the lake, with holes going down to 27 feet. This can be a prime area during the coldest weather. Beyond those deeper holes, the remainder of the bay has a lot of rolling offshore drops in the 4- to 15-foot depths that bass use on warming trends.
A bit farther south is Little Dolly Bay. It feeds the largest maze of man-made canals on the lake, and they are prime spawning sites. As the spawn looms closer, this area sees many pre-spawn bass staging on the offshore drops.
On the extreme south end of the lake, the Outfall Canal provides a mid-channel depth of 17 feet, and the flowing water not only provides a constant supply of shad, but also helps buffer the effects of sharp cold fronts. Bass live in this area year ’round and will spawn along the banks.
Finding fish in any of these deeper-water haunts requires quality electronics.
“If you have a depthfinder capable of showing bass or shad schools holding in open water, the simplest procedure is to idle over these structures until you start to see fish,” says Van Horn. “During the winter months, these deep-water bass are normally going to be around shad schools, because that is their primary forage. Find one and you normally find the other. Once you start to mark fish on the depthfinder, drop some marker buoys to surround the area and go to work.”
Once Van Horn finds fish with electronics, his favored tactic is to fire them up by chumming live shad. Once the fish get active, he sends hooked shad out on light spinning gear.
“When you have winter bass suspended over a deep-water dropoff,” he explains, “they may not be very active. But if you toss 30 or 40 live shad minnows on top of them, you can provoke a natural predatory response. Once you get the bass fired up, it’s a no-brainer to toss a hooked shad out among them. The action on a particular bunch of fish may last anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes before you need to go find another bunch, but that pattern is a great way to have 100-fish days.”
Van Horn’s live shad technique is simple if you have the proper livewell to keep the bait alive and enough expertise with a cast net to accumulate 200 to 300 of them before starting to fish. If you don’t fall in that category, there are other tactics that can work.
One favorite tactic of many guides, especially those seeking trophy fish, is to slow-troll or drift live shiners over those drops where they have marked fish. By noting the depth at which fish are being marked, it is easy to put a shiner right among them by using a sliding cork rig. With it you can adjust the depth and, by adding a sinker a foot above the bait, keep it there.
Although live bait is often the most productive choice for deep-water winter bass on Tarpon, lures can score. If fish are marked suspended above the dropoff, countdown vibrating crankbaits can be deadly. So, too, can soft-plastic shad-imitating grubs rigged on a jighead. Savvy anglers move upwind of the spot where fish have been located and drift through the area while counting the baits down in increments before beginning a fast and erratic retrieve that can trigger a reactive strike. By varying the count, you can prospect the depths until you find the right count-and-retrieve that produces action that day.
If fish are holding closer to the bottom, diving crankbaits that hit the 10- to 15-foot mark can be deadly. A straight retrieve sometimes works. Digging the bottom on a fast retrieve can also be effective. On many occasions, however, the best retrieve with a diving crankbait is to get it down to the bottom and just “milk” it – crank it forward a few feet, pause to let it float up, and repeat. Many hits come as the bait floats upwards on the pause.
Regardless of the type of crankbait or jig used, the best colors are those that imitate the forage the bass are feeding on, and that is shad.
Another excellent technique for suspended fish is to rig a 3-inch plastic shad on a jig as a fall bait. Cast it out, count it down to the estimated depth that the fish are holding, and if no strike results as it falls, give it a sharp 3- or 4-foot upwards rip and let it sink again. It’s a perfect imitation of a dying shad, and even a sluggish winter bass has a hard time resisting it.
If you have the skill and equipment, and take time to mark fish, one of these tactics should produce some action. Should they fail, however, savvy anglers don’t leave the spot until they have banged the bottom with a Texas- or Carolina-rigged worm or lizard. The new high-buoyancy “Superplastics” are ideal for this, since their high-floating characteristics can make them dance and twitch in front of the fish until it just can’t stand it anymore! Top colors here are pretty much standard anywhere in Florida – June bug, red shad, or a combination of black and blue.
One last bit of advice is to keep a “schooling rod” at hand. This could be a 10-pound-test spinning rod or a light casting rod rigged with a small chrome topwater plug, a soft-plastic jig or a chrome spoon. Even during the winter, and especially on a warming trend, bass suspended on a deep drop may suddenly rise up and rip into a school of passing shad. If you’re ready for such an occurrence, a hookup can result.
December isn’t an easy month for fishing, because bass may be shallow or deep. But anglers who keep these tips in mind can find them wherever they are.
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