By Ronnell Smith
So cold was the air on this January morning that Mike Smith was bundled up from head to toe, with only his ears braving the cold. But there he was, standing at the rear of the boat, casting his lure to the shore on Lake Sinclair’s Crooked Creek.
A self-styled jig-fisherman if there ever was one, he picks every bit of cover in sight apart during the dead of winter. However, on this day, as the winds howled out of the north, he was flicking a 1/4-ounce double-willow-leaf spinnerbait in white-and-chartreuse to a stretch of riprap in the creek. With the sun bathing the easternmost end of the cover, he placed the lure about four feet from shore and began to slowly reel it back to the boat.
As evinced by the thump on the end of his line, a 3-pound, 8-ounce largemouth obviously had plans of its own for the lure.
“Boy, he was right there,” Mike said while setting the hook so hard his reel came unfastened from his rod. “As soon as I started reeling, he hit it.”
The bite was most likely a reaction strike, as the fish – suspended near a section of the riprap exposed to sunlight – nailed the bait in water with a surface temperature of 43 degrees. Such bites are not at all uncommon in winter.
More often than not, they are the norm. As most anglers readily attest, January angling is all about finding fish actively chasing shad or, when that fails, dropping a bait, such as a jig or small crankbait, right under their noses.
Fishing for largemouth or spotted bass in winter is not for the faint of heart. The water is cold, the fish are often sluggish and the winds can howl so strongly that they can quickly make an angler wish his hands were clutched firmly around a cup of coffee, not a piece of graphite.
That doesn’t begin to describe the agony of having to reel artificial baits so slowly that paint can dry in the time it takes to make one cast, or having to contend with almost imperceptible bites. When we add in the fact that most anglers consider getting five bites a day during this period fortunate, it becomes clear that winter angling for bass is anything but easy.
Despite the conditions, however, winter can also be the most rewarding time of the year for chasing largemouths. This is largely because the cold water typically puts fish in predictable places, such as at the end of long, sloping points, in creek ditches where incoming rains warm the water, or around wood cover, such as docks, blowdowns and brushpiles. Here, the fish can be caught on a variety of baits, from jigs and flat-sided crankbaits to jigging spoons, large-bladed spinnerbaits and bulky plastic worms.
What’s more, this is also the period when it’s far more common to catch a largemouth approaching double-digit weights, largely owing to the fact that the cold-blooded creatures have been gorging on large shad since late summer but are now taking pains to conserve energy in the cold water.
Northeast Georgia, which is home to a plethora of lakes, offers anglers numerous opportunities to catch fat bass in winter. These lakes range from stained and largely shallow to gin-clear with deep drops, but most offer an abundance of cover and have suitable structure and plentiful populations of black bass, both largemouth and spotted.
Three very good lakes for catching bass in northeast Georgia in winter are Jackson, Sinclair and Hartwell. These reservoirs, though vastly different in size, water clarity and types of structure, have each developed a reputation for producing chunky bass in the winter months, and each is relatively easy to fish.
Hartwell features large creek arms, such as Coneross, Eastonelle, Eighteen Mile and Twenty-six Mile creeks, and its long, fast-tapering clay points are sites to put a twinkle in a bass fisherman’s eye. These points, and the abundant docks, blowdowns, brushpiles and standing timber in the lake form the primary habitat for largemouth bass and their cousins, the spotted bass and the redeye bass.
Though both spots and largemouths are found in abundance throughout the lake, when Hartwell resident David Vaughn hits the water in January he is almost always chasing Old Bucketmouth. Vaughn, who has lived on the lake for more than five years, said the key to finding fish on the impoundment this month is locating the baitfish. The cold water has the effect of causing the blueback herring – the lake’s primary bass forage – to bunch up tightly. When this happens, the predators in the lake, including the largemouth and spots, often form schools and ambush the bait pods as they pass over points or brushpiles.
“On Hartwell, you may find them schooling in January,” David said of the largemouth and spots, which may be mixed in schools with stripers and hybrids to push bait to the surface. “Once they find that ball of bait, they are going to eat.”
David, who describes himself as a deep-water fisherman, usually begins his winter excursions by looking for baitfish or largemouths on long points in Seneca Creek, which is on the upper end of the lake, or near Tugaloo State Park on Gum Log Creek. In both areas, he begins by looking for baitfish or bass using his electronic graph depthfinder, concentrating on 15 to 20 feet of water.
If the fish are there, he lowers a jigging spoon and begins to work the lure at the desired depth. If there are neither fish nor cover on a point, however, he moves up or down the creek to a point in even deeper water. What he won’t do, though, is beat the banks for a bite.
“You don’t just run to the bank throwing a worm,” he cautioned. “You aren’t going to get a bite there, because the fish aren’t there.”
On Hartwell, just as on most other reservoirs in winter, bass are drawn deeper as they go about searching for suitable water temperatures. Provided there is cover available, such as stumps, brushpiles or rocks, largemouth or spotted bass are most often found in depths ranging from 15 to 35 feet of water.
Along with the jigging spoon, Vaughn also casts a deep-diving crankbait or small jigs with tiny spinnerbait blades attached to them. Many times, after a rain has stained the water in the upper end of the lake, he throws the large crankbait along the bridge pilings in the Seneca River, which is located near Clemson University. Besides warming the water, the rain stirs the algae, thus activating the baitfish, which can spur the largemouths to feed aggressively. A big minnow-imitating crankbait is often more than they can stand.
“You don’t get many bites, but when you do, it’s going to be a good one,” David said.
On his best days in winter, Vaughn boats numerous fish, with the average being about 15 to 20 pounds for five fish. Though the largest of his fish come off the points on a jigging spoon, he cites the jig with a soft-plastic jerkbait as a trailer as also having a permanent place in his tackle box for this time of the year.
At times when the lake has gotten large amounts of sunshine for several consecutive days, David casts the bait to the numerous brushpiles in the ditches at the junctions of creek arms. These ditches, which often offer deep water along with cover close to shore, are havens for largemouths. The fish herd shad into these troughs and then ambush them.
David capitalizes on this movement by throwing the bladed jig into the ditch and hopping it back to the boat. This technique is designed to mimic a scurrying shad and is as good a way as any to catch active fish on the lake.
“On most lakes, you aren’t going to load the boat in winter,” he noted. “But on Hartwell, in the winter, when you find them, you can load the boat.”
In years past, Georgia Power Company used the lake for power generation, but currently about the only moving water to be found is upriver, where the inflow is quite substantial after heavy winter rains.
Despite its small size and lack of current, however, Jackson has earned an enviable reputation for being one of the state’s best lakes for catching big fish in the winter months. In fact, many Georgia anglers prefer to visit the lake only when the water is cold and the boat traffic on the lake is less of a problem.
If there is a single key to catching bass on Jackson in winter, it’s targeting rocks. Chunk rock lines the shore in many areas throughout the lake as it provides a base for the plentiful sea walls. On cold winter days, fish move onto this shallow cover to feed on shad or crawfish. When they do so, it provides one of the best opportunities to set the hook on a largemouth fit for a wall mount.
Typically, in winter, anglers put in at Berry’s Boat Dock, which is located on the South River, and begin working the riprap at the State Highway 212 bridge, located adjacent the marina.
Good baits for this spot include 3/8-ounce black-and-blue jigs, 1/4-ounce spinnerbaits and small crankbaits. The rock pattern is awesome during this time of year and can be utilized throughout the lake, especially when there is some sunlight present to warm the cover.
Should this pattern fail, an equally solid technique is to hop jigging spoons on the numerous points as you move south toward the dam. Try working areas in about 15 feet of water, and then as the water heats up move shallower.
Many of these points are loaded with brushpiles planted by anglers and thus are havens for shad and predators like largemouths. Another bait to try here on the points is a Carolina-rigged plastic lizard or worm, both of which can be absolutely irresistible in cold water.
On the lower end of the lake, where Tussahaw Creek enters, clear water is predominant, and in some areas visibility is more than three feet.
Not only is an entirely different approach called for here, but there comes into play here a new species of bass – spots. Spotted bass were introduced into Jackson in the late 1990s, and while they haven’t made much of an impact on the north end of the lake, their presence in this clear water is definitely felt. On many excursions, anglers may not encounter a single largemouth in this area. Instead it’s the pecking, aggressive spots that tug at their lines.
To capitalize on that aggression, anglers do well to cast small crankbaits, jigs or spinnerbaits to rock or to the numerous brushpiles positioned around the docks in 15 or more feet of water.
From there, move toward the dam and cast Texas-rigged worms or small grubs on a stand-up jig to the numerous points in the area. One certainty in this area: if the spots are there, they nail the offering.
What makes Sinclair so special in the winter is the coal-fired power plant that rests on the lake’s western shore. This facility, known as the Plant Harlee Branch, uses the lake itself as a cooling system, which means the water around this plant is typically above 60 degrees even in winter.
Mike Smith often begins his winter outings in Beaverdam Creek near the plant, where he’ll flip a blue-and-black jig to blowdowns or cast a spinnerbait to the docks situated here.
Out from this creek, the U.S. Highway 441 bridge is another place he works. Knowing that the riprap here forms a break in the current and is the first structure down the lake from the plant, he throws small crankbaits for largemouths looking for an easy meal.
“Shad pull up there first, and then the bass follow,” the angler explained. “I like to slow-roll a spinnerbait or throw a citrus-colored Excalibur Fat Free Shad here.”
This is usually a high-percentage bite on Sinclair, and the line of boats working this area in the winter is a testament to that fact. But Sinclair is a lake that provides anglers with a plethora of options, such as flipping jigs to blowdowns and boat docks or Carolina-rigging on long points.
Another of Smith’s preferred strategies on Sinclair is to head up to Rooty Creek, an arm of the lake off the Oconee River that features numerous coves and slow-tapering points. It’s here that Mike reaches for the flippin’ stick and, as he puts it, “gets jiggy with it.”
Once he gets that jig in his hand, Mike goes into a zone and begins to pick apart every piece of cover in sight. No dock, overhanging limb, blowdown or stump
is safe. He skips, flips and pitches the docks for hours. He keys in on areas where the river channel swings close to shore. Once a piece of cover is identified, he is looking to get the bait on the very edge of the structure, which is where he feels the fish are holding in anticipation of a meal.
“Most of the time, they are going to be on the corners of a dock or stick-up,” he pointed out. “On a dock, for instance, you can just about eliminate your middle post because the fish are going to be on the four outside posts.”
As on most other lakes in winter, anglers can pull up to the numerous points and drop a jigging spoon or hop a jig off the bottom for largemouths as well. But with the vast number of shallow flats in creeks such as Rooty, Buck and Potatoe, this lake is a shallow-water angler’s dream. Along with the jig, small spinnerbaits also take a large number of fish on the lake. Many anglers look for docks in 15 feet of water and then skip the baits underneath. A good follow-up bait is a Texas-rigged finesse worm.
Mike Smith, however, prefers to stick with the jig. After all, it’s hard to argue with success. Last winter he was flipping a 3/8-ounce black-and-blue jig to a blowdown in Crooked Creek when he noticed his line trailing off to the side. He set the hook hard, and in just seconds he had boated an 8-pound largemouth.
That is why more anglers should give Sinclair a try in winter.
“It’s a well-kept secret,” he said of the lake’s good fishing in winter. “People don’t realize the type of fish there are in Sinclair.”
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