By Ronnie Garrison
Pulling a bass boat to a lake in Georgia in January will often get you some strange looks. When you stop for gas, somebody will usually ask incredulously, “Are you going fishing today?” Sometimes the icy air and skin-numbing wind will also make you wonder if you really are crazy.
At least here our water does not get hard on top, requiring ice-fishing. Usually in Middle Georgia the surface temperature does not drop below 45 degrees and if it does, it will not stay there long. Bass stay somewhat active all winter long, and can be caught every day of the year.
In fact, as the days get longer after Christmas, bass start moving toward future spawning areas and venture shallow on warm days to feed. You can take advantage of these cold-weather bass if you pick the right lakes, choose the best baits and fish in the correct spots.
I am in two bass clubs in Griffin and both fish a January tournament each year. We have been doing that since 1973, and the clubs’ big bass for the year is often caught in January. Some years we have pretty weather to fish and can be comfortable. Other years we dig out the snowmobile suits to try to stay warm.
I caught my first 8-pound bass in a January Spalding County Sportsman Club tournament, and my second 8-pounder came in another one of that club’s January tournaments a few years later. My biggest bass ever, a 9-pound, 7-ounce fish, was caught the first Sunday of February in a Flint River Bass Club tournament. So, obviously, I like fishing for big bass in the winter.
Picking a good winter lake can be the key to catching a lunker. In our clubs we often pick reservoirs where we have a better chance of catching numbers of winter bass, but some lakes have proven themselves over the years to also be good bets for lunkers.
Last January I was practicing for a club tournament at West Point Lake and spent hours riding creek mouths, looking for shad with bass under them. At the mouth of one small creek I spotted lots of bait suspended from the surface to near the bottom and there were also fish registering under them.
I dropped a jigging spoon to the bottom, twitched it once and a bass thumped it. That fish weighed 5 pounds, 12 ounces on my hand scales. Not a wall mount, but a good fish any time of the year. That fish was holding on the bottom in 27 feet of water.
West Point has good numbers of bass weighing over 5 pounds, and many of them can be caught in the winter. Clear water helps, and that is usually found in the lower section of the reservoir, from the railroad trestle located just south of the mouth of Whitewater Creek down to the dam. Creek mouths are the places to concentrate once bass start their migration. Finding baitfish always helps your chances of finding bass nearby.
In early January start looking for fish holding in 22 to 30 feet of water. Flats off points at creek mouths are good bets. If the point runs out to a small flat, then drops into the creek channel itself, bass often stack up there waiting on warming water.
The best way to fish for bass holding deep is to drop a spoon down to them and jig it up and down, making it look like an injured baitfish struggling to swim back to the surface. A slow rise and fall seems to be best for bigger fish since it looks like an easier meal for them.
If the water is clear, a silver spoon works best. A white bucktail on it can give it added attraction. In stained water I like a gold spoon. On both I have been adding red hooks for the past few years. That seems to give the bass a better target and attracts a few more strikes.
As January progresses the days get longer and we have stretches of several relatively warm days. That can trigger big bass to move shallow to feed. If there is an extended period of warm weather, the fish may even move to spawning areas to take advantage of an early spawn.
Rocky points and banks near the mouth of creeks can be excellent on warm days in January. If there is some wood present, it is even better. Fish a crankbait in these areas and you may draw a strike from a wallhanger. Fish shad colors in clear water and add some chartreuse if the water is stained.
A well known big bass bait is a jig-and-pig. A couple of years ago in February I landed a 7-pound, 8-ounce bass out of a treetop on a rocky bank at West Point. It was a cold day at the end of a stretch of warm days, and the water had been heating up some. That bass was in about 5 feet of water back in a creek, but on a steep bank where the channel swung near it.
Fish a jig-and-pig on all rocks or wood cover and work from the mouth of the creeks back. Keep going if the water is warming, until you are sure the bass have not moved way back in the creeks already. Fish the jig-and-pig slowly, hopping it on rocks and over any limbs of trees in the water.
Black or blue jig-and-pigs are always good, but I like a brown jig with a brown pork trailer if the water is clear. Fish any of the colors on fairly heavy line since you might need to pull a big bass away from cover before he wraps you up.
Lake Jackson used to be known for its big bass, and there are still good numbers of them there. It is where I caught my first two 8-pounders and where I landed my biggest-ever bass. It is always a good bet for a winter trip.
Since it is fairly small, Lake Jackson can muddy up fast, and that really hurts winter fishing. If the water is not muddy, January can provide a bonanza for lunker bass. These fish seem to hold in fairly consistent areas.
Concentrations of sand and rock are often the key. Look for rocky or sandy points near the mouths of creeks on all arms of the lake. Sand seems to attract the shad, and bass will be there to feed on them. Crawfish live in the rocky areas, and are a favorite food of big bass. Fish where the bass feed.
Bass don’t hold as deep at Jackson as they do on other lakes, and I seldom fish deeper than 20 feet. You can usually spot bass holding out on points in 17 to 18 feet of water, and those bass are catchable if they are holding near the bottom. You can jig a spoon for these fish.
Watch your depthfinder for shad and fish a crankbait or spinnerbait if you see the bait, but nothing holding und
er them. The bass may be holding a bit shallower on the point. My first 8-pounder hit a chrome crankbait fished slowly on a sandy point where a ditch runs into Tussahaw Creek. It was in about 6 feet of water. That kind of place is good on all areas of the lake.
There are some big shallow, flat points on Jackson, and a heavy spinnerbait crawled along the bottom allows you to cover a lot of water faster than jigging a spoon. If it is blowing, use the wind to move the boat and let your spinnerbait flutter along right on the bottom. This is a good technique to cover water 10 to 15 feet deep, and it is how I landed my second 8-pounder.
Rocky points are located all over Jackson and hold good bass. You are likely to catch some spotted bass, but big largemouths hold there, too. Find rocky points that drop off fast into deep water and you will find bass. The points are even better if they are near the mouths of creeks and coves.
Work a crankbait all over rocky points, hitting it from all directions. If the wind is blowing across the point, start by casting into the wind and fishing your crankbait back with it. My 9-pound, 7-ounce bass hit a crankbait fished across a rocky point near the dam and was holding in about 8 feet of water.
A jig-and-pig is good on these rocky points, too. If there is wood, like stumps and logs, the spot can be even better. Cast the jig across the point and fish it slowly back. When you hit cover, jig the lure in one place as long as you can, which can tempt any bass holding there.
Lake Juliette is a 3,600-acre lake that has a 25-horsepower limit for boat motors, but it produces 10-pound bass every year. It is a good spot for winter lunker largemouths for several reasons.
Most of the water in Juliette is pumped in from the nearby Ocmulgee River. Since there is little natural inflow, the water stays clear, a definite advantage when fishing for cold-water bass. The lake gets relatively little fishing pressure due to the horsepower limit, meaning the bass should be a little easier to catch.
Although small, Juliette is full of structure and cover. Long points run off banks and islands, and many have submerged standing timber on them. Stumps are everywhere, and there are a good many rocky areas. But the main cover in Juliette is grass. It grows down to 30 feet deep in many areas and bass love it, even in the wintertime when it is dead.
Shad also love the dead grass, feeding on it. The presence of the baitfish may be the major attraction for the bass. You can usually find a grass line down in 25 feet of water on points and humps, and bass hold right on the edge of that old grass line. It is a little harder to spot this time of year since it has died down, but it is there.
You can jig a spoon or drag a Carolina-rigged worm along the edge of this grass. On the Carolina rig try small worms in clear green colors, but don’t hesitate to go to a big worm. Sometimes big bass want big baits.
A spinnerbait slow-rolled along the old grass edge is good, too. You can cover more water with it and locate the bass. Make long casts, let the spinnerbait sink to the bottom, then pump it up a couple of feet and let it fall back on a tight line as you reel it in. Fish it all the way back to the boat.
From the Plant Scherer power-generating station at lake’s mid-point down to the dam, the water is more open and the standing timber is down deep. Upstream of the power plant, trees stick out of the water everywhere. On both areas of the lake fish points and humps, casting near the bottom around grass. If baitfish are present, the bass will be there.
Situated on the Savannah River along the border with South Carolina, Clarks Hill Lake is a veritable inland sea at 71,535 acres.
Although known for its numbers of keeper-sized bass, Clarks Hill also produces some big fish every year. During the past few years the introduction of blueback herring and hydrilla have changed angling on the lake, and those two things can be keys in finding and catching bragging-sized bass.
Blueback herring are a favorite food of big bass, and they are open-water baitfish. The herring have caused many big bass to become oriented to open water, too. You are more likely to find them hanging around midlake humps and on long points than in shoreline cover. Fishermen targeting hybrids in open water take many big largemouths. In fact, largemouths have started acting like hybrids in many cases on this lake.
Hydrilla has added to this open-water dimension. It grows in the shallows all over the lake now and bass often hold right on the top of the outer edge of it. As it dies back in the winter, bass continue to hold in these same areas.
For big bass at Clarks Hill, look for humps topping out at 15 to 20 feet deep. There are a lot of them in the area around Georgia’s Mistletoe State Park. The park is on Cliatt Creek, about halfway up the Savannah River arm of the lake. The small islands and visible humps in this area get a lot of fishing pressure, but if you find the deeper humps you are more likely to discover undisturbed bass.
Also look for long points running way out to deep water. Bass hold on the ends of these, often suspending and waiting on passing schools of herring. If there is hydrilla, brush or other cover on the point, the bass suspend over rather than in it.
When you find a likely looking hump or point, making long casts with big crankbaits that run 12 to 15 feet deep is your best bet. Use fairly light line to get deeper. Since the bass are above the cover, you don’t have to worry as much about the fish running your line into the vegetation.
Fish shad-colored crankbaits with some blue in them. Herring are silver-sided with backs that have a blue sheen, so you want to match that color scheme. Herring get big and a favorite size for bass is about 7 or 8 inches long, so a big crankbait is best.
You can also use a big one-ounce spinnerbait. A silver No. 7 willowleaf blade with a silver and blue skirt matches herring coloration. Make long casts and fish it back with a steady reeling action to mimic swimming herring.
Big bass are scattered, so cover a lot of water with either your crankbait or spinnerbait. You will not get a lot of bites, but anything you catch should be well worth the effort.
Any of these lakes can produce lunker bass this month. Dress warmly, carry some hot coffee and hand warmers, and give them a try. Be prepared for the cold, but be prepared to catch a big bass, too.
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