By Terry Madewell
For many outdoorsmen in South Carolina, January is a good month to crank up their bass fishing activity. While some anglers certainly fish year ’round, many take a break during the fall and join the legions of Palmetto outdoorsmen who hunt deer and other small-game species.
With deer season ending, the moderate temperatures sprinkled in from time to time during this month bring out the bass fisherman in many of us. We hit the roads with bass gear in tow in search of lakes and rivers harboring cooperative bass. Fortunately, none of us has to travel far to find potentially good fishing, even during this month. However, some lakes certainly seem to produce better than others.
Because of location, size, structure, water temperatures and clarity, some lakes have an edge for coldwater fishing. Some lakes are simply more conducive to fishermen being able to get the right speed and depth controls essential to productive bass fishing.
While I doubt if there are any lakes that don’t produce some successful wintertime bass fishing in our state, some of the best I’ve noted include Lake Murray, Hartwell Lake, the Pee Dee River system and the Cooper River. In addition, I would strongly urge you to consider fishing the smaller lakes, such as lakes Robinson and Bowen, as well as the numerous public lakes managed by the S.C. Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) or other public agencies. Many of these smallish waters offer excellent wintertime fishing. In addition, some of these lakes have the potential to produce some outlandishly big bass during this time of the year.
Sometimes the urge to go bass fishing, even in cold weather, is more than most of us can resist.
I know the urge hit me last year and I drove to nearby Lake Murray, just outside of the state capital of Columbia, for a wintertime bass fishing excursion. Lake Murray is justifiably touted as an excellent bass-fishing lake and this certainly carries over to the cold weather months. I’d actually learned about the good cold-weather bass fishing while on a striper fishing trip in January a few years back. By working lures for stripers along the edge of creek drops in the upper end of the lake, we caught largemouths almost as frequently as we did stripers. Some of the largemouths were quite large and since I claim to possess a keen sense of the obvious, I made a mental note to return to focus on bass.
Actually, the striper fishing technique we had employed on the trip noted above was not catching largemouths by fluke. Jigging heavy-bodied spoons along the channel drops is a proven tactic for deep-water bass and it certainly works well here.
While striper fishing, I cast in the general vicinity of the ledge, but when I focused on largemouth bass, I tried to keep the lure on the actual ledge and worked a tighter, better-defined area.
Stripers tend to roam more than largemouth bass and they’ll likely be found near or along drops, but they’ll be moving around feeding on the forage. The largemouths hold tighter to the structure, so by focusing your efforts here you will catch more largemouths and fewer stripers. However, you can still figure that a mixed bag of fish is a distinct possibility.
Bottom-bumping lures will also work well here with jigs or the jig/pig combo producing well. A lot of steep points or bluff areas in the upper third of the lake are highly productive during this time of the year.
Remember, during this time of the year the metabolic rate of the bass is lower because of the cold water temperatures. Because of this, slow and steady are keys to presentation. Patience is a must for success; you may spend long periods without action, but during the course of a day you can make a very good catch.
My experience has been that the average size of the fish is typically better than what I average during most other times of the year, with the exception of the spring spawning time when more big fish are in the shallows than at any other time of the year.
Lake Hartwell is another excellent wintertime lake. This deep, clear lake is studded with offshore humps and underwater islands that are prime locations for cold-weather bass fishing. In addition, there are many long points that drop into deep water that are also classic cold-weather hotspots.
The specific location you’ll find the fish will vary on this lake according to conditions. I favor the lake after periods of rain when the creeks will be a bit more dingy in water color and the water temperature sometimes slightly elevated.
A warm rain in January creates what I consider ideal wintertime fishing conditions in this lake. The rain doesn’t have to really be warm . . . just warmer than the current water temperature in the lake. If the water gets a bit dingy in the major creeks and the temperature jumps just a tad, you may find some good bass action in relatively skinny water.
You may not get bass to blow up on a topwater buzzbait during January, but you may enjoy some good action on chartreuse spinnerbaits worked in the 4- to 12-foot depth range. Slow-rolling spinnerbaits off points and drops is always a good bet during this time of the year, as are bottom bumpers.
If the water isn’t dingy, I’d suggest using light line and light lures. One of my favorite lure choices on this lake during cold weather is the slider rig. The flat-headed jig with a 4-inch grub body is plenty of lure to entice even big largemouths during this time of the year. This rig will keep the bait close to the bottom and moving at a slow enough pace to trigger a reaction from otherwise lethargic largemouths.
My personal preference is to focus my fishing efforts on the upper half of the lake during the cold months. Then I will generally focus on the major creeks and coves where the water temperature may warm quicker than in the main-lake body.
I think a much-overlooked cold-weather bass fishery is the Pee Dee River system. Granted, if we have a lot of rain, the water level may be up and the water too muddy and current too fast to allow effective bass fishing. But typically, water here is quite fishable. If you’re looking for a potential hotspot that’s somewhat underutilized, this may be the spot for you.
Most anglers fishing the Pee Dee during January and February focus the bulk of their efforts in the creeks and coves where there is plenty of cover adjacent to deeper water. The water doesn’t have to be real deep; t
his is not a deep river system in terms of overall depth. Often you’ll find fish in only 3 or 4 feet of water, but deeper is usually better.
One of the top fishing methods is simply to use live bait under a cork. The specific depth will vary with where you fish, but keep the bait within a couple feet of the bottom, especially along edge lines that drop quickly adjacent to cover. Live shiners are good, but large minnows, like the kind generally used for crappie fishing and that are sold in most tackle shops, work very well, too.
Look for small pockets or creek and ditch intersections to set up. Anchor the boat a reasonable distance from the area you want to fish and cast two or three rigs to the area. I will usually also work an artificial lure when fishing live baits. Typically, you’ll note some activity from the bait before a bass takes the minnow and swims off, giving you time to get prepared.
While some patience is a virtue in this type of fishing, I personally don’t stay at the same place in excess of 40 or 45 minutes without having some encouragement from the bass. If there’s no action, go find another place, generally of a different type of structure or cover. At this time of year, you may hit a place where you catch multiple bass from a single location. The fish are frequently in tighter groups during wintertime . . . if you find one bass, you may find several.
Of course, plastic worms are favorites here during this time of the year as is the ol’ reliable jig and 3-inch grub. Usually a darker color pattern, such as brown and black, seems to work best here during cold weather.
While considering wintertime river fishing, the Cooper River, below Lake Moultrie, is an excellent largemouth fishery. Even early in the year the fishing on the Cooper River is productive; however, the bass-catching action really begins to perk up during February. Like most rivers, one of the keys to fishing tactics will depend on the water flow, water level and current. The fishing conditions will change considerably based on the amount of water being released from the Pinopolus dam.
As a general guide, you can rely on the fishing in the creeks and flooded areas can be excellent during the periods of high flow, and the mainstream of the river is typically best during low-flow situations.
These spots are good places to fish for bass, especially this time of year, for two reasons. First, the water temperature is not as cold here as in some other areas of the state, since lakes Marion and Moultrie, the southernmost major lakes in the state, feed it. Second, the opportunity to catch a huge bass is better here than in most places in the state. I’ve talked with numerous experienced anglers who claim to have landed their biggest bass ever from these waters, and many of them have done so early in the calendar year.
When fishing back in the creeks and flooded areas, anglers rely on slow-moving spinnerbaits or crankbaits worked at mid-depths. Again, the slow motion action is best on the crankbaits, or you can employ the stop-and-go technique. Also, some anglers will use live bait here as well, although the tactic is not as popular here as in the Pee Dee River area. However, live bait fished on the Cooper River can produce excellent results on big fish.
If there is a lot of current flow through the dam, some local anglers have noted they will seek bass farther downstream than they would during low-flow periods. In essence, they say they are looking for more settled water conditions. Also, check out some of the smaller-looking creek mouths in search of potential hotspots. Poke the bow of your boat into them for a short distance and you’ll discover that some of them open up into larger areas of water and some of these can be highly productive.
There are two additional bodies of water – Lake Robinson just northwest of Hartsville and Lake Bowen just to the north of Spartanburg – that offer prime wintertime bass fishing.
While neither lake is considered a major reservoir in terms of size, both offer diverse structure and fishing opportunities for both numbers and size of bass. Lake Robinson in particular has earned a reputation for producing excellent cold-weather fishing through the years.
Both of these lakes are often passed over in favor of the large lakes and rivers, which is always a good reason to put a decent fishery on your list of places to visit. These lakes offer an excellent alternative to big-water or river fishing and they are the type of lakes that have the potential to produce some big bass, as well as plenty of action.
All of the typical lure patterns that work well on larger lakes will work here, too. They are good bottom-bumping lure lakes for cold-weather fishing. The jig and grub, jig and pork frog, plastic lizard and the simple plastic worm will produce good action. Probe different areas of the lake and keep one eye on the water temperature gauge. Even a degree or two of warmer water can be the key to success.
There are even smaller waters – countless smaller lakes and large ponds dotted around the state – that have the potential to offer sensational early-season fishing for largemouth bass. A lot of the lakes are managed by the SCDNR, though some are owned by other agencies and many are private. However, with a little effort you can locate some of these lakes that are close to you and can cash in on some exceptional bass fishing. During January, it’s not all that unusual to get two or three warm, sunny days in a row. When that occurs, the water temperature in these small lakes will jump much more quickly than in the larger reservoirs, and that can spur great bass fishing faster than on big waters.
After a prolonged warm snap, you can often find the bass in relatively shallow water in these small waters. I recall fishing such a pond a couple of years ago and I badly miscalculated where the bass would be. I was using a small johnboat and an electric motor to move around the 20-acre lake. I fished for over an hour in the deeper areas, trying to find bass holding on deeper cover and a small dropoff that I knew cut through the center of the lake.
In fact, I had caught fish on that drop the previous summer and figured the bass would be holding deep in January. But they were not; on the three previous days, temperatures had reached 65 degrees and the sun had been shining. The surface temperature had spiked.
Finally, out of frustration and actually on my way back to the truck, I began casting my plastic worm to shallow water cover. It was two hours and a dozen hefty bass later that I finally made it to the truck. My lesson that day was it’s never too early to find bass shallow and active in ponds . . . when the water and air temperatures are right.
As noted, one of my favorite lures for ponds and small lakes is the plastic worm, anytime of the year. I may rig it weightless to work the lure with a slower fall and impart more action, or I’ll often use a Texas rig with a small 1/8-ounce slip-sinker, or in some cases, when fishing deep is the key, I’ll opt for the Carolina rig. Spinnerbaits are also effective and I’ve found that especially true on really big bass.
Excellent bass fishing is here for your enjoyment at areas throughout the Palmetto State. Look at the lakes, rivers and ponds we’ve suggested and grab your tackle and go fishing.
Remember that it’s not necessarily going to be easy every time out, but then again bass fishing seldom is easy. Just select your favorite lures and get to work. As is the case in most bass-fishing opportunities, a number of lures and patterns may potentially work, once you find the right combination of speed, depth, size, color and action.
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