Bassin' The January Spawn

Waters in south and central Florida can have largemouths bedding in January. Here's how to spot and fish this action. (January 2006)

Reno Alley finds that January spawners are often larger bass than he encounters later in the spring.
Photo by Rod Hunter

The spring spawning season is one of the most eagerly anticipated bassin' events of the year. And it's a rare angler who is not fired up and ready to go as the first full moon in February draws near. The anticipation level is high, but truly savvy anglers already may have been into serious spawning action for a month or more.

"One of the unique things about Florida is that bass can be spawning there, somewhere, for as much as six months of the year," said Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission biologist Marty Mann. "When you look at the widely differing latitudes within the state, that just makes sense. But that extended spawning period doesn't account for just the lakes in the extreme north and south within the state. You can have a five- or six-month spawning period on an individual lake, although the majority of the spawning bass may do it in a 30-day peak period. Still, you'll likely find some bass bedding over a lengthy period of time.

"That spawn has to start at some time, " continued Mann, who in addition to being a veteran bass biologist is also a tournament-caliber angler. "In the Central Florida area, that can often be in January, and even early in the month."

That first spawn may not occur on every lake or every year on those lakes where it generally occurs. But it's, a bit more common than many anglers might suppose, and the specific conditions required for it to occur are not difficult to recognize.

"The biggest driving factor in putting bass on their beds is water temperature," Mann noted. "Increasing daylight hours also play a role, but water temperature is the biggest key. Bass don't know what month it is. All they know is what the water temperature and light levels are telling them."

Some anglers have been taught that a certain "magic" water temperature sends the bass flocking to the shore. That is not totally correct. Bass will not spawn outside a certain temperature range, but that range is broader than many would suppose, especially for the first spawn.

"A water temperature of 61 degrees is adequate for bass to spawn, " Mann explained, "and bass will spawn at water temperatures in the mid-70 degree range. But more important than the actual temperature is the temperature trend. This is especially true during the first spawns of the year following the winter months. What the bass need to see here is a warming trend, preferably a steady one. If the waters are warming at a gradual and steady pace, and with the daylight hours lengthening, I would recommend that anglers start looking for spawning bass when the water temperatures reach the low 60s. That can easily occur even in early January, under the right conditions."

Some anglers have been taught that we need a sharp cold front, or even a freeze, in early December to trigger the development of bass eggs, and if subsequent weather is mild, it will encourage bass to spawn early. According to biologists, that freeze is not needed.

"Bass begin putting virtually all of their energy into the development of their eggs during the fall. They are not using their energy to put on fat or weight," Mann said. "It's not a process that happens overnight, and rapidly changing water temperature, to the best of my knowledge, makes little difference in that process. Those eggs will develop anyway. In fact, the best conditions we can have to trigger an early spawn is a mild winter where the water temperature never dips too far below 60 degrees. If we get that, and if January is a mild month without major cold fronts, the water will warm steadily, and a January spawn becomes very likely. All cold fronts and freezes do is get in the way of that. If a series of sharp cold fronts come through, they interrupt that steady warming trend and can delay the first spawning movement until later in the spring."

The idea that a hard freeze in early December is needed to trigger the early spawn is just a myth. The milder the winter, the higher the water temperatures remain; and the sooner a steady warming trend develops, the earlier the bass spawn. On many lakes, that can be in January, but it will not happen on all lakes.

Clearwater lakes offer excellent sight-fishing opportunities during the spawn, but do not count on experiencing that in January, even under the best weather conditions. The darker the water in the lake, the quicker it warms, because darker water retains heat better than in gin-clear lakes. A lake that is stained normally has bass spawning sooner than a lake with very clear water.

Obvious exceptions exist. There are a number of spring-fed tributaries to major lakes in Florida, and those springs generally pump out water at a constant 72 degrees throughout the year. In this case, sunlight isn't needed to warm the water, and water clarity plays no real role. The water from the springs is already warm. Spring-fed flows like Salt Run, DeLeon Springs or Wekkiva may see some bass spawning on Christmas Day, yet lakes well to the south of them that are extremely clear but lack extensive underground springs may not see a significant spawn until late February or early March.

Crooked Lake in Polk County is an excellent example of this phenomenon. It is over 100 miles to the south of the spring boil area at Salt Run and is extremely clear. However, bass normally bed in Salt Run by New Year's Day and seldom bed in Crooked Lake until well after Valentine's Day.

Clear waters literally scream bedding bass. But in reality, the dirtier waters see them spawn first, unless an underground spring feed is involved. Anglers looking for early spawners need to seek out those stained lakes, but that does not automatically rule out clearwater lakes.

"A lake that's normally clear and usually sees a February or March spawn can have an early spawn if we get a lot of winter rain that stains the water," Mann noted. "It's not something that is carved in stone. Anglers looking for an early spawn need to keep up on current lake conditions."

One thing anglers do not have to do, however, is plan their forays around the moon phases, which play a lesser role than is commonly assumed.

"There is some research into the effect moon phases exert on spawning behavior," Mann pointed out, "but surprisingly, there isn't a lot. It is debatable whether the moon phase plays as large a role in spawning behavior as some anglers think. Water temperature is a bigger factor, and all of the sunfish species will spawn when it is right. During the early spawn, that

might be on a full or new moon, or it might not. I would not automatically expect a spawn on a moon phase, but I wouldn't be surprised to see one. I just wouldn't plan my fishing trip around the moon. If the water temperature trend is good, I'm going fishing, regardless of the moon phase."

When Mann does take to the waters, seeking the earliest spawners, he ignores the commonly held belief that early spawners bed deeper than the latter fish in order to provide more of a buffer against adverse environmental conditions. In fact, the reverse is actually true.

With the exception of spring-fed runs, the shallowest waters on a stained lake are the first to warm, and that could be as shallow as a foot or two. Such places are often right on the shoreline. Later spawners have the luxury of suitable temperatures in the 2- to 4-foot range, but early-season bass do not. The early fish have little choice of areas, which puts them at a more easily defined and located depth.

That single fact is enough to get experienced anglers searching for beds in January, but there is another reason to be carefully watching the water temperatures in the shallows. While a number of common beliefs regarding early spawning bass have proven untrue, there is one that is still valid.

"The biggest bass tend to bed the earliest," Mann said, "though I know of no scientific data that would explain why. Still, observations and angler data show that those bass that spawn first are often significantly bigger than bass that spawn later in the spring."

Veteran Central Florida bass guide Reno Alley agreed. "When you get a January spawn," he said, "it is seldom a lakewide event. It will be smaller groups of bass in scattered areas. But they are certainly worth looking for, because you are talking about the 7-pound-and-up fish. In my experience, the biggest bass bed as early as they can, and those big fish will be in and out before a lot of anglers even realize they were there. The fishermen who wait for the February-through-April spawns are missing those fish."

Alley doesn't miss them. After years of living smack in the middle of the collection of Central Florida lakes that often see that January spawn, he knows where to look when conditions are right. Here is where Alley suggested you spend your time when winter weather is warm.

"Lake Arbuckle in Frostproof is a great early-spawn lake, and in any kind of a mild winter, you can expect to find big bass on the beds this month," Alley said. "The water is normally stained and warms pretty quickly. There are large areas of shallow flats, and I would definitely be looking for January bedding bass in the northwest corner of the lake and right up next to the shoreline in one foot to 18 inches of water."

Reedy Lake is another Frostproof-area body of water that often sees a January spawn. Alley knows, because he lives on its north shoreline.

"Reedy Lake normally sees a January spawn along the west side," he acknowledged, "in anywhere from 1 to 3 feet of water. These fish don't normally bed right on the shore, but instead seek out shallow Kissimmee grassbeds, and they will fan a bed right in the middle of that stuff. There are some areas of pads present, but the Reedy bass seem to prefer the Kissimmee grass."

In the nearby Kissimmee Chain, February often has the first major spawn. But Alley knows that January bedding bass can often be found following a mild winter.

"On Kissimmee," he said, "I would start looking in the northwest corner of the lake in what we call the 'school bus area.' These fish get up into lotus pads in one to two feet of water."

On Hatchineha and Cypress lakes, Alley shifts to the west side of the lakes and begins searching in about two feet of water, paying particular attention to those areas that show a mixture of lotus pads and maindencane.

On Lake Tohopekaliga, the target area is the north end of the lake, right in the town of Kissimmee. There are a number of small bays and coves in the area, and Alley probes the most protected waters at their backs, looking for mixed vegetation in one to three feet of water.

Although Istokpoga and Walk-In-Water are not normally known for January spawns, these two lakes can see some bedding fish during the latter part of the month if the winter is extremely mild. Again, protected waters in the 1- to 3-foot depth range are key areas, and most are on the northern or northwestern sections of the lakes.

"These early fish are going to find the warmest water they can find that's protected from the north winds that accompany cold fronts," Alley explained. "The northern sections of virtually any lake will offer that. Not only do they get more protection from cold front winds, but the angle of the sun during the winter will also put sunlight on these areas for a longer portion of the day than a lake's southern sections get. The end result is that water temperature in the protected shallows on the northern side of a lake can be 4 or 5 degrees warmer than in the more exposed southern section. I would never be looking for the earliest spawners in those southern waters, unless you had some shallow canals that would provide protection."

While the waters in Alley's back yard offer some of the best opportunities for a January spawn, veteran anglers have learned not to ignore Lake George, even though it lies well to the north. In 2004, in fact, Mann noted that bass were spawning on the lake before they spawned on the Kissimmee Chain!

Lake George traditionally provides an early spawn, and three major reasons are Salt Run, Silver Glenn Run and Juniper Run. These three spring-fed tributaries on its west side provide warmer water along that well-protected shoreline. In addition, 6-mile Salt Run draws large numbers of bass from the main lake, and it is not at all uncommon for bass to be bedding in the spring boil area at the upper end by Christmas Day.

One tip-off to spawning bass that lake veterans have learned to look for is uprooted eelgrass floating in mats on the surface. In some cases, this is the result of anglers trolling motors, but in most cases it's because of bass fanning beds. Find an area with floating, chopped eelgrass, and it is a good sign that bedding bass are in that area.

Alley does not have that luxury on his lakes.

"These early spawning bass are not going to be lakewide," he acknowledged. "You find them in small concentrations, and you may run 500 yards of good shoreline and then find a wad of them in a 100-yard section. You need to stay on the move to find them, but once you get into a bunch, they will normally tell on themselves if you run a reaction bait through them."

Alley's normal procedure is to cover the right water fast. If cover allows it, his preferred "searching lure" is a Bomber Long A jerkbait, in either chrome with a blue back or gold with a black back. If vegetation makes that a poor choice, he swims a plastic lizard, rigged Texas-style with a 3/16-ounce bullet weight. Once he contacts fish, he can slow down and start workin

g individual beds with the lizard. The key, however, is to find that concentration.

"It can take some looking, and you need to be in the proper water," he said. "But, given the fact that these early spawners are generally the larger fish, it's worth the time it takes to find those January spawners."

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