Around the holidays, we all like a surprise gift. Fish one of these three lakes this month, and your special present might be some amazing largemouth action! (December 2008)
Guide Reno Alley picks Crooked Lake in Polk County as a top destination for big December bass.
Photo by Bud Reiter.
The late Horace Greeley once advised, "Go west, young man." But this month, the Sunshine State's bass anglers are better off to "Go south."
It's not uncommon -- in fact, it's fairly predictable -- for the state's northern section to receive an icy cold front some time around Christmas. That tends to put a temporary "freeze" on the bass fishing as well.
Normally, however, the southern half of the state escapes these chilly temperatures. Even a severe cold front provides little more than a slight respite from the heat, making the daytimes quite pleasant. And it certainly doesn't bother the bass!
Once you get south of Orlando, December is frequently one of the best months of the year to tangle with trophy-class largemouths. Most of the mature bass are then moving toward the shallow areas where they'll spawn during the next two months.
When you have got bass staging for the spawn, the fishing can get hot.
Here, then, are three lakes that should offer top angling this month.
In Florida, few lakes' water-levels have gone on the roller coaster ride that the Big O has taken the last five years. From highs to lows, it's seen it all, but the last couple of years have seen it stabilize at a low 9- to 10-foot level. That's made it a bit tough for anglers to get around, but it's had a positive impact on the lake.
"We lost a lot of our native vegetation during the high-water period," said Jim Wells, who handles the guide wrangling at Roland Martin's Marine Center in Clewiston.
"That resulted in very dirty water, with a lot of sediment stirred up by the wind. With the low water, though, all that vegetation is coming back, and the water clarity is outstanding."
Wells noted that bulrushes, joint grass, Kissimmee grass and cattails have returned in force. In addition, peppergrass is starting to make a comeback, while shrimp grass has become well established in deeper waters. That's good news for the lake, and it's starting to show it.
"People talk about the 'good old days,' but from November of 2007 through May of 2008, as many bass were caught in this lake as there ever were," Wells pointed out.
"The return of the vegetation and the stable water levels have really been a boost, and the fishing has been excellent. I don't expect that to change at all this month."
The quality of the fishing may not change, but how anglers need to go about tapping into it just might -- or might not. Does that sound a bit confusing? Blame it on water levels.
During the early 2008 hurricane season, the Big O stood at the 9-foot level. Hurricane predictions are notoriously inaccurate, so just how much water South Florida will get by December usually remains a mystery until the last minute.
Normally, the summer months bring much-needed rain, but the question is how much. The answer largely determines the best tactics this month.
"At the 9-foot level," said Wells, "the bass can't get back into the grass. There isn't enough water on it." At that level, the best catches come from offshore structure in three to five feet of water.
That includes bars, reefs, rockpiles and dredge holes. The Rim Canal is also a good spot.
But depending on late summer and fall rains, December can bring on a change.
Though bass on the Big O can, and do, spawn 12 months a year, December is their major pre-spawn month. Offshore bass begin moving to the grassbeds and grasslines where they'll spawn in January. Just a couple of feet of water, more or less, can make a significant difference as to where they stage.
"If our water levels come up to the 12- to 13-foot level," Wells said, "bass holding on the offshore structures have enough water on the deeper grasslines to stack up there. With that water level, you can find bulrushes, Kissimmee grass and joint-grass lines with several feet of water on them. And they will hold bass.
"If we get more water, the deeper outer grasslines would be the first spots I would check."
But if water levels don't rise above the 11-foot mark, things change a bit.
"The bass are still going to be moving to the grass to spawn," Wells continued. "I would definitely look at the deepest grasslines I could find. But that would be an early and late thing.
"With only a foot or so of water over the vegetation, you won't see many bass spending the full day there. They'll poke their noses in there during the morning and evening to stake out spawning sites, and then drop back to deeper structure during the day."
Everything will begin at the deepest grasslines. Those that show early-morning bass activity indicate that's where the bass are thinking about spawning. If the water is there, look inward. If not, look outward.
"Bass will explore the deeper grasslines," Wells said. "If there's not enough water for them to hold throughout the day, they move back out. But they won't move far from the grasslines where they've chosen to spawn. If I find activity on a grassline under low water, I'll start working outward for several hundred yards to see if I can find the bars, rockpiles and dredge holes they stage on."
Where you start the search on a lake as massive as the Big O is another important factor. Wells noted that the northern end of the lake is shallower than the southern section and can be difficult to navigate.
The southern end is a bit deeper, and the Rim Canal provides access to many spots in that region. Among those areas that Wells thinks will be productive are the waters around Ritter and Kramer islands. There's excellent spawning vegetation on the isles, and numerous dredge holes around them hold staging bass during even the lowest water levels.
Regardless of where you start, some key lures have been the top baits in recent months. When you're working offshore structure, Wells advised always having
a countdown crankbait like a Rat-L-Trap in chrome, with a blue or black back or firetiger tied on. They're great searching lures to cover a lot of water, and very effective when tossed to any type of surface disturbance.
Texas-rigged plastic worms have also been deadly. Wells noted that the top colors have been June-bug, black or black grape. When covering larger structures, some anglers have found that moving the sinker a foot ahead of the bait -- thus creating a mini-Carolina rig -- allows the bait to swim steadily and cover the water quicker. Spinnerbaits with a white skirt and gold blade have been consistently productive.
When working weedlines, spinnerbaits and worms are still solid choices. But early and late, don't overlook a topwater bait. If the water levels are up and light levels low, an aggressive Spook-type bait in chrome or shad finish can be deadly.
Under lower and clearer water conditions, a more subtle bait -- like a Rapala minnow or Bang-O-Lure in a gold with a black back -- is often more effective. One advantage to topwater lures is that even if a bass just boils at them and misses, at least you have located fish.
That's a key on the Big O this month -- find the weedlines the bass are using and note the water levels. Then tracking them down shouldn't be difficult.
This lake in Tarpon Springs consistently ranks among the best in Florida, but it's quite different than the shallow waters many anglers are used to fishing. Fed by Otter and Brooks creeks, it's 2,500 acres in size. Yet the abundance of deeper water makes it effectively much bigger to fish than it might appear.
Numerous channels wander along the lake bottom, dropping to 15 feet or more. A number of holes are even deeper, some of them going down to 25 feet. At the southern end, the Outfall Canal provides another deepwater haven with depths to 17 feet.
That's a lot of deep water, and those are the spots where bass are holding this month.
Bass on Tarpon spawn later than those in many of this region's shallower lakes. During an exceptionally mild winter, a few bass may begin to filter in to spawn as early as January. But local experts don't count on any fish bedding until February, with the peak of the spawn in March.
While some bass may start to move to shallower pre-spawn staging areas this month, most of the fish are still in their winter patterns.
Savvy anglers concentrate their search on Tarpon Lake in depths of eight to 15 feet. During a warming trend, shallower structures should get the first look, while during normal December weather, the deeper cover gets the nod. The key structures are drops, ledges and offshore channel rises. On this lake, the best friend an angler can have is a good depthfinder, especially if it's able to find shad balls and individual bass. Armed with that, anglers can quickly check structures at the appropriate depth.
The best depths will be in the vicinity of those shallow bays where the bass will spawn, and there are a number of key areas for that.
On the northwest side, Soloman Bay is a consistent spawning site, with a number of channels and ledges located just offshore. Bass use these regularly during the winter months.
Just to the south is Dolly Bay, which provides about 100 acres of prime spawning habitat, as well as a number of deeper holes and offshore ridges. This area can hold fish throughout the year.
Farther south is Little Dolly Bay. It feeds a maze of canals that are some of the premier spawning sites on the lake. During a warming trend, Little Dolly can be a real hotspot, as it draws many pre-spawn bass to the offshore drops and ledges in the bay, or just outside it.
These are key areas to concentrate on -- and "concentrate" is the key word. The most productive technique is to idle slowly over the eight- to 15-foot structures while watching the depthfinder. Whenever you find a significant number of shad suspended, it's worth stopping.
A better bet is shad and the larger signatures of bass. When shad and bass are together over an offshore structure during colder weather, something good is happening for fishermen.
If the depthfinder shows suspended bass or just a shad ball, countdown vibrating crankbaits like the Rat-L-Trap are good lures to start with. You can count them down to various depths and retrieve them at a quick pace. They cover a lot of water and also can trigger reaction strikes.
Another excellent tactic is to toss a 3- to 4-inch soft-plastic shad tail on a 1/8- or 1/4-ounce lead jighead, which imitates a dying shad.
This can be used as a "fall bait" to drop through the depth where the fish are holding. If no strike results, let it hit the bottom and then jig it back up in 3-foot jerks, letting it fall back to the bottom between jerks.
If that fails to produce, you may get results by probing the bottom with a Carolina-rigged plastic worm or lizard, or digging up the bottom with a deep-diving crankbait.
This Polk County lake covers 5,500 acres, but it's actually four different lakes in one. On the southern end, bordered by County Road 630, is Little Crooked Lake, consisting of about 300 acres of open water and another 300 or so of shallow marsh.
A narrow canal connects it with the other three bays, each of which gets progressively deeper and clearer.
Spawning activity begins in early January. Savvy anglers concentrate their efforts in the southern areas.
"Little Crooked Lake is the first place I would look," agreed veteran guide Reno Alley, who lives in nearby Frostproof. "The water in this bay is a lot darker than the other three, and shallower. It warms up more quickly. Another plus is that most of the tournaments on this lake launch there, and that's where the bass are released. In December, it's usually one of the best bets."
Lily pads and some hyacinth mats are the predominant cover here, making it a prime spot for large weedless plastic worms, spinnerbaits with white skirts and gold blades or a compact soft-plastic crawfish in black and blue or June-bug. The latter bait is fished on a flipping rod.
Water depth in Little Crooked runs to 10 feet in some spots, but Alley concentrates his efforts on vegetation in three to five feet of water. This darker water warms up first and often sees the most active December bass.
If that doesn't produce, Alley heads into the main lake -- and he knows exactly where he wants to go.
"All three of the bays on the main lake are deep and normally very clear. They have a lot of offshore bars, drops and holes to 30 feet," explained the guide. "But in the middle bay, there's an extensive shallow shorel
ine flat running along the east side of Highway 27. That is the key spawning area on this lake, and in December a lot of bass will be staged up on its outer edge."
Normally, the first spawns of the year take place near the outer edge of the flat in three to five feet of water. Alley puts his trolling motor on high and runs that area to see if he can find signs of bedding bass.
In the clear water, it's not hard to see them. If they are there, he sight-fishes them with soft-plastics during midday and runs soft-plastic jerkbaits through the area early and late.
If the bass aren't bedding, he drops back deeper.
"The outer edge of the flat drops off at about 10 feet," he said. "If the fish aren't up on the flat, usually they're staging on that break. And the best places to find them are in the outside bulrush patches -- especially those that form points that jut right out to the drop.
"Other excellent holding spots are places where you have submerged grass on the outside edge that forms a distinct wall on that 10-foot drop."
Slow-trolling shiners along the drop is a deadly technique, but Alley noted that a lot of big bass are taken on 7- to 10-inch Texas-rigged worms in June-bug or red shad.
And 4- to 5-inch soft-plastic jerkbaits in pearl or shad can be equally effective, while also covering the water more quickly.