Sunshine State Tactics for Winter Bass
September 30, 2010
Depending on where you are in Florida and what the weather patterns are at the moment, the angling for largemouths can be quite varied. Here's a look at proven tactics from the Panhandle to Okeechobee.
Steve Daniel finds that big topwater plugs can be deadly for bass on Lake Okeechobee in December. Photo by Bud Reiter
By Bud Reiter
Winter in Florida isn't quite like the season everywhere else, although it can certainly seem that way when a blast of Canadian air roars through and drops the temperature into the low 20s. That may not be enough to chase the Snow Birds off the beaches and golf courses, but it runs most local anglers off the lakes. It also pretty much trashes the bass fishing for several days, and thus establishes one of the few consistent truisms about winter bass angling in Florida - severe cold fronts dictate the pace.
Regardless of where one is in Florida, bassin' in December is largely driven by the cold fronts. A sub-freezing front that lingers over several nights generally restricts bass movements for several days afterward. Conversely, the two or three days before the arrival of a front often finds increased bass activity as southerly breezes drawing a mass of warm are off the Gulf of Mexico and across the peninsula. The warming temperatures, even for a brief few days, start bass thinking about the spawning shallows and may even move them slightly in that direction. Once the thermometer dips, however, all bets are off and the bass head back to deeper water, where the temperatures are at least stable. The next front coming through starts the yo-yo process all over again. Timing your trips to catch the leading edge of a front is, obviously, important.
Regardless of what tactic one uses, there is far more activity on a southerly wind with a 70-degree temperature than when the wind blows from the north and brings in 30 degrees.
While weather plays a significant, and often-changing, role in winter bass success, so, too, does the type of lake one is fishing. Some are far more significantly affected by fronts than others.
The worst place to be just after a severe front is any lake characterized by relatively shallow water and large expanses of even shallower grassbeds. Such lakes feel the full effect of dropping temperatures very quickly, and so do the bass. A severe front may not move largemouths out of shallow vegetation the first day, and some can still be caught, especially in the afternoon when the sun has beat on the water for a while. But if nighttime temperatures remain in the 30s for a few days, the grassbeds are likely to be barren by days two and three, and may not see any significant bass movement until the afternoon of day four.
On deeper lakes, where offshore structure is the normal winter home of the bass, the effects of fronts are not as severe. If bass are already holding on deep drops and ledges, they just school up a bit tighter or move to a deeper drop. But if located, they can often be caught. As the warming trend takes hold, the largemouths normally move to shallower drops and fan out slightly. But they are not going to leave these favored holding sites.
Latitude also plays a major role in the effects of fronts. From the Georgia border to the Keys is a distance of almost 450 miles north to south, and the climate change along this long stretch can be significant. A front that paralyzes the northern half of the state may be nothing more than a minor inconvenience to those in the southern half.
It does call for December anglers to be on their toes, and be willing to shift tactics on a daily basis. Here's a look at how anglers from north to south deal with the uncertain conditions.
LAKE TALQUIN This manmade impoundment on the Ochlockonee River just west of Tallahassee is one of the northernmost lakes in the state, and one of the state's more unusual. Featuring a deep main-river channel and several major creek arm channels, it has little in the way of shoreline vegetation.
In that respect, it would look more at home in Alabama hill country than in the Sunshine State. During the winter months, the bass act like their more northern cousins as well.
But while the fishing style needed for success may be foreign to many Florida anglers, it's well worth learning. Talquin has always had a reputation for producing high-quality fish, and two recent drawdowns and a major stocking effort by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWCC) have only reinforced the perception. Talquin is currently producing a bumper crop of 4- to 6-pound bass, and FWCC biologists only expect it to get better in the coming years.
Like most highland-type manmade reservoirs, Talquin is an open-water structure-oriented lake. During the winter months, water temperature is the determining factor as to how deep the structure is that the largemouths are using.
During December, water temperatures normally range from below 60 degrees to the mid to upper 60s, depending upon the weather. This lake, like others of its type, normally sees a fairly predictable fall and winter pattern emerge. November is characterized by bass moving into the major creek channel arms to pursue migrating schools of shad, which are the primary forage on this lake. As water temperatures drop below 70 degrees the shad move back into the main lake, and the bass are right behind them. From November through January, if you find the shad you likely find the bass. Water temperature is the factor controlling the shad movements.
If temperatures are in the 60-degree-plus range, look for bass and shad to make regular movements from the deeper main channel to long-tapering, submerged points near the creek channel arms. The peak movement periods are normally in the afternoon, after the sun has had a chance to warm the water as much as it will for that day.
The warmer the water, the shallower the fish move onto the points and the longer they stay. If a serious warming spell comes through, anglers may even see surface schooling activity very shallow on the points, and it pays to have a rod or two rigged with a small chrome topwater plug and a lipless crankbait. If bass aren't coming all the way up the point, shift to Carolina-rigged plastic worms and lizards in June bug, red shad, and black-and-blue combinations. Another option is a deep-diving crankbait that can get down to the 15- to 20-foot range. This lure in chrome and blue or firetiger patterns is often able to locate fish by following the point out towards deeper water and concentrating on the side of the point with the sharpest break to deeper water.
If water temperatures are below 60 degrees or if it's a time period immediately following a severe front, savvy local experts move to the edges of the main channel and study their depthfinders, looking for
shad schools in depths of 20 to 40 feet. A 3/4-ounce chrome jigging spoon is the preferred tool for catching largemouths hanging around the forage, and anywhere you see a deep ball of shad is a good spot to try.
CONWAY & BUTLER CHAINS Moving south to the Orlando area, anglers start to find lakes more typical of Florida. But that doesn't mean the bass are going to be in three feet of shoreline grass this time of year. That is especially true on the sink-hole waters that dominate Mickey's country, just to the south of the city in the Conway and Butler chains of lakes.
"There are a lot of natural lakes in this part of the state that were formed by sinkholes," said Orlando area guide Tommy Lee Young, "and while they have a lot of shoreline vegetation and submerged grassbeds, the bass don't use them much in the winter.
"Once we get the first couple of cold snaps in November," he continued, "the shad retreat to the deeper drops in 18 to 25 feet of water, and most of the bass go with them. You can find a few fish along the shoreline if you are between fronts and have a warming trend. But the vast majority of the bass are going to be deeper than 18 feet, right out in the middle of the lake, and they stay there until we get a steady warmup in early January. You can beat the banks for a few stragglers, but if you find some of those offshore schools you can have 25- to 50-bass days, and some of them will be 10-pound-plus fish."
Locating those offshore gold mines requires quality depthfinding equipment, and Young relies on both a high-definition graph recorder and a flasher. He finds that the instantaneous readout of the flasher allows him to cover a lot of water at a quick idle. If something interesting appears, he slows down and takes a more detailed look with the recorder. Another important tool is a GPS unit.
"Any drop that produces one winter is likely to be used every winter," he noted, "and if you have been at this for a few years and recorded your numbers, you can set up a very productive milk run."
Just which drops bass use on any given day is, like anywhere else in Florida this time of year, dependent upon the previous few days' weather.
"The colder and nastier it is, especially following a front, the sharper and deeper the drop they want," Young explained. "A drop that goes from 20 to over 25 feet but takes 30 feet to do it is not nearly as good as one that makes that depth change in five feet. The more vertical the drop the better it is in the coldest weather."
Under a warming trend, or pre-frontal conditions, bass may move up off the drop and suspend over it. But often they just follow the shad to a shallower drop. Young finds that offshore drops in the 15- to 20-foot range, with a shallower slope, often hold bass under on warmer winter days, especially if the warming trend has lasted several days.
Another offshore target he seldom bypasses is a submerged brushpile.
"There are a lot of privately planted brush piles in these lakes," he explained. "Many of them have been placed on good drops to start with, and that just helps concentrate the fish more. But even if the brush isn't on a sharp drop, any brushpile deeper than 15 feet is worth checking out."
Most anglers assume that they must see some bass on their depthfinder if the spot is to be productive, and Young certainly looks for them. But more importantly, he's looking for shad balls.
"Bass and shad are seldom far apart in deeper water this time of year," he stated, "and even if I don't see bass, I fish a shad ball if it is on a good drop or a brushpile."
On deeper drops, a 3/4-ounce jigging spoon fished vertically can be deadly. Over brushpiles and shallower drops, Young often prefers a plastic worm in the 6- to 10-inch size range, usually in red shad on these lakes. One lure he is seldom without, however, is a lipless crankbait.
"A warming trend will often bring these bass up to school right in the middle of the day," he noted, "and you can have a lot of fun if you're ready for them. Watching those schooling fish is also a good way to locate drops they are holding on, because they normally school right over where they are holding."
Orlando's offshore bonanza lasts until a steady warming trend in January, when the bigger fish begin moving into the shoreline to spawn.
To book a day of winter bass fishing with Tommy Lee Young on the Conway or Butler chains this year, contact Bass Challenger Guide Service at (800) 241-5314.
LAKE OKEECHOBEE "Winter on Lake Okeechobee isn't so much an actual event as it is just a period on the calendar," said veteran guide and tournament angler Steve Daniel. "We really only have two seasons - the spawn, and the summer."
Spawning can start early on the Big O and there may be fish on the beds in October. By December, the spawn is normally in full swing and anglers concentrating their efforts in the vegetated shallows in the 3-foot-depth range find a variety of tactics work.
Sight-fishing for bedding bass with soft-plastic lures is a popular technique, but if bass are not visible on shallow beds, they are still in the area. Probing surrounding lily pads, peppergrass, eelgrass and bulrush stands with Texas-rigged plastic worms can be highly effective. Daniel favors worms in the 9- to 10-inch range in June bug, red shad or black with a blue tail if the day is overcast.
If you prefer to move a bit faster, a variety of spinnerbaits, weedless spoons and soft-plastic jerkbaits can also produce. Daniel, however, is not above tossing surface baits, even in the "dead of winter."
"Topwater lures are very overlooked December tools on this lake," he stated. "If you have reasonably warm and stable weather and the fish are shallow, a 1/2-ounce buzzbait can be deadly on bigger bass. Under these conditions, the guy who throws it all day long may not catch as many fish as other anglers, but he's likely to have the biggest. The same applies to noisy topwater plugs. When those big fish are shallow to spawn, a large surface bait can be the best choice you can make if you are looking for a trophy."
While December bassin' on the Big O is normally a shallow-water affair, the lake isn't immune to cold fronts. They are certainly not as severe as those to the north, but the bass react the same way - they leave the shallows if the front lingers. Daniel knows just where they go.
"If the front is minor and short," he explained, "it won't run the bass out of the spawning areas. They just slip into heavier cover, or under overhead cover like lotus pads. If a quick warm-up follows, they go back to what they were doing."
If the front is bad and lasts a couple of days, though, it's a different story.
"When the bass migrate into the shallows from the main l
ake in September and October," he noted, "they do it in stages, and one of the last places they stage on are hydrilla walls. These are the outside edge of major hydrilla beds in 6 to 10 feet of water and the first significant cover area between the open lake and the spawning shallows. If we get a significant front, many of the bass go right back to those hydrilla walls for a few days. The best hydrilla walls are usually those located on a channel drop, or that form a point extending into the lake, and those would be my first choice if I'm fishing after a severe front."
To arrange some guided bass fishing on the Big O this winter, call Steve Daniel at (863) 983-9271.
Fronts do dictate the pace in December. But anglers who keep these tips in mind can deal with them from north to south.
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