These two storied bass waters didn't get their lofty reputations by accident: They earned them by yielding up startling quantities of bass. To beat the crowds, get out there now!
If you're reading a bass fishing article in January, you're likely to be more than just a casual angler. The heart of winter can be a challenging time for catching bass consistently. Louisiana generally sees its coldest weather and water temperatures in the period from December through February - and the deepest freeze will as often as not enfold some portion of January. Still, as the new year unfolds, bassing across our state can be very rewarding, however frigid the winter.
In this article, we'll take a look at two of the best-known and most productive fisheries in the country, both of which just happen to be in the Sportsman's Paradise: the Bayou Black region of the Louisiana Delta, and Toledo Bend, the massive 185,000-acre reservoir on the Texas-Louisiana border. The former has been the site of several national tournaments, and the latter, hosting as it does thousands of anglers each month, is a world-class lake by anyone's standards.
BAYOU BLACK Containing thousands of surface-acres of lakes, canals and bayous, this region near Houma has become a cherished fishing hole for many anglers like pro Kevin VanDam of Michigan, who won a national tournament by fishing this particular Delta area in 2001.
Few anglers know the Bayou Black Marsh the way Rodney Wagley of Baton Rouge does. Wagley was one of the favorites to win a 1999 tournament here; unfortunately, his prospects were shrunk when a freak boating mishap broke several bones in his hand, severely hampering his ability to fish. When asked recently which body of water he would choose as the best winter bass hole in south Louisiana, Wagley was unequivocal. "By far the most consistent area is the Bayou Black Marsh," he said.
One reason for his selection is the area's comparative isolation from the flooding of the Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers. And though tides do influence this area, they do so to a lesser degree than they affect the area around Venice and other, more-exposed regions.
"The climate in this area is subtropical," Wagley explained, "and usually has mild winters. It's not uncommon for bass to begin moving on the beds to spawn in mid-January and to be in full spawn by the full moon in February." In January, he added, he begins looking for canals that run east and west, because as these aren't exposed to cold north winds, they're usually warmer than those that run north and south.
Photo by Tom Evans
Watch Your Thermometer! As fish are cold-blooded creatures, their bodily processes ebb and flow in lockstep with water temperature, which accordingly plays a critical role in winter bassing. For one thing, it determines which options and techniques will have the best effect. Useful as traditional approaches to finding and catching bass in cold weather are, each winter is slightly different, and these differences can affect the bass, and thus your tactics, in various ways.
You might, for example, be on the lake in mid-January. The daytime air temperature is in the 60s and 70s; the fish aren't biting. On another trip, the air temperature barely gets out of the 40s, yet the bass feed aggressively. One possible explanation: The first, warmer day is likely to have followed a period of cold weather that dropped the water temperature into the upper 40s, and the brief warm spell succeeding it may have been too brief to knock the chill off the water. On the other hand, the second, shiver-inducing outing probably came on the heels of a week of unseasonable warmth that pushed water temps into the upper 50s. In angling, water temperature is always a controlling factor, and this is never truer than it is in the winter.
Wagley's favorite lure for Bayou Black in January is a spinnerbait. His preference is a 3/8- or 1/2-ounce copper/silver blade combo with a No. 2 Colorado blade in front and a No. 4 willow-leaf blade behind. If the water in the canal is extra-clear, he goes with all-silver blades. White skirts are his top winter choice, chartreuse being second.
Green Grass And High Tides - Forever? When, according to Wagley, the tide is in, and flows out for the bulk of your fishing day, the situation is ideal. He dislikes an extremely high tide, as it scatters the bass back into the hard-to-reach places of the marsh. During an outflowing tide, the bass will concentrate in the mouth of small cuts, on points of vegetation, behind artificial structures and around other ambush points from which they can attack baitfish on the move. This situation makes for great angling. An astute angler can essentially predict where the bass and, thus, practically call his shots. Another very important consideration: In order to achieve a natural presentation, always pull your bait with the current.
"During the summer months," Wagley noted, "some of the canals will completely grass up and become unfishable. However, these same canals will hold in the clear water and will get enough sunlight to sustain some plant growth during the heart of winter. Canals with winter vegetation always hold more bass."
When things get really tough on the bayou, Wagley goes to a jig or a lizard. His top lizard color is blueberry (black with blue flakes) and his favorite jig is a black/blue 1/2-ounce model with a blue plastic chunk trailer. It's not uncommon for this bayou expert to weigh in a five-fish tournament limit totaling 18 to 20 pounds from this region.
BASSIN' THE BEND Now let's head northwest to another of the Bayou State's most fantastic winter fishing holes: Toledo Bend. Quite a few Toledo Bend regulars and pros predict that the mammoth reservoir will be a great place at which to toss a lure on a frosty morning in early 2003.
Over 70 miles long, stretching from just below Shreveport all the way south to just Leesville, this impoundment's enormous extent and acknowledged productivity account for its being considered by thousands of Louisiana anglers as their home lake; many come from Alexandria, Lake Charles, Lafayette and places still more distant to fish this legendary body of water. The stocking of Florida largemouth bass in recent years (over 10 million since the early 1990s) has resulted in significant numbers of double-digit sized bass being caught and added another entry to the list of reasons to fish "the Bend" - as if another were needed!
One angler who has caught more than his share of the lunkers is George Jeane Jr. of Evans, which lies just south of the lake and about 20 miles from the dam. Basically raised on Toledo Bend - having spent many days on the water with his dad, George Sr., a ba
ssing legend in this part of Louisiana - this gifted fisherman was one of the hottest tournament anglers on Toledo Bend this past spring. His favorite time for going after the Bend's lunker bass? December and January.
Jeane turned in some very impressive tournament catches in early 2002, including at least one lunker weighing better than 10 pounds. Jeane's top two cold-water baits are spinnerbaits and crankbaits. He catches most of his big fish in depths from 18 to 25 feet and seldom fishes at less than 12 feet at any time during the year. Preferring the south half of the lake, he names Six Mile Creek, Housen Bay and Toro Bay (Pirates Cove) as his three favorite fishing holes.
In January, Jeane typically opts for the custom-built 1-ounce and 1 1/4-ounce spinnerbaits that his family makes and markets; he also likes large gold willow-leaf blades in the winter. These magnum spinnerbaits he fishes on a 7-foot medium-light graphite rod with a baitcasting reel with a 4.3-to-1 retrieve ratio. For Jeane, it's the perfect combination for slow-rolling those big spinnerbaits along the Bend's deep ledges and points.
Jeane spools up with 15-pound line on his spinnerbait outfit and 12-pound line on his cranking stick. His favorite crankbaits for cold-water bassin' are some of the deepest-diving of the deep-divers. The crankbait specialist makes extra-long casts in order to give his bait time to get down and stay down at optimum depth. His goal: to keep his crankbait "in the zone" for 40 feet per cast. In midwinter, rather than concentrate on working close to grass, he targets deeper cover such as laydowns and tops (fallen timber) in 18- to 20-foot depths. He also focuses on sloughs and drains (ditches), zeroing in on areas in which two sloughs meet and form a point. "These places will hold concentrations of big bass in the winter months," Jeane explained. Asked how he identifies these places, he replied, "By using maps and being on the water numerous days with my head in the depthfinder and a rod in my hand."
Fishing tradition runs deep in the Jeane family, and when he's talking about fishing, the younger Jeane's body language and speech are those of a man describing something deeply important to him. As an outdoor writer and fellow angler, I've long been impressed with his competitive nature, his attention to detail and his work ethic. He fishes nearly 300 days per year and understands the essence of this old saying: "The harder I work, the luckier I get." Remember his name. You'll hear it again in the world of competitive bass fishing.
Cover Everywhere! Toledo Bend contains a phenomenal amount of structure and cover for its bass population. Last winter, the submerged hydrilla grassbeds on the southernmost portions of the lake held decent numbers of quality bass, and this winter should be no different.
Actually, the bass may be easier to find this season because there's less grass for them to relate to, so figuring out their whereabouts may be as simple as sticking to this venerable formula: Find the grass, find the bass. If that proves to be the case, a couple of baits are absolute dynamite for catching bass from submerged grass in January. One that I went to a lot in January 2002 was a 1/2-ounce spinnerbait with willow-leaf blades; slow-rolled over the grass (hydrilla) in depths of 10 to 18 feet, it was deadly. The most successful presentation was a very slow yo-yo retrieve, during which great effort was expended to keep the bait in regular contact with the grass.
When you fish the spinnerbait in this manner, the strike most often comes as the bait falls back toward the cover, so stay alert and set the hook immediately upon detecting the slightest hit. This is easier said than done on some winter days, when the weather is cold and you haven't had a bite in an hour, but the action can be quite fast, and each strike could be a lunker.
Another proven January method involves ripping a lipless crankbait through the grass. This is done by retrieving the bait in such a manner as to bring it periodically into contact with the grass. When it hits the grass, jerk the bait free, but allow the bait to pause slightly before resuming the retrieve. Again, be alert for a strike during and shortly after the pause. Do this all the way to the boat. Top pro Kevin VanDam likes to take the rear set of hooks off the lipless bait when he uses this method, so that the bait pulls free more easily. Heavier line with less stretch and a rod with fairly heavy action may also help with reducing the effort required to free the bait. On days when the bass don't seem to be feeding, this reaction strike technique can be unbeatable.
The Jig Is Up! Normally, you can expect to catch fewer but bigger bass in January; it's possible to load the boat at this time of the year, but it's not the norm. However, if you're content to catch fewer but heavier bass - and quite possibly the bass of a lifetime - on a lake with very few other anglers, then this is your time of the year, and Toledo Bend is your lake.
Lonnie Stanley, tournament angler and owner of Stanley Jigs, has been chasing bass on Toledo Bend for more than a quarter-century - and he loves the lake in late December and January. Not surprisingly, his favorite wintertime lure is a jig. In fact, many anglers depend on jigs during the winter months to catch quality bass, as evidenced by the present lake record, a 15.33-pound monster caught on a jig.
Lonnie Stanley is an expert with a jig. He opts to fish the northern half of Toledo Bend when things are cold, with some of his favorite feeder creeks for winter angling being San Miguel, San Patricio and the Patroon Bayou area. In January, Stanley prefers fishing a 3/16- or 5/16-ounce jig with a pork trailer about halfway back in the creeks. The ideal water temperature for this pattern, he asserts, is between 52 and 55 degrees. Casting to the edge of the creek, he then works the jig slowly back into the channel. In the creeks that he frequents during the winter months, the depth of the creek edge is from 10 to 14 feet, and the bottom of the creekbed itself is approximately 20 to 25 feet deep. It was when using this pattern on Toledo Bend in late December several years ago that Stanley caught his biggest stringer of bass ever.
Lonnie goes with 12- and 15-pound test monofilament when fishing these light jigs. Experience has convinced him that the lighter lines do a much better job in presenting the lure to the fish, resulting in more bass at the end of the day.
But jigs aren't the only lures that Stanley uses for January bass on the Bend. He's also been known to pull out a spinnerbait on occasion, and his eyes light up when he talks about cold-water blade-fishing. "During brief warming trends in mid-January, those same jig fish that were stacked on the edge of the creeks will move up on the humps and ridges," he said. The depths on these humps average from 6 to 10 feet; he recommends using a 3/8- or 1/2-ounce golden bream-colored spinnerbait on 17-pound line to reach them. Stanley slow-rolls the bait over whatever submerged cover or vegetation is present. His results are frequently very impressive.
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Don't let a little cold weather keep you inside when you could be fishing. Spool your favorite reel up with fresh line, pic
k up some jigs, crankbaits and spinnerbaits, and head out to some of the hotspots that our bassin' fanatics have recommended here. You'll start the year off right!
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