Sure: It's cold in January. But those brave enough to face the elements can find the bass fishing to be awfully good -- especially if they want to catch a Missouri lunker!
Each year I eagerly await the natural phenomenon known as the January thaw. Single-digit temperatures often subside during the second or third week of the year, giving way to a warming trend that reaches into the 50s and 60s and, occasionally, even into the 70-degree range. Large reservoirs across Missouri offer exemplary largemouth bass fishing in January - especially during the thaw, and many die-hard anglers take their largest bass of the year this month.
Several years ago, the thaw prompted me to don a warm coat and head to Lake of the Ozarks. The weatherman had predicted bluebird skies and temperatures in the low 50s. Sounded good - so off I went.
I took my time at the boat ramp, sipping another cup of coffee to counter the cool north wind. A new corps of wintertime anglers had emerged in the LOZ area and the photo galleries in tackle shops revealed what those guys were catching: big largemouths!
The buzz around the lake indicated that a fisherman could expect a half-dozen bites on a good day. Most January days produced only one to three bites, but the fish that were striking were large ones.
I tied a new suspending jerkbait onto the business end of my 8-pound line. Spinning tackle improved my casting distance, which I needed, since I held the boat well away from the shoreline. Bluffs that stair-stepped their way to deeper water held January bass - or so I had been told by a veteran cold-weather basser.
Three hours after my first cast, I began to doubt the wisdom of the old sage. The 50-degree temperatures were backed by a stiff wind, and I had yet to get a strike.
Big Kentucky bass are common at Missouri's Table Rock Lake in January. Photo by Billie R. Cooper
"When you think you're fishing a jerkbait as slow as you can, cut that speed in half," the old fisherman had said. Seems that cold-weather bass are lethargic and thus uninterested in chasing a bait; they want a bait presented slow and close.
The clock ticking steadily towards my fifth hour on the lake, I felt a slight tick, then another. I set the hook, but thought momentarily that I'd hooked a log. Then it moved!
A couple of minutes later, I slid a gloved thumb into the mouth of a 7-pound largemouth. Those two light ticks turned out to be the only bite I felt all day - but how many bass fishermen would fish all day for one 7-pound largemouth? Plenty of them! (Including this one.)
LAKE OF THE OZARKS Lake of the Ozarks, in the dead center of the state, is one of the best bass lakes in the country - even in January.
Marty McGuire of Osage Beach has fished Lake of the Ozarks for decades, with many of those years having been spent successfully fishing the tournament trail.
"In January I concentrate my fishing efforts on the lower end of the lake," McGuire began. "I fish from the mouth of the Glaize Arm down to the dam. That's a lot of water, but that area is where I catch fish consistently in January."
McGuire begins his search for cold-weather bass on the main channels and points. "I like to start on the deep, deep structure," he offered. "Bluff ends are a good place to start. I normally throw suspending jerkbaits or other weighted jerkbaits."
The water at LOZ is especially clear in the wintertime. As a result, McGuire recommends dropping to 8-pound line on a spinning rig.
He sticks to basic patterns when it comes to color selection for lures. "These bass are relating to shad, so I stay with colors similar to those of a shad. A gray ghost jerkbait is on the business end of my line 99.9 percent of the time. It looks like a shad and produces on a regular basis. I personally prefer the 4 1/2-inch model."
A few years ago, January fishermen used monster baits to coax LOZ lunkers into biting. According to McGuire, January bass fishing has become so popular that the large baits don't pull the strikes they used to. "Downsizing is important now if you want to get bit. The fish are seeing a lot more baits. Tournaments are popular, and more and more guys are fishing all year long. In fact, the only times you won't see bass fishermen on the lake is when the ramps are frozen over."
January bass normally suspend, McGuire notes. "Once you catch a fish," he said, "stay put. Normally, where you find one bass, others won't be far away. I have caught as many as 10 nice fish from one point. And you can expect to catch several fish on any given day at LOZ."
If it warms in January, McGuire heads to the Gravois arm to fish the sunny banks. "I like to toss a 5-inch green pumpkin skirted grub and fish it like a jig. Pulling the grub through the brush on a channel bank can be deadly at times."
Again McGuire says that a person should stick with an area where a fish is caught. Working an area thoroughly with a hula-type grub often pays handsome dividends.
Greg Stoner is the Missouri Department of Conservation fisheries biologist responsible for LOZ. He concurs with McGuire that the lower end of the lake is the place to fish for January bass. The last 12 to 15 miles of the Osage, Glaize and Gravois are the areas that surrender the most fish.
Stoner recalls that last year he witnessed a group of anglers fishing deep water with vertical-jigging tactics similar to those commonly used on Table Rock Lake. "Those guys fished deep after the thermocline had dissipated and caught fish in 40 to 50 feet of water."
The fishery is in excellent condition, Stoner reports. There was a short-lived parasite problem two years ago. Two years of drought led to a lot of nutrients building up in the surrounding area; these, washed into the lake by the rains of 2001, promoted the growth of pathogens: viruses, bacteria, protozoa - things that can cause health problems for fish. The organisms are always present, but when conditions are right, they blossom and - particularly in the summer, when water temperatures are higher and fish are stressed more than normal - put a temporary but very real strain on the fish.
The April-May 2001 electrofishing survey revealed solid numbers of legal bass, Stoner says. The fall of 2000 produced perfect conditions for the spawning and survival of fish in the spring of 2001. "We saw the biggest bass year-class we have seen since we started sampling in 1974," he stated.
The 2001 shad spawn appeared strong as well. LOZ is a consistent producer of the shad that are the basis of the bass factory there.
All reports point to fishermen catching a fair number January largemouths at LOZ.
TABLE ROCK LAKE Just 30 minutes south of Springfield, Table Rock Lake is a beautiful Ozark Highlands reservoir. Known for its sheer depths and extremely clear water, Table Rock is a top choice of January bass anglers in the know.
Bill Anderson is the MDC fisheries biologist for Table Rock and an enthusiastic fisherman, as well. "In January, I stick to the main lake and don't go up into the river arms at all," said Anderson. "I catch both largemouth and spotted bass early in the year. However, it is difficult to predict where they will be. Sometimes the fish are segregated, and sometimes they're mixed together."
Anderson pointed out that he catches a lot more spotted bass than he does largemouths. Fishermen need not fret, however, as spots in Table Rock grow to large sizes, with 4-pounders not uncommon.
Vertically jigging spoons and grubs has long been the standard method for catching Table Rock bass. Again, most of the fish caught using this method will be spots. When the jerkbait bite turns on, fishermen can count on largemouths being on the business end of their lines.
Anderson suggests that you check your electronics for large schools of shad in deep water. "Sixty-five to 70 feet is about the norm in January," he offered. "I have found baitfish as deep as 110 feet."
The importance of good electronics for finding deep water shad can't be overemphasized. Wherever you find shad, you'll most likely find bass.
At Table Rock, major lake points are the places to investigate first when on the hunt for January bass. Fish will stay deep along the points, but still have the ability to travel quickly from very deep water to more shallow areas. By targeting the points first, fishermen can eliminate a lot of unpromising water.
"Years of experience and good old-fashioned good luck are important factors for catching cold weather bass as well," Anderson noted. "I fish several spots on the lake that are not point-related, but which produce bass regularly. Those spots are often in the middle of the lake."
Topo maps of Table Rock can help an angler find underwater features that hold bass. Channel swings are a case in point.
Jerkbait fishermen should search out the north banks, according to Anderson. "The south-facing slopes catch the sun and warm up. Throwing a jerkbait around woody cover is a good tactic. Scattered cedar trees are the best cover to fish, especially if the tops are 10 to 12 feet below the surface."
There are no magical formulas for catching Table Rock's bass. In Anderson's view, fishermen have to be versatile. One day they may find fish related to the bank; the next, fish will be in the middle of a creek arm. Shad move around, and bass follow them. This forage base is the key to January bass fishing on Table Rock.
January fishermen can expect to catch fish of some considerable quality on Table Rock - but Anderson doesn't know exactly why. "I can only presume that the larger fish are the more aggressive fish in cold weather, and that they are out chasing shad. The size of the spotted bass we caught last winter was so incredible it became hard to remember the days when we caught a lot of sub-legal fish."
Anderson reports that the fishery has rebounded splendidly after the '99 kill. "We are not back to the pre-'99 density of bass over 5 pounds yet, but matters are improving rapidly."
January fishing at Table Rock should be excellent in 2003. The James River arm produced a big year-class in 1999. Those fish have prospered, and will furnish those anglers hardy enough to brave the elements with some truly satisfying action.
Professional bass tournament angler Pete Wenners and his wife Dodi live in a beautiful home atop a 300-foot bluff overlooking Table Rock Lake. Needless to say, Wenners knows "The Rock" like the back of his hand, and the lengthy roster of his tournament wins attests to his abilities.
"January and December and February are phenomenal down here," he remarked. "My biggest stringers have come during the winter months."
Anglers unfamiliar with Table Rock can eliminate a lot of water in a hurry by skipping the rivers, Wenners says. "Fish can be caught all over the lake - and I'm talking about numbers of fish, as well as good-quality fish. Four- and 5-pound Kentuckys aren't uncommon and big smallmouths are plentiful, too. Spots will make up about 70 percent of the catch, smallmouths about 20 percent and largemouths 10 percent."
Wenners heads to the main-lake points first. Experience has taught him that, in cold weather, fish consistently congregate on or to the side of the points. "I look for deep main-lake points that have submerged timber," Wenners explained. "The boat may be sitting in 50 to 100 feet of water. Trees left from pre-impoundment days are a key factor. Trees that come within 30 feet of the surface are the best spots. Fish school around the standing timber. Where you catch one fish, others will be nearby. Once I find a pattern, I stay with it, because the schools are dependable about staying in the same area for days at a time. Twenty- to 30-fish days are common this time of year."
Wenners recommends using 6- to 8-pound line on spinning tackle. Three- to 5-inch grubs in smoke, salt-and-pepper, pearl or watermelon fished on a ball or darter head are his favored baits. The same colors in a tube bait work well, too. The jighead should be placed inside the tube body. Drop-shotting is another effective technique for hooking these bass.
A 1/2-ounce or 3/4-ounce jigging spoon fished on a baitcaster with 12- to 15-pound line is Wenners' second choice; he likes a slab-style spoon. He fishes the spoons in the same areas in which he works the grubs.
Wenners' points of choice will be found around Kimberling City, the dam area, Baxter and Campbell Point. Should the main-lake points fail to yield fish, he doesn't hesitate to head for the main tributaries. Big Creek, the mouth of Big and Little Indian creeks, Joe Bald, Aunts Creek, Wiese Branch, North Indian, and Mill Creek are all well worth a try.
Wenners made a point of remarking that anglers should start fishing the first main point they come across after entering a creek arm. "Shad are what you need to look for. They will be in big deep schools. I idle into the mouths of the creeks with one eye on my electronics. The shad often relate to the old timber out in the middle of the channel in 100 feet of water. The baitfish will be 30 to 40 feet deep, and the bass will be beneath them."
Gulls are good indicators of where shad are located. Schools of shad will surface and attract the birds.
Kentuckys hold in the timber to wait for shad to pass over. Cold water temperatures trigger shad die-offs, and weak and dying shad "spin off," drifting toward the bottom and presenting easy targets for schools of bass that aren't in chase mode.
Smallmouths can often be caught in the same areas frequented by Kentuckys, Wenners notes. However, the baits and presentation will change. "I use a 1/4-ounce jig in brown or black, tipped with a soft-plastic trailer," he said. "My prime targets are the main-lake boat docks. I fish the shallow side first. Water depths will usually be 8 to 10 feet. I jig down to 20 to 25 feet and work the bait back real slow. The 30- to 45-degree banks produce best. The steep banks allow the fish to travel only a short distance to get to deep water."
The corners of the deeper docks are likely places for flipping spoons into the boat stalls. Allowing the spoon to flutter to the bottom in 45 feet of water is another trick that Wenners will now and again pull out of his hat of bass-catching techniques. "I let the spoon fall all the way to the bottom, jig it a couple of times and reel it up. Most hits will come on the fall."
As a last point, Wenners emphasized the importance of quality electronics. "Good equipment will help fishermen find the shad quickly. I use a depthfinder that allows me to watch my lure and fish as they approach it. Now that is the ultimate in cold-weather bass fishing!"
Check out Wenners' up-to-date fishing report on his Web site, www.hookedonbass.com.
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On cold-but-not-too-cold January days, you can sit on the couch and watch football - or you can head to Lake of the Ozarks or Table Rock for a breath of fresh air. You might catch your biggest bass of the year!
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