January 20, 2021
By Lynn Burkhead
You may have noticed that another New Year is upon us. And after the way 2020 treated us, thank goodness!
While it remains to be seen how kind 2021 will be as the COVID-19 pandemic rolls on, many of the nation's outdoorsmen are knee-deep in the off-season projects that keep us busy in the dead of winter.
As the snow flies outdoors that means things like oiling shotguns and baitcasting reels, putting away the treestands and decoys, changing fishing line out, sharpening hooks, checking the boat's electronic wiring, and maybe watching a little NFL playoff action on the new big screen TV that Old St. Nick recently delivered.
But for anglers in the know, the calendar's first month actually rates as one of the best times of the year to get out on the water and make a few casts for a big bass. Already this year, that idea has merit thanks to a recent 13.44-pound bass pulled from Sam Rayburn Reservoir in East Texas during an early January tournament.
A glance at the history books also confirms that January bassing can be pretty special.
Just ask Barry St. Clair, who landed the Texas state-record largemouth on Jan. 24, 1992, as he went crappie fishing. But before his trip was through, he had become a legendary name in angling circles after weighing in an 18.18-pound lunker that remains the Lone Star State's benchmark bass to this very day. For the record, St. Clair's big January bucketmouth wasn't a winter-time fluke either. None other than Kelly Jordon, the Major League Fishing Bass Pro Tour veteran from Flint, Texas, agrees.
"It's not a numbers time of the year, since the bass fishing is tough anyway at (this) time of the year," said Jordon, who has four B.A.S.S. wins, one FLW triumph, and one Major League Fishing Challenge Cup victory to his credit. "But if you do find them (in the winter), they're usually grouped up pretty good."
The 10-pound Bass Average
Jordon has evidence to prove that statement, thanks to an epic day of wintertime fishing he had at Fork one December day during the East Texas reservoir's giant bass hey-day. While Fork isn't as good as it once was, and KJ caught his bass in December instead of January, his big fish story still shows why you should consider venturing out onto the water now rather than sitting by the fireplace.
"I caught 10 bass that weighed 101 pounds," Jordon reminisced, noting that he fished with a Sassy Shad-style lure and a spoon in 30 feet of water during that incredible day. "That's over a 10-pound-per-fish average. In fact, my biggest five weighed 54 pounds, 11 ounces."
While big number days are the exception rather than the rule right now, big fish are not.
"(This) time of the year, the average size of fish is bigger than any other time of the year that you’ll catch fish," said Jordon.
With a well-earned reputation as one of the sport's best big-bass specialists, Jordon indicates that his observation is generally true because female bass are not going to lose any weight since the water is cold and they’re feeding for the upcoming spawn.
"They're not even football-sized at this time of the year, they're basketball-sized bass," Jordon chuckled. "It's kind of like trophy deer hunting – you may not see a lot and the weather can be tough, but that's when you can get it done. If I was a big-bass hunter in Texas, I would fish December through February."
Jordon isn't the only one to note the huge fish potential of wintertime bassing. In a conversation I had a few years back with Phil Durocher, the now retired director of Inland Fisheries for TPWD, he indicated there is also biological evidence.
"The larger, older fish tend to spawn three to four weeks earlier than smaller bass do each spring," said Durocher. "Plus, those bigger fish are generally caught before they spawn and that's when they are at maximum size, early in the year."
For what it's worth, a glance at TPWD's "Top 50" largemouth bass list bears that out, since seven of those fish (which range from 15.45 pounds to St. Clair's record of 18.18) have been caught in the first month of the year.
If it sounds like a January fishing trip might be in order, how do you go about waking up an early season bass from a long winter's nap?
Go Slow and Big
First, realize that in terms of lures and presentations, S-L-O-W and big are primary considerations right now according to Jimmy Houston, longtime host of World Fishing Network’s Jimmy Houston Outdoors.
"I believe the main thing is that fish aren't very active," said Houston, who hails from Cookson, Okla., where the weather can get pretty wintry earlier in the year.
"Their body temperature falls with the water temperature. A large bass doesn't eat very much and won't chase fast-moving baits at this time of the year. They want something that comes right into their kitchen, something that is easy to eat, and large.
In other words, big bass don't expend much energy during the course of a January day. And when they do, they want plenty of nutritional bang for their buck.
"Remember, these fish are pretty inactive and don't eat very much," noted Houston. "The big ones may only eat every three to four days.”
When they do, what is it that they want?
Sometimes jerkbaits work, or maybe a tube bait, or certainly a deep-diving crankbait. But America's favorite fisherman often depends on slow rolled spinnerbaits or a jig-and-pig combo at this time of the year.
In terms of the jig, the two-time BASS Angler of the Year’s favorite wintertime jig-and-skirt color combinations have often been black/blue or black/blue/purple, although he'll occasionally use a red/orange/green combination. As for jig trailers, he has often preferred a plastic chunk in black neon or purple with red flakes at this time of the year versus a frog trailer.
Bucketmouth of a Lifetime
A second key for targeting January bass is to keep in mind that they won't be everywhere—you've got to find the specific places that they'll spend these cold water days. In the case of St. Clair’s Texas record, he found his giant bass out in deep water not too far from the dam at Lake Fork.
Houston likes to fish his favored baits around steep banks in the year's first month more so than at any other time of the year. That's particularly true in places with rocks and such, where a big old bass can hole up for the winter, spots that can be frequently found on Oklahoma bass waters like Houston's home water body of Lake Tenkiller.
Of course, January is a month that Old Man Winter can rock the country with snow, ice and frigid temperatures. Already, Oklahoma has endured multiple snowfalls and just days ago, central and East Texas were buried beneath a blanket of snow several inches deep. And even in the Deep South, snow and cold have made themselves known in the early days of 2021.
While such weather generally doesn't last too long from the southern Great Plains through SEC football country, wintertime weather can sometimes become severe enough that ice will form on some bass waters.
And believe it or not, Houston has discovered that such severe cold snaps can actually deliver a rare bite pattern after sheets of ice have formed over shallow water.
"I call it the windshield effect," said Houston. "That's where sunshine has shone through the ice and heated the water up under the ice. The fish will pull up in that water that has soaked that magnified heat up. When the ice has left, I’ve seen fish that have stayed right there for a couple of days.
"Bear in mind that at this time of the year, while the bites might be few and far between, any bass that hits can be the bucketmouth of a lifetime on lakes that are sparsely crowded at best."
So, what's the bottom line here?
At first glance, January might seem to be a better time spent in front of the fireplace reading a classic Gene Hill book, or perusing the newest catalogs from Bass Pro Shops or Cabela's rather than bundling up on the front deck of a bass boat.
Unless, of course, you're interested in catching the lunker of a lifetime, one that could rock the record books and the bass fishing world. And that's good enough reason for me to grab the tackle box and head outdoors with plenty of warm, waterproof, and windproof clothing on.
It's big-bass season in Texas and the southern U.S. and I wouldn't miss it for all of the hot chocolate between the Red River and the Rio Grande. And neither should you!