Where to Go for Winter Largemouth
January 17, 2014
Here's a look at some top options for winter largemouths, no matter where you live.
Texas Trophy Time
In mid-winter, dedicated anglers can find the same kind of quality that hordes of anglers mob boat ramps for in March, at waters from Lake Fork to Falcon, on the Mexico border. In mild conditions, the spawn may commence as early as late February at Falcon, somewhat later at Amistad, which lies about 200 miles north and is a far deeper impoundment. So prespawn action can dominate the winter months, though frigid spells set fish back and confound fishing success. Amistad offers a great range of depths, and bass tend to hold deep in its clear waters. Big worms and swimbaits score wintertime lunkers there.
At Fork, veteran guides make great catches in shallower creek arms, targeting bass that remain there during winter, feeding on crayfish and bluegills. The state record, 18.18 pounds, was caught in January, back in 1992. Fish of that caliber haven't been seen lately, but guide and FLW pro Tom Redington points to a resurgence of lunkers. "Last year, 14-, 15-, and 16-pound bass were caught here," he says. "For big fish, it was the best since the Largemouth Bass Virus hit in 1999.". Veteran guide Richie White adds that seven of the largest bass ever caught in Texas have come from Fork from the last week of November through the first week of March. But despite this bounty, few anglers book trips.
Contact: Robert Amaya (Falcon), Robert's Fish N'Tackle & Guide Service, 956/765-1442, robertsfishntackle.com; Richie White (Fork), 903/439-2226, bassfishing.org; Tom Redingtion (Fork), 214/783-1795, lakeforkguidetrips.com.
The Tennessee River and its string of impoundments, from its source at Cherokee Lake on the South Holston River and Douglas Lake on the French Broad to Kentucky Lake's entry to the Ohio River, has long been regarded as a fine fishing area. But in the last few years, the big bass bite has exploded on several of these waters, notably Lake Guntersville in Alabama, Lake Chickamauga in Tennessee, and Pickwick on the Alabama-Mississippi-Tennessee border.
Last winter, Chickamauga guide Rogne Brown raised the collective eyebrows of the bassin' world with his epic tournament weights. He began the surge with a 5-fish limit weighing 37.9 pounds, teamed with Michael Neal in a Chattanooga Bass Association event. Two weeks later, Brown upped the ante with a limit over 44 pounds in a competition out of Dayton Boat Dock, fishing with Tim Saylor. During the following week, Chris Coleman recorded a 13.9-pound bass from this riverine impoundment, just shy of the Tennessee state record set in 1954. To prove it hadn't been a fluke, Brown proceeded to set a Bass Fishing League (BFL) all-time record with 40-14 on March 23. His catch topped all BFL events, which are commonly held on lunker factories in Texas and Florida.
Chris Jolley, a fishery biologist with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, commented on the lunker flurry. "Vegetation has benefitted the habitat on Chickamauga and we also have a strong forage base of shad," he said. And he noted possible effects of stocking. "It's likely that most of those giant fish have at least some Florida genetics," he said, referring to recent introductions of Florida bass. "Right now, it's a perfect storm of factors leading to this type of population."
Other Tennessee River waters also have boomed, including Kentucky Lake, Pickwick, and Guntersville. At Pickwick, where a decade ago, big smallmouths represented your only shot for a big bag, 9- and 10-pound largemouths are reported, from quiet bays on the lower parts in Mississippi to the faster flows in Alabama's waters near Wilson Dam. FLW Outdoors reported on the 10 biggest bass weighed in across their 24 BFL divisions and 167 tournaments in 2012. Two of the top three came from Guntersville, topped by a 12-9. Of the 10 lunkers, 7 were from Tennessee River impoundments, 2 from Florida, and one from Clarks Hill on the Georgia-South Carolina border. A summary of the heaviest 5-fish bags yielded similar results, topped by a pair of Guntersville catches over 32 pounds, taken in February. At Guntersville, vegetation keys a prespawn bite, when double-digit bass show, typically from mid- to late February.
Contact: Mike Carter (Guntersville), 423/802-1362, anglingadventures.info; Roger Stegall (Pickwick), 662/423-3869, fishpickwick.com; Steve Hacker (Pickwick), 256/760-8090, smallmouth.com; Rogne Brown (Chickamauga), tnriverguide.com.
The Sunshine State
Tourists flock to Florida for fun and sun, Mickey Mouse, and lunker bass. Indeed, several recent initiatives by the Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission have boosted bass fisheries. Florida has taken the lead in habitat improvement projects, dredging muck and excessive vegetation from various lakes and planting native vegetation to enhance habitat for baitfish and bass. These projects have revitalized fisheries including Lake Tohopekaliga, Istokpoga, Orange Lake, Okeechobee, and the Harris Chain.
The commission also has opened the Florida Bass Conservation Center in Webster, where researchers and fish production specialists operate. It's also home of the new TrophyCatch Program, which rewards anglers for trophy catches of various species. In addition to the associated publicity, these reports help the agency monitor the health of fish populations.
From my experience last winter, I can vouch for the health of the St. Johns River, flowing across the northern part of the state to its mouth at Jacksonville. We filmed a television show, airing in upcoming weeks, fishing with veteran guide Bob Stonewater. The action was intense as we landed many trophy-size bass under mats of pennywort and water hyacinth. The population is in fine shape and the St. Johns is a diverse and scenic fishery.
As for the Kissimmee Chain, Captain Jamie Jackson reports that this past summer has rivaled many peak winter, prespawn seasons for lunker catches, a great sign that the population is booming and conditions are conducive for a record-setting winter. "We've had good rainfall, which has kept the system at a higher elevation, and cooler temperatures may also have boosted the bite," he says. He's put about 100 bass over 10 pounds in the boat this past year, and his associate guides have had similar success.
"Water levels in Okeechobee, which lies at the end of the Kissimmee River Chain, have been good, too, and that lake is producing fast action and big fish, as well," he adds. And at Istokpoga, just north of Okeechobee near Sebring, the bite was strong last winter and indications are for another good season.
As Jackson indicated, the "Big O" is back once again, the latest crest in a series of ups and downs (primarily in water level) that cause bass fishing to go from sensational to mediocre. In these shallow systems, fluctuations of just a few feet can bring boom or doom to fish populations.
Commission biologists note that Lake Walk-in-Water has rebounded strongly after hurricanes decimated its vegetation. Flipping offshore beds of bulrushes has been the ticket for bass to 12 pounds.
Contact: Bob Stonewater (St. Johns River), 800/835-2851, bobstonewater.com; Capt. Jamie Jackson (Kissimmee Chain), 800/738-8144, landobass.com; Capt. Don Hatcher (Istokpoga), 863/655-0265, donhatcherfishing.com; Chet Douthit (Okeechobee), 863/902-9471, okeechobeefishingcharters.com; Capt. Pete Matson (Walk-in-Water), 800/707-5463, a1bassguideservice.com.
South of the Border
A favorite winter destination is south of the border, at the resort lakes on Mexico's west coast. There are 6 or 8 lakes with lodges but choices have been limited lately. A number of outfits have not been operating, primarily because of the long economic recession and fears of Mexican drug wars. Infrastructure problems, including low water levels and infestations of water hyacinth, have plagued other camps.
Over the past decade, El Salto has been consistently productive, a rare attribute where water levels annually fluctuate more than 70 feet. Last season was marked by a slower overall bite, but a high percentage of big fish, over 6 pounds. On a short trip to Angler's Inn late last winter, my brother and I boated three bass between 9 and 10 pounds, including Tom's personal best. In addition to Angler's Inn, Ron Speed Adventures, and Pro Bass Adventures continue to provide fine trip options from lakeside accommodations. In addition to the fishing, Salto's proximity to the international airport and beach resorts of Mazatlan (an hour and 45 minutes away) make travel a cinch.
Pro Bass Adventures also operates a lodge at Lake Baccarac, which produced the Mexican record largemouth of 19 pound 10 ounces, and countless giants. Like El Salto, catch rates were lower last year, according to Doug King at Pro Bass Adventures, but lots of bass over 7 pounds were taken, with giants over 10 pounds not uncommon. Lake Baccarac Lodge also offers fishing packages.
Closer to the border on vast Lake Guerrero, Lago Vista Lodge continues to operate and reports indicate good fishing. Veteran outfitter Arley McMillon of Oklahoma has been leading groups there, driving across the border from McAllen or Harlingen, Texas, in the company of armed federales. Since its heyday 40 years ago, Guererro has had water-level issues, but now is back to its former elevation, ushering in fine fishing and some huge fish.
King adds that former operations at Lake Huites, Lake Oviachic (Obregon), and Lopez Mateos are inactive. At Aqua Milpa, only Cora's Lodge is hosting anglers. This is the most southerly bass reservoir. It offers fast action, but fewer outsize bass than the others.
Contact: Angler's Inn, 800/GOTA-FISH, anglersinn.com; Pro Bass Adventures, 480/491-9300, mexicofishing.net; Ron Speed Junior's Adventures, 800/722-0006, ronspeedadventures.com; Lake Baccarac Lodge, 888/744-8867, lakebaccaraclodge.com; Cora's Lodge, 513/478-9970, coraslodge.com; Arley McMillon, 405/354-0356.
Across the range of largemouth bass, top winter presentations encompass an amazingly diverse range of options—from ultra-finesse in the central region, using small hair jigs and light jigheads with small softbaits, to massive crankbaits and unwieldy umbrella rigs weighing several ounces in shad-rich waters from Texas to South Carolina, to 1/2-pound live shiners in Florida. In-Fisherman Field Editor Ned Kehde has written at great length on his Finesse News Network, based in Kansas, but with roots across the land, about the use of 1/32- to 3/32-ounce mushroom-shape jigheads with 2- to 4-inch softbaits. He and his comrades often account for 10 or more bass an hour during winter trips, fishing these light offerings with a variety of subtle motions, plying depths typically from 4 to 10 feet. Check his blog at in-fisherman.com for details.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, multi-arm umbrella rigs have dominated the winter fishing scene, except where tournament organizations have banned them. There's a lot more to setting up an effective rig than most anglers imagine. Arm count and placement are important, as are jighead weight and shape, and swimbait style, size, and color. Finally careful selection of tackle makes fishing these setups for hours at a time at least tolerable, if not pleasant.
Between the extremes, the jig and pig, crankbait, and suspending jerkbait remain staples of wintertime open-water scenarios from Delaware to Colorado. Where forage is primarily pelagic, slowly working a suspending jerkbait is hard to beat when water temperatures are below 50°F. The proper cadence matches the heavy clothing and gloves often required to fish at this time, as well as the recommended boat speed when moving from spot to spot—slow, slow, slow.
Where bass hunker to the bottom and lurk in wood and rock cover, jigs shine, tipped with classic pork rind or the myriad softbait trailers available. Match lure weight to depth and cover, with choices ranging from 1/4- to 3/4-ounce.