January is a hardscrabble month for many bassers. The water is cold (where it's not frozen over), and the perception is the fish are in a funk. Most anglers opt for the fireplace hearth over the casting deck as the preferred place to pass time during this first month of the year.
But not John Tanner. "I really like to fish in January, especially when there's low pressure hanging over the lake and a front's pushing in," he says. "I've had days like this when I've caught 'em really good, with some giants in the mix. Granted, January may not be my favorite month, but it's a very good one if you're fishing the right pattern."
Tanner should know. He's a full-time, longtime guide on Texas' fabled Lake Fork (www.lakeforkbassguide.com). He fishes year-round. When a customer calls, he goes — and believe it or not, some do call in January. Thus, he's had enough experience to learn where to find bass and how to catch them during this frigid month.
"They bury up in hydrilla on big flats in the coves and secondary pockets," he divulges. "I'm talking about grassbeds that are adjacent to flats where the fish spawn. The best ones are those protected from the north wind so they don't get torn up by a big blow. On a sunny January afternoon, the water in these grassbeds can be several degrees warmer than in the main lake. So the fish hang out in the hydrilla most of the time, and they move to the edges of the beds to feed."
Tanner's best pattern for catching these bass is fancasting likely spots with a lipless crankbait. "I fish both the outside (deep) and inside (shallow) edges of the grassbeds. I'll also hit little ditches that run through a bed, high spots on a flat or secondary points where hydrilla is growing.
"I've learned that I just have to keep trying different areas and options to see where the fish are holding on a given day," Tanner stresses. "Then, once I find them, I'll concentrate on that area and others with similar characteristics." Tanner fishes both 1/2- and 3/4-ounce lipless crankbaits (Rat-L-Traps and Strike King Diamond Shads).
He picks a specific size to match the depth of the grass: "I'll throw a 1/2-ounce bait when the fish are in shallow beds. But if high pressure moves in and the bass move back to deeper grassbeds, I'll change to the bigger size," Tanner explains. His favorite lure colors for January are shades of red (especially red back/chartreuse belly) and crawfish.
A typical scenario would be hydrilla beds in 4 to 8 feet of water and growing to within 2 feet of the surface. When fishing these beds, Tanner makes long casts, and he retrieves his bait with just enough speed to keep it above the greenery. "I want it ticking the tops of the hydrilla every now and then. When I feel it hit grass, I pop the bait free to keep it from getting snagged. When I pop it, a lot of times a big bass will load on!"
When fishing hydrilla edges, he holds his boat in open water near the grassline and trolls parallel to it. He makes quartering casts ahead of the boat to retrieve his lure almost parallel to the edge. Tanner says when bass are feeding, they will wait in ambush just inside the cover. When they're not feeding, they will be back a few feet in the vegetation.
"This time of year, where you find one fish, you'll usually find others," Tanner continues. "I stay on the move until I get a bite, then I'll slow down and work that area thoroughly. The key is just to keep your lure in the water. The fish won't bite all day; they may only feed an hour or so in the morning and another hour in the afternoon. So you have to stay with it. You have to keep the faith that you'll find them if you stay long enough, and you usually will."
During January, Tanner depends on his lipless crankbait about 90 percent of the time, but he sometimes will try a different option."I'll occasionally try slow rolling a spinnerbait over the hydrilla beds," Tanner explains. "I do this when there's a little warming trend and the water temperature climbs up into the 50s. This causes the bass to be a little more active, and this presentation is a better match to their mood."
All in all, Tanner says anglers should: (1) recognize that bass will bite in deep winter; and (2) keep moving and trying different areas and baits to see which combo will trigger strikes. "Lakes are different, and what produces for me on Lake Fork may not work somewhere else. But something will. You just have to fish hard and stay alert to get on the right pattern. And when you do, you'll catch a bunch of bass, and one of them might be a big roe-heavy female — maybe your biggest of the year. Again, that's one of the good things about January. It's a really good big fish month."
Gear To Grab
Here are the specific rods, reels and lines John Tanner uses when stalking big bass on Lake Fork in the dead of winter.
7-foot medium-heavy action Shimano Crucial cranking series (model CRC-C70MH) for lipless crankbaits; 6 1/2-foot medium action (model CRC-C66MH) for jerkbaits
Shimano Chronarch 6.2:1 retrieve ratio reels
20-pound-test Gamma Edge fluorocarbon for 3/4-ounce lipless crankbaits; 16-pound test for 1/2-ounce lipless crankbaits; 14-pound test for jerkbaits
Sometimes when John Tanner hooks one of Lake Fork's giant sow bass in hydrilla, despite his efforts to control it, the fish will burrow into thick vegetation and "play possum." When this happens, Tanner has a special method for landing the fish — and frequently the wad of vegetation that's surrounding it!
"When a bass wads up in the grass, I'll troll directly to it, and I'll reel straight down so my rod tip is almost touching it. Then I'll pull the fish straight up with the rod. I do this very gently so the fish won't go ballistic on me. When the wad comes to the top, if I'm not in a tournament, I'll dip the grass and the bass with a big landing net. Then I'll separate the fish from the grass in the boat.
"But if I'm in a tournament and can't use a net, when I get the wad up to the top, I'll dig through the grass to try to lip the fish. But if I can't find her lip, I'll grab the wad and flop it in the boat with the bass still wrapped up in it. It makes a mess, but who cares when an 8- or 10-pounder comes with it?"
Before You Go
Following is a checklist that John Tanner uses when preparing for a January fishing trip on Lake Fork.
Keep your boat in the garage the night before a fishing trip, with the motor trimmed down to drain water from the lower unit.
Lay out warm, weatherproof clothes (such as Cabela's Guide Wear rainsuit).
Lay out gloves: Nike winter golf gloves for fishing, plus heavier gloves for driving the boat.
Apply ThermaCare heat wraps around your wrists to keep your hands warm.
Fill your coffee thermos.
Drink extra water to prevent dehydration.
Same Song, Second Verse
If bass are slapping but not taking John Tanner's lipless crankbait as it swims over hydrilla beds, he falls back on a secondary strategy that's just slightly different from his primary pattern: "I'll fish the same areas but with a different bait, like a Strike King Series 3 diving crankbait (red crawfish). I'll crank it down to the grass, then stop it and let it float up. I'll do this over and over. If the fish are sluggish, this presentation gives them a stationary target.
"Also, sometimes I'll try a suspending Rogue over the top of the grassbeds for the same reason. This bait has three trebles hanging off it, and if they swipe at it, chances are they're going to get hooked."