According to plenty of fishermen across South Carolina, one of the better — and often overlooked — winter bass fisheries in the state is Lake Monticello. Their reasons may vary, but a consistent one is the opportunity to catch both largemouths and smallmouths on the same trip.
Andy Wicker of Pomaria said he fishes Lake Monticello, a 6,800-acre reservoir in Fairfield County west of Winnsboro, a lot during the winter for several reasons.
“First it’s close to home, so that’s a big plus, I’ve been fishing there since I was about 5 years old, going with my dad” said Wicker, an engineer for the S.C. Department of Transportation and a former member of Clemson’s bass fishing team. “But bass fishermen will travel far and wide, so it’s really the fact that the lake provides very good fishing in January that’s the real key why I spend a lot of time there.
“While I would not call it a smallmouth bass factory, there is a very good chance an angler will be able to catch both largemouth and smallmouth bass from Lake Monticello on any given day in the winter.
“Also the warm-water discharge can be a big plus factor for bass fishermen; the water temperature on the lower end of the lake can be several degrees warmer than the upper end,” he said. “I fish the entire lake, and the whole lake is productive in January, despite the temperature difference.
“When fishing 20 feet down to 45 feet or deeper, it’s more a matter of getting on the fish. The lower end of the lake can be several degrees warmer; maybe even 58 to 60 degrees during the winter with the upper end maybe around 50 degrees. But by fishing deep structure such as humps, points and ledges, the entire lake is productive. The vast majority of fish we catch are largemouth, with a lot of fish in the 3- to 5-pound class and larger.
“Another reason I love this lake is it is a deep, clear lake, and the bass are often structure-oriented in terms of bottom contours, so mid-lake humps, points, drops and ledges are all excellent places to find black bass,” he said. “This enables me to rely on modern electronics, a big plus factor for me because I love using electronics and mid-lake fishing.”
Wicker said that while largemouths represent the bulk of the fish he catches during the winter, smallmouth bass are not uncommon.
“The late fall and winter are the best time to catch smallmouth, and I believe the best odds for catching a smallmouth would in the lower end of Lake Monticello where the water temperature is warmer,” he said. “I don’t necessarily go expecting to catch smallmouth, but it does frequently occur, and I’ve caught some over 5 pounds. But I’ve caught several largemouth almost 9 pounds from Monticello, so trophy fish of both species are available.”
Wicker fishes a lot of tournaments around the Southeast, but he tries to fish Monticello during the winter as often as possible.
“My preference is to find fish on deep-water humps, point and drops, and that is precisely where I find and catch fish in Monticello in January,” said Wicker, who often finds bass stacked up on those kinds of spots and catches multiple bass without moving.
“That’s one of the keys to winter success at Monticello — having patience to fish several spots before getting on fish,” Wicker said. “For me, it’s essential to use the graph and look for fish before fishing. I focus on working the right structures, and with enough perseverance, at some point during the day, odds are good I will be on a place where the bass are actively feeding. And when that situation occurs, an angler can hit a home run in terms of catching quality and quantity of bass from that single spot.”
Wicker’s father, Steve, is also a very successful tournament angler who got his son hooked on fishing Monticello at an early age. He remembers one day in particular.
“Andy was about 14, and we fished Monticello and hit the glory hole,” Steve Wicker said. “We had multiple fish in the 7- and 8-pound class, one almost going 9. I think that’s the day he got hooked on bass fishing, and the pertinent thing to Lake Monticello is that while it doesn’t happen every day, you can get on a hot spot loaded with quality fish.”
Steve Wicker said two of his favorite lures are a spoon for vertical jigging and a drop-shot rig.
“During January and most of the cold-weather months, we’ll occasionally locate fish shallower, and there are days, especially the overcast pre-frontal days, when they move up shallow enough we can catch them on crankbaits,” he said. “That can be extremely productive.”
Although an occasional trip to the shallows is enjoyable, Steve Wicker said that most winter bass will be consistently found in deep water.
“A key to success in January — and the entire winter — at Lake Monticello is patience,” he said. “Stick with checking out the humps, points and drops with the graph, and eventually, there will be several biting fish in one area or it can be a few fish biting in several different areas. Either way, you can end up with a quality catch if you keep on looking.”
Andy Wicker said deep-water fish are a constant during the winter. Even if weather conditions may dictate some good shallow-water fishing early or late in low-light conditions, the deep-water humps and points will usually be the key to a successful day on the water.
“My preference is nasty weather, because the fish seem to bite better,” he said. “The tougher days are the bright, bluebird days after a front. But you can still catch fish, although the bite is usually slower and deeper.
“One of the techniques I use on the deep structures is vertically jigging a spoon,” he said. “I prefer a War Eagle spoon and will use a ½-, 5/8- or ¾-ounce spoon depending on the depth of the fish and other conditions, such as wind, that may impact my feel of the lure. On windy days, boat control can be essential, because if you keep the line as vertical as possible, you have much better feel when a bite occurs. Sometimes, bass will slam it, but often during the winter, they will just take it, kind of suck it in on the fall, and it will have a heavy feel. When it feels heavy, set the hook.”
Andy Wicker said his favorite spoon colors include chrome, white or shad. White is his go-to color in January, but he’ll quickly change to the others if it doesn’t work. Another thing he uses with a lot of success, especially on tough fishing days, is the drop-shot rig.
“Sometimes they really eat the jigging spoon,” he said, “but on tough days such as post-frontal days the bass are a bit more sluggish on the bite, I use the drop-shot rig. Most of the time, I’ll be fishing areas in the 20- to 45-foot depth range on these points and humps. During the winter on Lake Monticello, I want to pinpoint my fish and fish vertically, bump ‘em on the head if I have to. That’s what has produced the best results for me over the years.”
Wicker said he will fan-cast if necessary and he said a deep-diving crankbait will sometimes produce. Some of his larger fish will often come from the top of a hump in about 20 feet of water, and these fish can often be caught on a deep-diving crankbait.
“If the weather conditions are decent for fish to move a bit shallower, particularly if there’s some cloud cover and wind, I will use an Alabama rig and work it around the point or hump,” he said. “As noted, casting and reeling back is normally not my favorite way to fish here during the winter, but I’ll do it when conditions are right because it is a big-fish opportunity. I use the internally weighted Storm baits in the 3-inch size on my Alabama rigs.
“I also fish the Alabama rig in 25 to 35 feet of water on humps and points, and I love to pull this rig through a school of fish I’ve marked and believe to be active black bass. Doing this, I occasionally catch a double. I’ll generally work the Alabama rig with a steady retrieve, and sometime even a slow retrieve, when fishing deeper to keep it close to the depth I have marked fish on the graph.”
Fishermen who are drawn to the shallows generally don’t have the consistent success of fishermen who probe deep water at Monticello, Wicker said.
“I had to develop a deep-water fish mentality to be successful during the winter at Monticello,” Wicker said. “But the good news is that there are lots of points and humps, and the better a fishermen is at interpreting a graph, the quicker they can find fish and figure out the best way to catch them on a given day.
“Lake Monticello has lots of depth and structure options and several techniques that will produce bass. Stay patient, try different depths and lures and Lake Monticello will reward fishermen with some quality January fishing.”
HOW TO GET THERE — Lake Monticello is a 6,800-acre lake in Fairfield County north of Jenkinsville and west of Winnsboro. It lies between I-26 and I-77 and can be accessed from SC 34 between I-26 and Winnsboro, turning south onto SC 215 at Salem Crossroads or taking SC 215 north out of Jenkinsville. Two boat ramps serve the lake, one just south of the SC 99 bridge on the upper end, and one just north of Lake Monticello Park off SC 215 on the southeastern side.
WHEN TO GO — Bass fishing is good year-round, but fishermen love the winter because of the potential to catch both trophy largemouths and smallmouths. Plus, the bass bunch up tight, and you can catch several from a single spot.
TECHNIQUES/TACKLE — Most experts strongly recommend baitcasting and/or spinning tackle, and often, it takes a combination of both to present lures accurately in different situations. Most fish will be deep, but sometimes in the warm-water areas, the fish can be surprisingly shallow. Shakey head worms, drop-shot rigs, Alabama rigs, crankbaits and Texas-rigged worms all produce, as do heavy spoons. Most bass anglers figure it out on a case-by-case basis in terms of how the fish are holding on the structure. Good electronics are essential.