Anglers in the Carolinas battle a mixture of conditions throughout the year, from freezing winter temperatures to sweltering-hot summer dog days. While most states experience a steady seasonal climate, the Carolinas often experience the yo-yo effect, where cool and warm days routinely bookmark each other during the winter.
Bass fishermen can find exceptional fishing in the many lakes and reservoirs around the two states, but they have to know where to pinpoint bass when Mother Nature throws them a curve ball.
According to NOAA’s National Climatic Office, January’s average temperatures for Charlotte, N.C., just north of the state line, are a daily low of 32 degrees and a daily high of 54 degrees. But at least several days this month, the temperature will normally swing into the 70s, then back into the 20s within a few days.
Last Jan. 13, the temperature just before dawn was 46 degrees, but six hours later, it was 80. Those kind of temperature shifts are real occurrence in the Carolinas, and bass will respond accordingly.
When temperatures fluctuate erratically, anglers must understand how fish react, especially during winter when it’s supposed to be cold and gloomy.
Brett Mitchell guides on South Carolina’s Santee Cooper lakes, fishes some pro tournaments and is the chief advisor to the University of South Carolina’s bass fishing team.
Guide Brett Mitchell is a Santee Cooper Fishing Guide, B.A.S.S. Tour Professional, and the chief advisor to the University of South Carolina’s Bass Fishing Team. Abrupt changes in temperature change his fishing battle plan just as abruptly because of their effect on baitfish.
“There are two things that bass do; they spawn to make more fish and they eat,” Mitchell said. (803-379-7029) “Their bellies control their movements until it’s time to procreate, and during January, they are following the food source.”
The primary forage fish in many major Carolinas reservoirs is shad: either gizzards or threadfins. Changes in water temperatures during winter will affect shad movements, and bass typically hover around large groups of shad. On Mitchell’s home waters, the upper end of Lake Marion is the place he expects to bring in a heavy January stringer.
“It’s easier to pinpoint the bait in upper end of the lake because of the creek configuration,” he said. “I will start in the primary and secondary creek arms in 10 to 14 feet of water. This is considered deep water in the upper lake.”
Bait will congregate in these areas, trying to wait out the cold weather. Mitchell concentrates on hard, shell bottoms, plus stumps, brush piles or anything that will hold shad and give the bass a place to ambush their groceries. He uses his depth finder to locate the pods of bait, then locates places predators would use as ambush spots before making his first cast.
“I spend more time looking for bait than fish in winter,” he said. “The shad ball up tight, and some die off when it gets colder. The bass will lie near the bottom and pick off the dying bait as it comes to them.”
Under cold conditions, Mitchell chooses lures that resemble lethargic or dying bait. He likes to use a jigging spoon, spin shad, Carolina rigs or small jerkbaits.
“A jigging spoon and spin shad look just like dying shad falling to the bottom,” he said.
But when Mother Nature rebounds with a warm front that brings a wave of unseasonable, 70-degree weather, baitfish get happy and become more active. Several days of warm weather will heat up the upper part of the water column and the shallower areas in south-facing coves. The shad respond favorably, seeking out these warm zones, dragging bass with them into shallower waters.
“We will catch them in 6 to 7 feet of water when it warms up to 53 to 59 degrees around submerged cover in these shallower zones, but they will not move far away from deep water, either. They will not get caught too far in the shallows and risk getting stuck,” he said.
During these warm periods, the shad will become more active and can more of a challenge for the bass. In these situations, a more-active approach will be necessary to mimic shad behavior.
“The bass are more apt to chase bait when the water is warmer. I like to fish swimbaits, spinnerbaits, and lipless crankbaits,” he said.
Fortunately for Mitchell, bass are bunched up this time of year. When he finds a fish, several more, if not dozens, are often holding in the same pattern.
Shifts in weather directly affect shad behavior and movement in reservoirs, and it’s no secret that bass are easily led by their stomachs.
“It’s not the dissolved oxygen or the bass’s comfort level; it’s the bait that moves the fish this time of year. If the bait isn’t there, the fish aren’t there,” he said.
While the weather will not directly affect the bass, the forage base is at Mother Nature’s mercy. Bass will often move shallow to deep and many places in between during the winter. Anglers who want to smack an oversized limit of bass in January and February can build a better success story by keeping tabs on the location of the bait.