January isn’t normally a time you’d think of bass boats zooming back and forth across the lake trying to win the big tournament of the weekend. But, there are still a few anglers who put all other passions aside and are determined to catch fish 365 days of the year.
Regardless of the frigid, wintry weather and the war-zone type duck hunts going on around the lake throughout January, some anglers just can’t get enough of chasing around those little green monsters. One of those anglers is Stephen McCord, of Dothan, Ala. He’s been fishing Lake Eufaula since he was old enough to join a bass club at age 17, and the rest, they say, is history. At age 27, Stephen has more experience on Lake Eufaula than most lake residents, and even icicles hanging off a rod tip aren’t enough to keep him off the lake.
Though he’s been fishing the lake for more than 10 years, his real tournament successes started to pile up in 2009. Stephen and his partner have won 14 tournaments since January 2009, and the majority of those wins were on Lake Eufaula — one of them being a 27-lb., first-place, bag on the cold day of Nov. 28.
On the day of my trip to Lake Eufaula with Stephen, we launched from Cheneyhatchee Creek boat landing near Eufaula, Ala. But with more than 640 miles of shoreline, and more than 20 boat landings, there are limitless opportunities to fill a livewell with bass on Lake Eufaula.
As I stepped off the icy dock onto Stephen’s boat, I was met with a warm good morning and an apology for leaving the thermos of hot chocolate on the counter at home. Then Stephen began my lesson on cold-water bassin’ on Lake Eufaula.
He explained winter bass fishing is just like any other time of the year — you’ve just got to find the pattern to catch them.
“I like to fish shallow,” said Stephen. “I’m not a deep-water fisherman even when the water gets real cold. There’s always some fish that are going to stay shallow, and it’s usually the bigger ones. They are going to be close to points and flats, holding tight to wood, and the key to finding them is to look for these structures close to the deeper water.”
The deeper water temperatures don’t change as rapidly as the shallow water and remain relatively stable year-round. The fish will stay close to the deep water because of that stability. Stephen said the water temperatures in January stay close to 46 degrees, but he’s seen the temperature as low as 44. Because the temperatures are so low, the fish aren’t as active as they are in warmer months, but they’re still not difficult to catch if you’re persistent and have a general idea of what to do.
“The bass will move up from the river channel onto the flats to chase baitfish in the mornings, and then by midday a lot of them have moved back to the river channel. But, then they’ll move up and feed again in the afternoon. After I’ve found a general location that looks good for fish, I start looking for them with a moving bait. I’ll usually start out with a Rat-L-Trap, a crankbait or a spinnerbait, something to cover a lot of water,” said Stephen.
Stephen said he likes to slow-roll spinnerbaits this time of year. He’ll make a cast, let it sink to the bottom and then reel just enough to keep the blades turning. He’ll bump it off of any kind of structure possible.
The size of the spinnerbait he’s throwing will vary with what kind of bait the bass are keying on, but he said he generally throws a Terminator and varies the color accordingly with the water clarity.
In 2008, he bought a Humminbird Side Imaging Sonar for his boat, and he said that has really helped him find lots of cover with bass holding on it. The side imaging allows him to concentrate the beam as far as 300 feet and as close as he would like to the side of the boat. The unit gives an almost photographic view of the terrain of the lake. He said using this unit has allowed him to find brushpiles and other structure other anglers would pass right over.
Stephen likes to concentrate on wood and other cover he’s found, because the bass will hold as tight as they can to the cover during January.
“The wood or dock posts that are sticking out of the water are collecting heat from the sun. That heat radiates down the post or wood and heats the water around it. The fish will stick tight to the cover to try and collect as much heat as possible, and that’s why I concentrate on the structure,” he said.
Stephen showed me the lip on one of his square-billed crankbaits that was almost rounded on the edges from bumping into so much cover. He said the key to getting those fish to bite is to get in tight to the cover where they are and to really give them an easy shot to bite it.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re throwing a spinnerbait, crankbait a buzzbait or whatever, you’ve got to be slamming it into that structure. The noise makes them mad, and they’ll hit it out of reaction bite. I’ve seen these fish busting up schools of shad just to do it. They won’t eat them. They are just knocking them out of the water playing with it, because they are mean fish. That’s the kind of bite you are looking for this time of year,” he said.
Once he catches a fish in a certain area, he will slow down and start to fish something a little slower — really concentrating on the area where he caught the first fish.
“Once I’ve caught a fish in the area is when I’ll slow down. I’ll throw a big Texas-rigged worm and let it go to the bottom and then bounce it around. I’ll concentrate on that brushpile or blowdown and make maybe a dozen casts in there just trying to get them to hit it. I’ll pitch him a worm, or I’ll pitch him a creature bait and really beat it down. Sometimes I’ll see a fish swim back in there when we pull up with the boat and really try to catch him. A lot of folks think they are trying to swim away, but sometimes they are just getting way back in the grass or brush and are easy to catch if you just get it where they can see it,” he said.
Another problem in January is sometimes the fish won’t be able to see the bait, because the water will be muddy. When the water is muddy and cold, it’s not a good combination for catching a lot of fish. Stephen said when the water gets muddy, you’ve got to find somewhere with clearer water so the fish can really see the bait. He said to look in creeks and other tributaries because these places will clear up a lot faster than the main lake.
If there aren’t any places on the lake that have even a hint of clearness to them, then you’ll be in for a long day. But, one thing to remember is to switch your colors from the natural colors to really bright colors like white and chartreuse. Those colors won’t work as well in clearer waters, but when the water is really muddy, the bass have to be able to see it in order to strike. Large Colorado blades on a spinnerbait will also help move more water and make more noise for the bass to come to than a willowleaf blade will. If the water is clearer, Stephen sticks to transparent and natural colors like browns and greens.
Another thing most anglers won’t even think about trying in January is a buzzbait, but that’s one of the things in Stephen’s arsenal that just keeps on putting the big ones in the boat.
“You’re gonna think I’m crazy, but pick up that rod with the buzzbait on it, and start working it. Especially in this muddier water, they’ll be able to hear it and maybe come up to investigate. I don’t catch a whole lot of fish on them, but when I do it’s always a good one. You’ve got to be slamming it into the brush just like you would all of the other baits, too,” he said.
Stephen’s buzzbait trick is just one of many things that allows him to catch a lot of fish in January, but he’s found some other tactics that will help all times of the year.
“I like to really focus on making my bait look different than all the other ones they are seeing. It isn’t that big a deal in January because there isn’t as much pressure on the fish, but during the summer when the tournaments are hitting hard, it is. I may go right behind another angler that just worked an area and catch two or three fish right behind him. The key is to switch it up a little bit. Don’t just reel it straight in. You’ve got to do something to make it look different. Stop it, or twitch it or something. When I find out that key thing on what I’m doing and what they’re biting, that’s the ticket,” said Stephen.
If you’re willing to brave the cold weather in January, these tactics should surely put you ahead of the learning curve. Don’t think it’s going to be easy-breezy, but with advice from this hot new angler on the tournament scene, you’re a lot closer to a livewell full of largemouths than you ever were before.