Catch Sinclair Bass In The Dirt

The author has been on a shallow bite since November, and he says it will last right on through January.

Walker Smith | January 2, 2014

The month of January can be pretty darn lackluster for an outdoorsman, to be honest. Deer season has come and gone, all of that delicious, heart-clogging holiday food is a distant memory, and the end of another highly anticipated duck season is looming in the back of your mind. If I was really cruel, I could rub a little extra salt in the wound and remind you that both football seasons are over, too—but that just ain’t right.

But have faith, my brothers and sisters—there is, indeed, light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. Put away your hunting gear, toss the moldy leftovers in the trash and turn off the television. The bass fishing on Lake Sinclair is outstanding right now, and you seriously don’t want to miss it.

I know. That last sentence didn’t really sound quite right, did it? I just combined two things with questionable reputations among anglers—January bass fishing and Lake Sinclair. If you can stick with me until the end of this article, however, I’ll bet you a dollar I can change your mind.

Winter Bass Are Supposed To Be Deep, Right?

I travel all over the country catching bass, writing about bass fishing and studying bass behavior, and I’m asked more about their wintertime behavior than any other topic. I’ve heard a lot of really interesting theories along the way, but when it comes down to it, you have to understand basic bass biology. There’s no way around it. Fortunately for us, however, it’s not difficult to learn.

I’m going to get a little nerdy in the next few paragraphs, but it’s going to help you catch more bass.

To catch more January bass on Sinclair, it’s essential to understand that bass are cold-blooded creatures that rely on their surrounding environment to regulate their body temperatures. For this reason, they will always seek the warmest water available this time of year. It doesn’t matter if it’s located in 6 inches or 40 feet—there will be bass nearby. You’ll always be able to find some deep schools of bass in the winter, but the ones that are shallow will be much more apt to eat because the warm water increases their metabolism. Hence the reason I like to target them. They’re much easier to catch.

On cloudy days, the warmer water tends to be found deeper in the water column, which results in the common misconception that “all” bass go deep when the weather turns frigid. These are the days you’ll catch a lot of fish on deep-running crankbaits, football jigs and castable umbrella rigs. To unlock the magic of shallow, wintertime bass fishing, however, it’s essential to embrace the sun.

Whether you’re fishing on Sinclair, West Point or anywhere in between, shallow water warms up faster on sunny days. In most cases, shallow water is a bit more stained in the winter due to an influx of precipitation runoff, which increases its density. Dense, shallow water warms quickly, spurring a large portion of the bass population to flood uncharacteristically shallow areas.

The presence of sunshine also plays a big role in the behavior of bass prey. Sinclair’s threadfin shad can be found in river bends and in the mouths of creeks on an average winter day, but they will migrate to shallower water as it’s warmed by the sun. There’s also a very healthy crawfish population in Sinclair that will emerge from rocks to feed in sunny conditions.

On a sunny winter day, shallow water has many things to offer bass— warm water, a higher metabolic rate and abundant feeding opportunities.

Eliminate Dead Water Quickly

January bass fishing on Sinclair can certainly be feast-or-famine for anglers, and I’ve learned a lot about why this happens over the past several years. The large majority of the water you’ll fish this January will, in fact, be “dead” water, or more simply put, water with no bass nearby. If you’ve gone an hour or two without any bites, there’s a good chance you’re spitting in the wind.

Several factors can contribute to dead water. There may not be a sufficient population of nearby forage, windy conditions may be mixing the colder air with the water resulting in lower water temperatures, or the area could lack suitable cover in which bass can live. Regardless of the cause, there’s a way to efficiently eliminate these unproductive areas.

Fish Quickly

It’s no secret that these Sinclair bass are some finicky little dudes, but there’s good news this January—they become super-easy to pattern, and their behavior is very predictable. Fishing quickly with hard reaction baits is my favorite way to swiftly locate them in order to develop a solid, worthwhile pattern.

You’ll want to start your search by targeting high-percentage areas within the lake. I like to fish specific types of shallow, hard cover that will conduct and hold heat well, such as boulders, pea gravel, clay banks and even heavy laydowns. Both bass and their prey will flock to the heat that this cover emits, which can result in a lot of quick bites.

Rely On Reactions

Each winter on Sinclair, there seems to be a turning point at which the bass’ preferences drastically change overnight from a jig to a crankbait. For me, this happened in late November.

I was able to sneak away from my keyboard and head out for a few hours of practice the day before the Junior Collis Memorial Bass Classic. We were faced with a full moon, which told me one thing and one thing only—flip and pitch a jig until my arm falls off. With a full moon, crawfish become extremely active and molt, making them a very easy, protein-rich meal for bass. In other words, it’s one of the best times to catch a grown one.

During most fall seasons on Sinclair, the shad migrate to the backs of creeks, resulting in a feeding frenzy like you’ve never seen. For reasons I still don’t fully understand, the migration never reached full-swing this year. Maybe it did for some folks, but I was riding the struggle bus this fall. With the majority of the bait suspended around creek channel mouths, it never really lined up well.

Due to the huge bait balls that were relating to creek channels, I decided to focus on the first shallow water heading into the pockets around the main-lake area. Nothing too fancy or hard to duplicate—I simply hung a right out of Little River Park, put the trolling motor down and went fishing. I flipped a 3/8-oz. jig for about an hour, concentrating on docks and the few healthy looking grassbeds I could find, set the hook four times and had a little more than 16 pounds. Please and thank you—I’ll take it all day!

It’s not an easy thing for any angler to admit, but come tournament day, I was totally and utterly lost. I caught a 10-incher on a jig and basically had to junk fish to scrape up some keepers. You know what happened? The change took place.

I put my boat in the following day, determined to figure out what these fish were doing. By lunchtime, I had them figured out and since that day, I’ve been on ’em like white on rice. It’s all about reaction baits, folks, and it’s likely to stay that way throughout the winter.

Where To Start

When winter fish are shallow, it’s true they’re looking to feed, but they’re not exactly going to be chomping at the bit. In order to get more bites, it’s important to utilize presentations that will make the bass react. If you drag a worm around, you may catch a few when you hit them in the nose with it, but don’t expect a bass to swim from several feet away to gulp it down—you need a quick presentation that forces them to make a split-second decision and triggers their predatory instincts. So far this winter, shallow-running crankbaits such as a Strike King KVD Silent Squarebill Crankbait, a SPRO Baby Fat John 50 and even a Rapala Shad Rap are the ideal lures for this type of fishing.

I’ve been having success throughout most of the lake, but the Oconee River arm has been consistently producing some nice bags for me. Whenever you see a channel swing butting-up to a primary point, you can be sure there will be some fish around. You’ll be able to catch a few fish by shallow cranking generic, run-of-the-mill points, but adjacent deep water is very important for big bass this time of year. I prefer for my boat to be sitting in 10 to 12 feet of water while I’m casting into just inches of water.

These bass don’t want to move very much right now. They’re cold, their metabolism is relatively slow compared to the rest of the year, and they’re not going to aggressively pursue a meal. Instead, they prefer to move vertically throughout the water column and adjacent deep water gives them that luxury—they can easily move into the shallows to feed and slide back down to the security of deeper water without using much energy. I believe this is why I’m catching my bigger bass in these areas.

How To Catch ’em

When you kill your big engine and deploy your trolling motor, be sure to make long, quartering casts toward the bank. Getting a feel for the proper casting angles is a big key to the January bite on Sinclair because you need to keep your bait in the most productive strike zones. Try to avoid making perpendicular casts because in most instances, the bass will be positioned right against the bank—sometimes in less than a foot of water.

Another key element to this technique is your retrieve speed. Just because you’re fishing a crankbait doesn’t mean you need to reel it as fast as you can. A slow retrieve is often preferable in cold water, so it’s a great idea to slow your retrieve until you can barely feel your crankbait wobble back and forth. It may not feel like it’s doing much down there, but you’ll get a lot more bites this way. Remember, these shallow bass aren’t going to hunt down your crankbait like they would in the fall, so patience and self-discipline is indispensable.

If you happen to hit the lake on an ultra-cold day this January, I suggest targeting the heaviest cover you can find. It’s strange to think a bass could actually be warmer while sitting in a dark shadow, but the shade isn’t why they get in the thick stuff—it’s all about heat conductivity. The wood on a dock post, shallow laydown or brushpile is going to hold more heat than the surrounding water, so don’t be afraid to do a little banging around with you crankbait. You can count on several annoying hang-ups throughout the day, but if you’re not getting snagged occasionally, you aren’t going to be catching as many fish.

You’ll also be able to tell a lot about an area’s potential when you get your first bite. A lot of my bigger fish tend to load the rod when they bite, followed by a few slow headshakes. When you get a lethargic bite like this, it’s often indicative of a lack of competition, which means you probably caught the only one in that specific area. That’s not always bad, though, because big bass like to avoid feeding competition. It may feel like you’re just hung on a limb, but that’s what your biggest bites will usually feel like.

Every now and then when you hit a big group of fish, they’ll try to take the rod from you when they bite. If you notice this aggressive behavior, it’s a sign you need to slow down and fully saturate the area before moving on—you’re on a good pile of fish.

Don’t let the cold weather keep you off of Lake Sinclair this January. Other than March, I believe this month will be the best month to catch an absolute giant from this lake. Tie on a few crankbaits, head to the Oconee River or south end and cast toward shallow cover near deep water. It really can be that easy, and that’s saying a lot for wintertime bass fishing. If you can find areas that hold fish, they’re likely to continue producing big bass throughout the entire winter.

To experience wintertime bass fishing for yourself, contact me about a guide trip at [email protected].

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