Editor’s Note: The writer's opinions and observations expressed here are his own, and do not necessarily reflect or represent the views, policies or positions of FLW.
I lived my first 25 years in the Midwest, and I used to get horrible cabin fever this time of year. Sitting in front of a television and watching Jimmy, Hank, Roland and Bill catch monster bass on a spinnerbait on every single cast only made it worse.
Depleting my bank account buying fishing tackle would give me a short-term fix, but I’d usually have to book a spring or summer “fishcation” to a dream destination to give my mind a bit of hope during those seemingly endless winters. It worked.
Gleaned from my various fishing travels over the years, here are 10 places – in no particular order – that I’ve fished that I believe should definitely be on your bass fishing “bucket list.” Some are fantastic winter getaways, but other will require you to wait until warmer weather arrives.
1. Lake Okeechobee: The Big O is unlike any other lake. A summation: air temperatures ranging in the 70s and 80s in the dead of winter, grass and reed fields that go on for miles, big gators, zipping through sawgrass forests. This is pretty much an Easter egg hunt for monster bass. Just make sure you turn on your GPS or you’ll never make it back to the ramp, literally.
2. Lake Fork: While still in college, I made my first trip here, and my brother and I fished with a guide. Promptly catching a 5-pounder, I asked my brother to take a pic. The guide scolded me and told me to put the camera down. He didn’t allow taking pictures of “small fish” in his boat, he said, more serious than joking. My brother and I exchanged glances, and I moved here five years later. Despite so many legendary Texas lakes, Fork leads the pack with about 35 of the biggest 50 bass caught in the state – all of those fish weighing more than 15 pounds. Keith Combs set an all-time pro tourney record with a three-day total of 15 fish for 110 pounds. Case closed. Get here.
3. The Great Lakes: OK, so this one’s not necessarily a wintertime cabin-fever fix, but it’s got to be on the list come summer. I’m not sure why, but make no mistake, this is the golden age of smallmouth fishing on these lakes. Huge numbers of huge smallmouth, many living on remote reefs or nomadically chasing bait in places where no one fishes for them, are there waiting. It’s truly the Wild, Wild West of bass fishing.
4. Table Rock: Probably the best mix of everything bass fishing has to offer can be found at the Rock. Deep, clear water in the lower lake is complemented by shallow, stained water that’s perfect for power fishing up the river arms. You’ll have a legitimate shot at 5-pound largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass all in the same day, with beautiful Ozark scenery in the backdrop.
5. Kentucky Lake: You could make a case for most any of the Tennessee River lakes, especially Guntersville and Chickamauga, to be on this list. Kentucky Lake, when combined with adjoining Barkley, encompasses far more than 200,000 acres, and almost all of it holds bass at some time of the year. Widely regarded as the best offshore tournament lake in the U.S., it also offers awesome shallow-water fishing of flooded grass and buck brush in the spring, as well as good stands of hydrilla some years. It’s one of the few public lakes that can produce legitimate 60- to 100-fish days on a regular basis when the bite’s on, and I’m not talking 8- or 12-inch dinks either.
6. Lake Champlain: Often referred to as the “6th Great Lake,” Champlain is a monstrous lake with tons of eager smallmouth in the middle, augmented by 20-pound-plus limits of largemouth residing in the weedy upper and lower ends. Again, it’s not a winter locale, but mountain scenery and temps in the 60s to 80s in the summer when the rest of the country is burning up seal the deal for a midyear vacation.
7. Mexican Lakes: This qualifies more as a trip of a lifetime for most folks, but if you’re looking to save up and splurge for insanely good fishing, you can’t beat a trip south of the border. Many of the lakes are nestled in the Sierra Madre Mountains, so you have a mix of dramatic scenery and spectacular fishing. Do your research: Mexican lakes go through huge boom and bust cycles. You can catch insane numbers at most of the lakes, resulting in hands so torn and bloody by the end of the week that you don’t want to land any more small fish. Finding a lake that is currently peaking for cranking out huge fish is the trick. Of the lakes, Baccarac is the king for trophies – I could tell you stories, but you wouldn’t believe me.
8. Upper Mississippi River: From Pool 13 north to the headwaters, boyhood fantasies of Huck Finn adventures come to life in even grander fashion. Unlike the channelized “Ole Muddy Miss” downstream, the river in northern Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota is way clearer and incorporates a labyrinth of backwaters that in places are several miles wide and full of weeds and laydowns. The current puts the fish right where they should be, so you can call your shots on laydowns. Or watch bass blast your frog all day in the pads. Or crack on high-flying smallmouths on wing dams and points. This’ll pretty much be heaven for the power fisherman in a few months.
9. Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA): Do you like getting away from crowds and having unpressured fish all to yourself? If so, you owe yourself a summertime trip to the 4 million acres of canoe-only wilderness in the combined BWCA and the adjoining Quetico Provincial Park in Ontario. The smallmouth are plentiful, and there’s bonus monster pike and delicious walleye for your campfire meals. Double bonus: If you have a son in the Boy Scouts or a daughter in Venturing, you can go with your child to the Northern Tier National High Adventure Base on the edge of the park, and claim major dad points for going fishing all week. High five!
10. Farm Ponds: Didn’t we all start out fishing a farm pond somewhere? Humble, but special, for most of us farm ponds planted the seeds of our fishing ambitions. These are magical places, and I don’t think that there’s a farm pond out there that doesn’t have its own legend of holding a monster bass, or at certain times producing a bass on every cast. Even now I feel it’s my duty to put such claims to the test – for purely scientific research, mind you. Not all ponds are created equal, but unlike a lake where you spend most of your time trying to find the fish, they’re pretty much penned up in close quarters in a pond. All you have to do is figure out how to get them to eat. And while you’re doing that, remember why farm ponds are so important to you.