"Short selling performance was definitely disappointing given the January market correction. I would have expected them to do better," said Michael Oliver Weinberg, a hedge fund expert who teaches at Columbia Business School. "That said, it's premature to question the viability of the strategy--it's only a one-month correction after a five-year bull market."
(Read more: Short sellers see once in a lifetime opportunity—if they can survive)
The most prominent winner was Kynikos, which rebounded after losing money in 2013. Ursus, a short only fund that bets on U.S. stocks, gained 3.85 percent net of fees in January, according to a person with knowledge of the returns. Ursus had lost 35.86 percent in 2013.
Kynikos' largest fund, Kriticos, also lost 23.49 percent in 2013. Kriticos is also short-only but invests in global stocks--notably gaining 59.38 percent in 2008, according to a marketing document. A third fund, Opportunity, includes more long positions and fell 13.6 percent last year. Performance for both funds in January was unavailable.
(Read more: Short-seller Chanos falls double digits in '13)
Kynikos manages about $4 billion overall, down from about $6 billion in 2012, but is still by far the largest short-oriented firm. Chanos, who declined to comment, has recently been public about his dislike of Caterpillar, CGI Group and banks in China. He has also said he likes Visa and MasterCard as long bets.
Not everyone did so well.
Kingsford Capital Management, one of the few short-focused firms alongside Kynikos left, fell about 1.2 percent in January, according to people with knowledge of the returns. The same flagship fund also fell 26 percent in 2013.
Kingsford, led by founder Mike Wilkins, managed $257 million as of May, according to a regulatory filing. That's down from $2 billion in 2008 per hedge fund news and data tracker Absolute Return.
Another loser was Joel Greenblatt's Gotham Short Strategies fund. It fell about 2 percent in January, according to an investor. Returns for 2013 were unavailable. Gotham as a firm isn't short focused and offers more traditional long/short hedge and mutual funds.
Kingsford and Gotham did not respond to requests for comment.
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