Winter Smallie Action On Kentucky Lake

This oft-overlooked, cold-weather hotspot is coming on strong as another topnotch winter smallmouth water. Here's where you should try right now. (January 2006)

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

When most bass anglers think about winter smallies, they think Dale Hollow. That's fair enough. After all, it's the home of the world record, home of the float-and-fly technique and the lake produces lots of smallies over 5 pounds. It has the "rep" as they say.

Anglers from Dale Hollow had better be on the lookout, however, because Kentucky Lake is coming on strong. The smallmouth fishing keeps getting better and better, year after year. Five-pound fish are common and 7-pounders are possible. On top of that, Kentucky Lake anglers aren't faced with oceanic depths and gin-clear water with visibility to 20 feet or more.

Lord knows this lake offers enough water to grow big ones. At normal pool, it covers over 160,000 acres, offers 2,400 miles of shoreline and is approximately 180 miles long. Even the dam is big, a distance of 8,422 feet from one end to the other.

The only serious drawback to this massive impoundment is its fluctuating water levels and somewhat unpredictable current. The lake was first built for flood control in 1938 as part of a Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) project. Over time, however, electric power generation has moved toward the forefront.

The area is heavily developed. Houses dot the shoreline and recreational destinations surround the lake. No matter from which direction you arrive, there will be a place to stay nearby and a convenient place to launch your boat. All you need to do is check a map and see what's available in the area you want to fish. For detailed directions and complete information, visit www.kentuckylake. com or contact one of the guides mentioned in this article.

For a long time -- decades -- crappie were king on this lake. It seemed as if they would never stop growing. Anglers came from all over the country, as well as several foreign countries, to fish for them. As time passed, however, largemouths became the hot fish. The bass tournament industry exploded and so did the popularity of these green game fish. They were plentiful, big and easily caught, sometimes anyway.

And then a funny thing happened about 15 years ago; smallmouth bass started showing up in creels, lots of them. As the years passed, brown bass numbers seemed to explode. Along with numbers came size. At this time -- 2005 -- it's not uncommon to see anglers weigh in four or five smallmouths that average over 4 pounds. Now that's not going to happen on every trip, but with just enough frequency to keep anglers coming back.

Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR) fisheries biologist Paul Rister is assigned to this magnificent western Kentucky body of water. He attributes much of Kentucky Lake's improved smallmouth fishing to the drought in the late 1980s. The low, stable and clear water allowed Eurasian milfoil to get a foothold in the lake.

This aquatic plant spreads quickly. It reproduces by fragmentation. This process allows it to easily break off into small pieces. Each piece is capable of establishing a new plant. In short order, one plant becomes a million plants, a small spot turns into acres.

And while Eurasian milfoil is a problem in some respects, it's been a great help to the smallies. It forms a mat on the water's surface -- very dense and very thick -- that tends to block the sunlight and helps to cool the water in the summertime. Under this mat the plant stems look like a forest -- long, thin trunk-like structures.

As such, it provides cover from predators for juvenile fish, while at the same time providing plenty of swimming room between the trunks. It offers smallmouths the best of both worlds.

As the milfoil was growing, the water quality was also improving. The Tennessee River carries a fair amount of silt and that silt keeps the water dingy in the lake. However, because of better agricultural practices throughout the watershed -- mostly a turn toward no-till planting practices -- the water was, and is, clearing. The smallies like that.

All this combines to make for great smallmouth habitat. Thanks to the drought and other factors, they have plenty of vegetative cover to hide and grow in, better water quality and, thanks to Kentucky Lake's thriving forage base, an unlimited supply of menu items. That's all the smallies were waiting for, or at least all they needed.

Now that's the good news. The bad news, or at least the not-so-good news, is that Rister believes the high number of 5- to 7-pound fish is due largely to a highly successful spawn and a year-class from several years back. Unfortunately, he doesn't see a repeat on the horizon. He believes the smallmouth fishing is about as good as it's ever going to get.

(Even if Rister's right -- and not everyone agrees that he is -- Kentucky Lake will still be ranked as one of the best smallmouth venues in the country. That's no small thing.)

Kirk Weber is a long-time professional guide on the lake. He'll tell you in no time flat that the smallies on Kentucky Lake are on fire and that the best time to get a good one is from January through the first part of March. "There's no time she'll weigh more than just before the spawn," he said.

His preference during the winter is warming spells that last anywhere from a day or two, on up to a week or more. According to Weber, that starts the big smallies on their journey toward shallow water.

"The east side of the lake is best," he opined. That's because the main river channel runs along that side of the lake. In most places, it's at least 20 feet deep. Weber believes that the smallmouths winter in those deep waters and only venture out for brief periods of time to feed and spawn.

In general, he looks for spots where the channel swings in toward the shore and offers easy access to shallower water. The very best areas are those where the channel runs against chunk rock and gravel banks, on flats, in less than 10 to 12 feet of water. To get in touch with Captain Weber, call (270) 354-6017, or visit his Web site,

www.captainkirksguideservice.com.

If the chunk rock is black, so much the better. Black is best because it holds the heat and warms the surrounding water, sometimes as much as 5 degrees. The warmer water temperatures activate algae, which in turn attract shad, baitfish and minnows. Once these forage species are swimming around the neighborhood, you can bet the smallmouths won't be far behind.

Taken as a whole, such areas offer deep-water travel lanes, safety and shallow-water feeding opportunities. "That's about everything they need," Weber said.

Areas such as those described above can be found just about anywhere along the east side of the lake. With that said, however, some spots are better than others. One of the very best is the rock quarry located about 10 miles from the dam near the old river channel. This spot is well known and gets a lot of fishing pressure. Still, it gives up several big smallies every year.

Another good spot is the Eggner's Ferry Bridge on the river channel side. (That's the U.S. Route 68 bridge that crosses the lake.) Both ends of the bridge offer favorable winter smallmouth angling opportunities.

If those spots are crowded or the fish aren't biting, don't despair. There are hundreds of good areas all along the east shoreline between the bridge and Pisgah Bay. There's a four- or five-mile stretch of bank along this shoreline where the main-river channel swings right in alongside the bank. Pick a likely looking spot and start throwing your lure.

The area is full of chunk rock, fine gravel and nondescript points and bars that offer just what the doctor ordered for wintertime smallmouth angling. Duncan Bay and Sugar Bay are consistent producers. They're well known and marked on nearly every map of the lake.

A tip from local anglers, and little known by others, is to target the lee side of the gravel points and bars anytime water is being pulled in the lake. As current is generated, shad stack up along these areas. The smallmouths won't be far behind. Such areas are for numbers, not size. In most cases, your fish will average around 3 pounds.

Weber's favorite lure at this time of year is a hard jerkbait. He's caught fish on nearly every make and model sold, but his favorite is a suspending Smithwick Rogue in a medium length and with a short bill.

He doesn't believe that color is all that important at this time of year, but if he has a favorite, it's probably a black back finish with an orange belly and a little green along the sides. He freely admits, however, that many of his fellow smallmouth anglers would choose clown as their favorite.


And then a funny thing happened about 15 years ago; smallmouth bass started showing up in creels, lots of them. As the years passed, brown bass numbers seemed to explode.
 

What's really important when it comes to color selection, at least according to Weber, is to match the general hue of your lure to the ambient light conditions and prevailing water clarity. That's not rocket science. On light days, throw light colors and on dark days, throw dark colors. "That'll get you through, most days anyway," he advised.

Weber likes clear line in 10-pound-test. Medium-weight rods and reels -- open face or free spool makes no difference -- are suitable. Rods with a soft, parabolic action are best for working jerkbaits.

One sharp jerk will get the bait down to its running depth. After that, try three short, sharp jerks and then let the lure sit for a three count. Repeat the pattern holding the same cadence all the way back to the boat.

If the fish aren't biting, try changing the rhythm of your jerk or vary the length of your pause until you find what works. Most days, a regular and rhythmic pattern will provoke the most strikes. But if you aren't catching fish, don't hesitate to try an irregular retrieve. You never know what might work on any given day.

Most anglers, including Weber, will position their boat in 25 to 30 feet of water over the channel and fish spots along the bank that they can reach with one good, solid long cast. Depending upon weather and water temperature, the bass will usually hold anywhere between 5 and 10 feet deep. A long cast to the bank will thoroughly cover those depths on its way back toward the boat.

Some days, you'll find the bass right on top of the rocks or stumps. On other days, they'll be as far away as 4 or 5 feet. On especially warm and sunny days, or toward the end of an unusually long warm spell, they'll be found chasing bait around the flats. Weber strongly recommends fishing the entire area thoroughly until you find active fish. "There's no shortcut. You gotta cover all the water," he said.

Fellow professional guide Malcolm Lane, owner and operator of the Hook, Line & Sinker Guide Service (270/388-0525), agrees with Weber, for the most part anyway. Over the decades he's spent fishing Kentucky Lake, Lane has watched smallmouths rise from a rare, seldom-seen fish to a targeted trophy catch. "It's been good for the anglers, good for the area's economy and good for the guides," is his summary of the last 15 years.

Like Weber, Lane finds most of his late-winter fish along the east side of the lake near the river channel. And while he might fish the same general areas -- in fairness, nearly all the top anglers do -- he fishes them very differently and with very different baits.

Lane concentrates almost exclusively on the north shoreline of anyplace he fishes. "It's warmer . . . more sunshine . . . the smallies will move toward warmth at this time of year," is his simple explanation.

And he doesn't fish very far from the channel, regardless of where he's fishing. He pointed out that in January and February, the smallies are responding to warming trends. They won't move any farther than necessary. Looking for them in the backs of the bays, even on the north side of the points and cuts, is a waste of time. He believes it's just too early.

Most days, Lane starts fishing with a Mister Twister curlytail on a plain jighead. Years of experience have taught him that bait size is critical at this time of year. Even though the fish are somewhat active, they aren't likely to chase big, bulky offerings. "A 3-inch tail is about right," he said.

He doesn't pay much attention to color when he selects his plastic and pays no attention to it when he selects his jighead. Almost any dark color will satisfy Lane. He typically throws black, mostly out of convenience. "It's a good, solid all-around choice," he opined with the certainty of experience. His second choice is dark red. He doesn't have a third choice. That should tell you something.


Some days, you'll find the bass right on top of the rocks or stumps. On other days, they'll be as far away as 4 or 5 feet.
 

He'll cast his jig on medium-weight, open-faced spinning tackle with 6- or 8-pound-test line. His line preference is Trilene XT due to the amount of abrasive materials -- rocks, gravel and the like -- he'll fish over in a day. "Don't want to lose a big one,"

he said.

Once he's found a likely looking spot and rigged his rod and reel, he'll begin fishing along the numerous points and small bars that protrude out into the water from his area. At first, he'll try a standard lift-and-drop retrieve. If that doesn't trigger a few strikes, he'll vary his lift height and drop speed.

If that doesn't work and he's still looking for a bite, Lane will typically switch to a crank-and-drop retrieve. To do this correctly, hold the rod at a 45-degree angle and crank the reel handle four or five times. Then stop and allow the jig and plastic trailer to drop on a tight line. Vary your cranking speed, lift height and drop speed until you find what works on your fishing day.

To complete this article, Lane was asked for a hot tip, something not everyone knows about or is willing to reveal. After a laugh or two, he agreed to reveal one of his "secret" hotspots on the lake. Guess what, it isn't on the east side.

It's Jonathan Creek on the west side of the lake about four miles north of the Eggner's Ferry Bridge. It's marked on every Kentucky Lake map. (Don't worry if you've never fished this one. You'll know it when you see it. It'll be full of crappie anglers, even in January.)

Lane pointed out that Jonathan Creek is long and deep. Even better, it flows east and west. It has a long north shore that's full of chunk rock and gravel. "They'll (smallies) stack up where the gravel meets the chunk rock almost any time during the winter after a day or two of bright sun. The action can be almost beyond belief . . . as good as or maybe better than anywhere on the lake," he said.

If you want a trophy smallmouth this year, it's best to start early. Turn off the ball game, put on some warm clothes and head to Kentucky Lake. If you follow the advice of our experts, you just might hook the smallmouth of a lifetime.

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