Bluegrass State Bass Preview

Here's what to expect in our state this season for smallies, largemouths, spotted bass and more. (February 2007)

Stephen Headrick holds up a hefty smallmouth bass taken from Dale Hollow Lake on a Punisher Lure Company tandem spinnerbait.
Photo by Paul Moore.

Another year of bass angling lies dead ahead. With so many great locations for bass in our state, it makes one want to try to fish them all. While that's not possible for most of us, we can all find some great location close to home that offers up some excellent bassin'.

Bluegrass anglers have the opportunity to chase largemouth, smallmouth, and spotted (Kentucky) bass in Kentucky waters. Here's a look at each of the black bass species -- and some of the best spots to catch them this year.

LARGEMOUTH BASS

Our most common and most sought-after black bass is obviously the largemouth. Anglers pursue the bigmouth bite from farm ponds to rivers to large reservoirs. Regardless of location in the state, there are prime opportunities to tangle with some hefty largemouth bass in Kentucky waters.

For largemouth bass, many people immediately think of Kentucky Lake -- and with good reason. It's been a top destination for years. The good news is, it's getting even better!

In the mid-1990s, Kentucky Lake's bass population had some down years due to a lack of aquatic vegetation. Now the vegetation is returning, and that means much better survival for bass fry.

A lot of weed growth has returned to the lake over the past four years or so. But much of it has been coontail and naiads, which has not been quite as beneficial as cover for spawned fish. However, Eurasian water milfoil began coming back strong in 2006 and will be a terrific boost to this fishery.

Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR) biologist Paul Rister says the largemouth fishery is above average right now, and he expects it to peak in coming years. He is predicting the fishery to "go way back up." There are lots of fish in the 12- to 17-inch range and with good spawns, the fishery should really show tremendous size and weight distribution very soon.

Neighboring Lake Barkley is also doing quite well. Actually, the bass fishery there is about double the one at Kentucky Lake, although most fish are not as large as at Kentucky. Anglers will catch more bass at Barkley, but the larger quality-sized fish will come from Kentucky.

To some degree, Barkley tends to follow the same trends as Kentucky. Weeds are also making a comeback at Barkley, but Rister says the lake will probably not see the boom expected for Kentucky. The spawns at Barkley have been average, and the fishery should remain stable over the next few years. As a reference, to win bass tournaments at Kentucky and Barkley over the past four years, it has taken a 5-fish catch with an average weight of 2 1/2 pounds.

"If I wanted to go catch a really nice largemouth in my area, Cedar Creek Lake would be my choice. It is the best largemouth fishery we have in this part of the state," said biologist John Williams.

This Lincoln County lake has lots of bass between 16 and 19 inches, with a lot of quality-sized fish as well. Some will surpass the 20-inch mark.

There is great habitat everywhere in the lake. There are abundant aquatic plants and lots of weedbeds, which not only help protect spawns, but also provide some excellent fishing locations. This lake has seen some problems in the past with pond scum and algae, but they have been clearing and seem destined not to be a problem any longer.

The 20-inch length limit and one-fish creel has made Cedar Creek Lake virtually a catch-and-release lake so far. These trophy regulations have really helped develop this fishery, and biologists are expecting to see some really good fish there in 2007. By that time, some of these bass may reach the 6- to 7-pound range.

The use of a slot limit has done wonders at Lake Malone. The slot protects bass in the 12- to 15-inch range. Biologists now report that some 30 percent of the bass are longer than 15 inches.

On Dale Hollow, a slot limit has been in place for several years. It has helped to protect a lot of the fish and allowed them to grow into trophy-sized bronzebacks.

Bass have always reproduced and grown well at Malone. This lake has been a consistently great producer of good numbers of fish, and also some real lunkers. Catches of fish in the 3- to 5-pound range are fairly common. Every year, some real hogs are pulled out, with some up in the 8- to 9-pound range, according to local anglers.

Another small water that provides some excellent bassing is the 183-acre Kincaid Lake in Pendleton County. Biologist Kerry Prather says the growth of largemouth bass there is tremendous and that the lake has lots of big bass. Spring samplings usually yield a high catch rate of 4- to 6-pound bass. Surveys have indicated more bass over 15 inches than in the last 12 years.

Being off the beaten path and less accessible helps this fishery. A 10 hp restriction and a lot of catch-and-release by locals are also great boons. Other factors contributing to the fishery are aquatic vegetation and fertility due to a large watershed and subsequent runoff of lots of nutrients.

Lake Beshear has been rated excellent by biologists. One reason is that since the 1980s, it has consistently had good numbers of bass over 15 inches. Bass in the 3- to 5-pound range are fairly common. Biologists have shocked fish up around the 7- to 8-pound range, and rumors surface occasionally of 12-pound bass being caught there.

This lake has all the elements to produce a good bass fishery: clear water, areas of weeds, and even some woody habitat. Bass grow well there. Additionally, largemouths are the only bass species in the lake, so they are the top predator and have no competition for food sources.

Honorable mention goes to Elmer Davis Lake, due to the occasional trophy bass taken there. This is another location where biologists are using a slot limit to improve the fishery. Currently, the lake is bass-crowded with a build-up of bass below 12 inches. The lake provides a high catch rate of bass and is fun to fish for sheer numbers and the occasional big fish.S

SMALLMOUTH BASS

Smallmouth anglers have really been increasing in numbers in Kentucky. And why shouldn't they? Our smallmouth populations are flourishing, and there are many great locations across the state to tie into one of these fierce fighters.

One of our most acclaimed lakes is Dale Hollow. Although much of the lake lies in Tennessee, there are some tremendous smallmouth angling opportunities there for Kentuckians as well. Part of the lake is in Kentucky, and there is also a reciprocal agreement for areas near the state borders.

On Dale Hollow, a slot limit has been in place for several years. It has helped to protect a lot of the fish and allowed them to grow into trophy-sized bronzebacks. Coupled with catch-and-release practiced by many bass anglers, the lake is yielding some great fish.

Smallmouth caught here typically average around 3 to 4 pounds, with some real giants pulled out every year. Fish in the 5- to 7-pound range are not all that uncommon. Dale Hollow is home to the world-record smallmouth. That same fish also holds the distinction of state records for both Kentucky and Tennessee.

Another of our great smallmouth locations is Lake Cumberland. In fact, the most recent review of the top five caught and reported smallmouths in Kentucky included three from Lake Cumberland. The largest weighed a whopping 7 pounds, 3 ounces!

Biologist John Williams says there are a lot of quality fish at Lake Cumberland and that it's "one of the best places in the state for smallmouth." Fish in the 2- to 3-pound range are common. Float-and-fly fishing is gaining popularity there as a winter technique, along with other methods. Anglers always seem to take several trophies there each year.

Our premier smallmouth stream is most probably Elkhorn Creek. It has long been regarded as a prime location for smallies, although it has an occasional down year or two.

Cave Run Lake has been rated excellent for spotted bass, but it's mainly a water to catch numbers, not size. There are a lot of spots there to catch and they are quite widespread.

Heavy rainfall creates more flow in the stream and doesn't bode well for spring spawning success. This can lead to poor year-classes of smallmouth. However, the last two years have seen drier conditions in June and July, which should mean great things for anglers.

Ryan Oster says the KDFWR is seeing some of the highest numbers ever of smallmouth bass over 15 inches. A slot limit on the creek is protecting more fish and allowing them to reach quality size.

"For stream fish, the trophy potential is excellent. Of course, you have to remember that you can't compare stream smallmouths to those of the larger lakes such as Dale Hollow and Cumberland," Oster said.

Nonetheless, sampling yielded over six fish per hour longer than 16 inches, and several 20-inch fish were caught there in 2006!

Biologist Kevin Frey says anglers should really keep an eye on Fishtrap Lake in Pike County. He says the smallmouth population has "really been coming on lately," and he looks for it to "really take off in the near future."

The lake has a fairly good population of smallmouths now, and they seem to be on the increase. Numbers of smallies caught during electro-fishing is approaching 15 percent of the catch, which is comparable to the percentages at Lake Cumberland and Dale Hollow. Frey says there is good distribution of fish up through 20 inches.

Most of the best smallmouth fishing occurs in the lake's lower end. A few bass in the 5-pound range have been caught there lately. Anglers can also find good smallie fishing in the headwaters and even up into the Levisa Fork River.

Kentucky Lake is known mostly for its largemouth fishing, but it also has a good population of smallmouths. Biologist Paul Rister says the smallmouth fishery is not what it once was, but it's still pretty good. Although most smallies caught will be average in size, a few big fish are still caught there occasionally.

Rister says that during the middle to late 1990s, there were a lot of 6- to 7-pound smallies in the lake. Harvest and natural mortality over the years has taken the "cream of the crop" from the lake, but Rister looks for the fishery to rebound some in coming years. The clearer water and returning weed growth will help smallmouths in the same way as it will largemouths.

SPOTTED (KENTUCKY BASS)

Most of the lakes in Kentucky that are not very fertile have spotted bass populations. Spotted bass prefer clear water and less fertile conditions than do our other black bass. Although spotted bass don't frequently get extremely large in Kentucky, they do offer some excellent angling opportunities and are a lot of fun to catch.

One of our better locations within the state is at Lake Cumberland. Spotted bass have really increased in numbers since the 1990s. Shocking surveys now show spotted bass to be the most abundant black bass in the lake. They are well distributed and found most everywhere in the lake.

Biologist Kevin Frey says anglers should really keep an eye on Fishtrap Lake in Pike County. He says the smallmouth population has "really been coming on lately" and he looks for it to "really take off in the near future."

There is a wide range of size distribution, too. There are a lot of fish approaching 14 inches. Some of the really big spots in the lake will be in the 15- to 16-inch range.

Dale Hollow Lake is also a great for spotted bass. They are numerous in the lake, and a fair number of fish are over 14 inches.

Kentucky does very little sampling in Dale Hollow inasmuch as most of the lake lies across the Tennessee state line. Tennessee pretty much takes the lead with fisheries management and Kentucky follows suit. However, the KDFWR does do some infrequent sampling of its own.

Most of the sampling on Kentucky's portion of the lake is done in Little Sulfur Creek and Illwill creek. When sampling was performed in 1992, the survey showed an even number of largemouth, smallmouth, and spotted bass. Sampling was not performed again by Kentucky until 2004 and 2005. During 2005 shocking surveys, the KDFWR collected more spotted bass than smallmouths.

Cave Run Lake has been rated excellent for spotted bass, but it's mainly a water to catch numbers, not size. There are a lot of spots there to catch and they are quite widespread.

The upper end of the lake is more fertile and more heavily dominated by largemouth. The bulk of the spotted bass are found in the main lake.

There's apparently a lot of harvesting of spotted bass at Cave Run because the average spotted bass caught there is usually around 12 inches long. The fish top out at about 15 inches or so. With no limit on spots, these fish tend to be kept more by bass anglers.

Over in the eastern part of the state, anglers may want to try Carr Creek Lake for spotted bass. Biologist Kevin Frey reports that the lake has really good density of spots and good distribution up to about 13 inches. Additio

nally, some nice-sized spots are topping out at about 16 inches.

Frey says that the bass are scattered pretty well throughout the lake. There is more of a concentration of spots in the lower and middle parts of the lake. Population numbers must apparently be good because during electro-fishing, spotted bass can make up sometimes as much as 40 percent of the catch.

Paintsville Lake is another eastern lake with a fair number of spots. There is very good distribution of spotted bass up to about 13 inches. A few larger fish are taken occasionally, but most will be smaller.

Spotted bass have been making up about 10 percent of the electro-fishing catch recently. In years past, that number could be as much as 15 to 20 percent. Most of the best fishing for spots will take place from about mid-lake down into the lower part of the lake.

Anglers have also been having good success catching spotted bass at Laurel River Lake. Bass here are fairly abundant and of decent size. Good distribution is seen between 11 and 14 inches.

There are good numbers of spots throughout the lake's middle and lower sections. They are not very abundant up in the Laurel River arm, though. That section is too fertile and is dominated mostly by largemouth bass.

Our last lake to look at for spotted bass is Kentucky Lake. It used to be considered really good for spots, but their numbers are probably starting to decline. Most anglers and biologists consider the present population to be average.

However, there is still a good population of fish there. They seem to run up into the creeks more and seek out the areas with the least fertile water. A few large fish are caught there occasionally, but most spotted bass will measure less than 15 inches.

Many other waters across the state offer some excellent bass fishing opportunities. More information on our sportfishing prospects is available online from the KDFWR's Web site, www.fw.ky.gov.

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