Bluegrass Bass Forecast

Here's a statewide look at how things are shaping up for bass enthusiasts throughout our state for the new season.

Dozens of streams that are large enough to float in canoes provide a wealth of opportunities to target mixed bags of black bass, which are normally dominated by smallmouths.
Photo by Jeff Samsel.

Kentucky, the black bass state. OK, maybe it doesn't have quite the same ring as the Bluegrass State. Nevertheless, anyone who has spent much time bass fishing in Kentucky knows how fitting this nickname would be. Beyond boasting an enormous numbers of bass-supporting rivers and lakes, Kentucky offers outstanding variety to its black bass fishermen. Largemouths, smallmouths and spots (commonly called Kentucky bass) all inhabit various waterways, and fine bass-fishing waters range from small municipal lakes to the mighty Ohio River and vary in character from shallow and turbid to deep and clear.

Along with so many waterways comes an even greater need for proper management, and fisheries biologists with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR) are working tirelessly to meet those needs. Black bass research biologist Chris Hickey heads statewide black bass management efforts; he works closely with district biologists, who monitor fisheries and carry out management plans for all species within their respective regions.

"Locally, district biologists concentrate primarily on monitoring bass populations," Hickey explained. "They have set schedules and protocols that they go by every year and they work feverishly to try and sample all the lakes/rivers in their districts at the right times."

Along with providing biologists the information required to make sound management decisions and to build databases that paint a picture of long-and short-term trends, the information collected allows the KDFWR to provide excellent information to anglers. Much of that information, including an annual Fishing Forecast for more than 60 waterways throughout Kentucky, is available anytime to anglers at all times on the KDFWR's Web site (fw.ky.gov).

The best news for Kentucky bass fishermen is that the overall forecast is invariably good, if not great. The combined result of the department's intensive management efforts and the sheer abundance and variety of waterways is that good to excellent bass fishing is found in numerous locations in all parts of the state every year. The actual locations will vary some for assorted reasons, including natural cycles in bass and forage populations, localized rainfall and shifts in angler-use patterns, to name a few. However, the fishing will always be good somewhere.

One very important tool that Hickey and other KDFWR biologists use to monitor black bass fisheries throughout the state is the Bass Tournament Reporting Project. This project, which has been in place since 1999, uses fishing tournament results (that are voluntarily reported by bass clubs and other tournament organizations) to look at actual angler success on individual bodies of water.

The results provide both comparative data for various lakes and information about trends in individual lakes, and Hickey compiles the data in a report that is also available on the KDFWR Web site, and that includes good summaries of top-producing waters and many pages of charts that detail the actual results.

"We get pretty good data from bass tournaments because they are usually very well organized, and most of them want to help our agency as much as they can." Hickey said.

The 2008 report included catch data from 308 bass-fishing tournaments, which represented 58 percent of all registered tournaments in Kentucky that year. Hickey stressed, however, that while participation has been good, he could always use more. More tournament data equates with a better picture of the bass fishing on Kentucky rivers and lakes and an increased capacity to manage fisheries effectively.

When Hickey analyzes the results, he considers several indicators of fishing quality, including: tournament angler success, catch rate, average weight per bass, fishing hours required per 4-pound-plus bass caught, fishing hours required per 6-pound-plus bass caught, total number of 6-pound-plus bass and average winning bag. Whether an angler seeks fast fishing action, large fish on average, and the best opportunity to catch a trophy bass or some combination, a year of tournament results compiled into a report provides a pretty good picture of where he might find what he seeks.

Willisburg Lake and Elmer Davis Lake, for example, produced the best tournament angler success rates and catch rates in 2008 (the most recent year for which a reporting year was completed at press time), both suggesting the likeliness of fast action; however, the average size of the bass weighed on both lakes was fairly small. Laurel River Lake produced the biggest average size for bass brought to the scales (3.14 pounds) and still produced a good catch rate. Kentucky and Barkley lakes topped most of the big-fish measures in the report.

BASS STOCKINGS
Another project that Hickey works closely with — the Largemouth Bass Stocking Initiative — aims to reduce the lows that commonly occur in bass populations because of poor spawning years and to add consistency to the quality of the bass fishing. A relatively new approach to bass management, the plan begins with annual assessments of age 0 fish that are collected in the fall from lakes all over the state to determine the success of that year's spawn in individual lakes. If those samples suggest the lake's bass had a sub-par spawn for that particular lake when compared with years of data from the same waterway, then the KDFWR stocks a moderate number of bass to supplement the spawn.

"We are trying to catch it early," Hickey said, "where in years past we might not have identified the poor spawn until the next year, at which point it is too late to intervene."

One important key to success with this program has been stocking 5-inch bass, according to Hickey. The fish get stocked during the fall, so winter is just around the corner. Therefore, it's vital for the newly stocked fish to be large enough to stand a decent chance of surviving when conditions get tough. The stockings seem to have had more success in some waterways than others, but with the program being fairly new, much remains to be learned about the conditions or types of waters that favor the best stocking success.

Another place where bass stocking has figured prominently into Kentucky's bass management plan in recent years has been the Ohio River. The KDFWR has stocked more than 200,000 largemouth bass fingerlings into the bays of the Markland Pool on the Ohio River over the past two years to supplement natural reproduction and to build the bas

s population.

The stocking efforts have proved very effective, according to Hickey, as the stocked fish have turned up in large numbers in spring and fall samples and have had a notable impact on the bass populations within the bays where they have been stocked.

The total long-term effect of the stockings will be tough to track because the bass will be hard to find once they move into the main river, which is extremely difficult to sample effectively. That limitation acknowledged, early indicators suggest good success, and anglers in this area will want to keep an eye on the bass fishing in the backwaters of Markland Pool.

NOTEWORTHY BASS WATERS
Without question, one of the biggest stories in Kentucky's bass-fishing world in recent years has been the ongoing development of a trophy bass fishery on Cedar Creek Lake in Lincoln County, and thus far the news has been good.

"Anglers are catching more and more 20-plus-inch largemouth bass out of Cedar Creek Lake than they ever have," Hickey said, noting that last spring produced several 6- to 7-pound bass. "This has been our goal from the beginning, and I hope this trend continues."

Cedar Creek Lake, which impounds 748 acres and was constructed in 2002, was built to be a fishing lake. One of the major management goals on the lake is creating a dependable trophy bass fishery. Significant timber was left standing during construction, and fish attractors were sunk throughout the lake. In addition, special regulations were put into place to protect the bass and help shape the size structure as the lake developed. The daily bass limit on Cedar Creek Lake is one fish, with a minimum size of 20 inches. Shad may not be possessed or used as bait.

Cedar Creek Lake, which is naturally fertile because of an abundance of farmland in the creek's watershed, is protected by a 250-foot buffer zone that goes all the way around the lake. This ensures complete public access and protects the lake from the effects of shoreline development. Bass forage in the lake, which is monitored along with the bass on a regular basis, includes shad, bluegills and crawfish.

Cedar Creek Lake is not an easy water to fish. The fish enjoy a great amount of well-defined structure to use at a variety of depths and tangles of timber where they can hide. That means they can be challenging to locate and to get out of their woody lairs. In addition, the word seems to have gotten around that Cedar Creek Lake's bass keep getting bigger because fishing pressure is extensive for the lake's small size.

Moving from relatively small waters to major reservoirs at the opposite ends of the size spectrum, two of the lakes that offer the best bass-fishing prospects for 2010 provide no great surprise. Kentucky and Barkley lakes both earned "excellent" ratings for largemouth bass in the most recent Fishing Forecast, and Hickey expects both to serve up excellent bass fishing this year.

Looking at the most recent report from tournament records, Kentucky and Barkley were the top two lakes in Kentucky in terms of the least tournament hours spent per bass weighing 4 pounds or more. These waters also lead the way for total number of 6-pound-plus bass brought to the scales and for the heaviest average winning bag. Both lakes were also among the top waterways in other categories, as well.

Good recent year-classes of largemouth bass, including an excellent year-class in 2007, will mean a profusion of bass in Kentucky Lake, but there are also large numbers of older, larger fish in this giant reservoir, where bass enjoy excellent growth rates.

Beyond offering outstanding fishing year in and year out, Kentucky Lake provides an abundance of opportunity to fishermen with more than 50,000 acres of water in Kentucky alone. Kentucky Lake anglers also enjoy a great variety of opportunities, which range from ledge fishing along the Tennessee River channel to flipping flooded buckbrush in the backs of the bays.

Although Barkley is not nearly as large overall as Kentucky Lake, most of its acreage is contained within the state's borders, and its home-state portion therefore is close to comparable with Kentucky Lake's at 41,775 acres. Barkley consistently earns a good or excellent rating in the annual Fishing Forecast and always offers a great combination of largemouth size and numbers. The current population includes excellent numbers of 15-inch-plus bass, with increasing numbers of 20-inch fish in the mix.

In addition to offering some of Kentucky's finest largemouth bass fishing, both Kentucky Lake and Barkley Lake support smallmouth and spotted bass. Smallmouths especially serve up exciting opportunities early in the year. Much of the best early-season fishing for big smallmouth bass occurs in the far lower ends of the lakes and in the canal that links them. Anglers seeking early-season smallmouths often do well with suspending jerkbaits fished over rocky main-lake structure.

When conversations turn to black bass combinations with smallmouths as the main attraction, three Kentucky lakes really stand out. Dale Hollow, Lake Cumberland and Laurel River Lake are all well known for their capacity to kick out hefty smallmouth bass, and all three earned excellent smallmouth ratings in the most recent Fishing Forecast. In addition, all three also garnered good or excellent ratings for the other black bass species.

Dale Hollow, of course, still holds claim to the world-record smallmouth bass, and anglers who spend time plying its deep, clear waters know that the smallies still grow to jumbo proportions there. It's important to note that a very restrictive slot of 16 to 21 inches protects Dale Hollow smallmouths. No fish within the slot range may be harvested and only one fish over 21 inches may be taken daily. The minimum size for smallmouths at Lake Cumberland and Laurel River Lake is 18 inches, with a two-fish limit also applying to Laurel River Lake.

The smallmouth fishing can be especially good during late winter and early spring on all three lakes. The biggest bronzebacks in the lakes become more catchable during the cool-weather months than during other times and attract a lot of angling attention. The most popular approaches in these waters among anglers who favor artificial lures are float-and-fly fishing and casting blade baits, such as Silver Buddies and Heddon Sonars. Fishing live shiners on free-lines or split shot rigs over main-lake points are also extremely popular and productive methods.

Moving back to largemouth fishing, Hickey pointed toward Barren River Lake as offering very good prospects for 2010, noting that this lake produces a lot of fish in the 3- to 5-pound range with good overall numbers of bass for anglers to enjoy. Big-fish numbers have been on the increase in Barren River Lake, which spreads over 10,000 acres in Allen and Barren counties and is managed with a 15-inch minimum size for largemouth bass (except that one fish within the daily limit and two within the possession limit may be undersized).

Finally, no overview of Kentucky bass-fishing opportunities would be complete without mention of an abundance of cool-water streams t

hat lend themselves nicely to float-fishing and in many cases wading a little later in the year. Smallmouth bass are the main species in streams like Elkhorn Creek, the upper Cumberland River and the Red River, but many of these streams also support a mix of largemouths and spots, plus a host of other species that will all go after the same baits. The KDFWR Web site offers a list of floatable smallmouth streams in the "Where to Fish" section, and the list includes more than 100 creeks and rivers that collectively run thousands of stream miles.

A variety of relatively small lures, including crankbaits, jigs, assorted soft-plastic lures and topwater lures, work well for stream smallmouths, and the best artificial lure options vary by season and according to water conditions. Among the most popular and effective way to fish these waters, however, is to collect hellgrammites and crawfish from the streams themselves and drift them in the current on split shot rigs. Live bait can be hand collected by flipping stones, but a small seine dramatically increases an angler's efficiency.

BEFORE YOU GO
Bass populations in Kentucky rivers and lakes are managed with a variety of special regulations. Although the statewide largemouth and smallmouth limit is six fish, with a 12-inch minimum size, the minimum size is 15 inches on many of the state's major reservoirs, and regulations are more restrictive on some waterways. For complete, current regulations, visit fw.ky.gov.

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