Big, Big-Water Largemouths of the Bluegrass
October 04, 2010
Several of our state's biggest reservoirs continue to produce good numbers of lunker largemouth bass. Is one near you?
By Larry Self
As good as the fishing across the Commonwealth is for bass, some of the state's best largemouth bass angling takes place on several of our largest lakes. Among them, Barkley, Kentucky and Barren River lakes offer over 100,000 acres of lunker bass opportunity. Kentucky Lake is the biggest water at over 51,000 acres, followed closely by Barkley's 45,600 acres, and Barren River Lake's 10,000 acres.
June is often a transition month from springtime angling's post-spawn to summer patterns. Learning when and where you need to be on the water can be difficult. That's why we've done your homework for you. This look at Kentucky's big-water bass will point you in the right direction as to where to pull the bass boat this season.
MANAGING FOR QUALITY It's hard to look at the whole picture when you're comparing lakes of such diversity for one species, namely largemouth bass.
"I think Kentucky Lake is still the best of the three. It's not what it was in the 1990s, but it's still our best largemouth bass lake. Generally, Kentucky and Barkley are the best bass lakes," said Ted Crowell, the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife's (KDFWR) assistant director of fisheries. "Both Kentucky and Barkley are much more fertile than Barren."
Great habitat is what keeps Kentucky Lake and Barkley Lake on top, says Crowell. He calls Kentucky Lake a large river where there is a constant flushing of nutrients through the system. It takes water 21 days to go from the Pickwick Dam to the Kentucky Dam, and that produces a lot of food for the food chain, which results in fast growth rates for bass. Plus, Crowell points out that there's no thermocline on Kentucky and Barkley. As a result, the dissolved oxygen levels stay the same from top to bottom.
Kentucky bass regulations are generally geared to persuade anglers to cull smaller bass from the overall bass population. Photo by Michael Skinner
At Barren River Lake the watershed is in an agricultural area that puts plenty of nutrients into the lake. With Barren's large variety of habitat from rocky coves and points to standing timber and creek channels, Crowell says if you want to use crankbaits, you can find a place to do so. If you want to use Carolina rigs, you can. If you want to drop a pig-and-jig down a rocky bank, you can.
Bluegrass anglers have seen an upswing in the largemouth fishing on Kentucky Lake the last couple of years, but Crowell doesn't feel that it's back to where it was in its heyday in the 1990s. The good news is it didn't deteriorate as bad as it was thought it would. Crowell says after the drought years were over with, the KDFWR thought they would see declines in the standing crop of bass. It did decline, but never did it go all the way down to what it was prior to the drought years.
Lee McClellan, a KDFWR information officer, says the electrofishing results show both good news and bad news for Kentucky and Barkley lakes. The bad news is the number of largemouth bass over 15 inches declined in both lakes.
In 2002, on Kentucky Lake, there were 12.5 bass over 15 inches sampled per hour, which is down from 22.5 in 2000. But the number of bass under 8 inches jumped from 19.4 per hour in 2000 to 60.6 per hour in 2001; the number of 8- to 12-inch bass jumped from 13.4 per hour to 2000 to 26.3 per hour in 2001. McClellan reports, overall, the number of bass total for an hour of electrofishing jumped from 74.4 per hour to 111 per hour, and these numbers point to good bass fishing in the coming years. The 111 bass per hour sampled is the highest by far since 1996.
"On Lake Barkley, the number of 15-inch or greater largemouth bass sampled in one hour of electrofishing declined from 27.9 in 2000 to 19 in 2001," adds McClellan. "But, just like with Kentucky Lake, the number of fish under 8 inches increased from 32.8 in 2000 to 70.4 in 2001; and the number of 8- to 12-inch largemouths rose from 28.6 in 2000 to 61.2 in 2001.
McClellan says, like Kentucky Lake, this is the highest number of bass sampled since 1996. He feels the bass fishing on Barkley should be exceptional in the next few years, judging by the data.
"On Barren River Lake, the fishing should be excellent based on the data," said McClellan. "The overall number of bass have increased and there is an excellent number of 12- to 16-inch fish available. There are very good numbers of 16- to 20-inch fish."
He explains the lake dropped off some from the late 1990s when it hit its peak, but the numbers of largemouth bass are increasing in Barren.
McClellan says in 1999, the KDFWR began to collect the data from black bass tournament anglers in Kentucky. The information collected will only help provide better fishing in the future. He believes the knowledge gleaned from the tournament data, combined with creel and survey data, will help fishery managers explain and forecast changes in black bass populations throughout Kentucky.
Looking at the tournament data, McClellan says Barren and Kentucky lakes are neck in neck when it comes to which one being the best bass lake. But the numbers may be a function of the greater number of responses from tournaments on Barren (19) and Kentucky (12) than on Barkley (9) and from the total number of anglers.
The average winning sack from the data submitted in 2001 at Kentucky Lake was 10.2 pounds; it was 7.99 pounds at Barren and 7.58 pounds at Barkley. The number of bass over 4 pounds taken during tournaments at Kentucky Lake during 2001 was 15, 10 at Barren and only two at Barkley. The amount of bass over 6 pounds taken during tournaments was three on Kentucky and Barren, while Barkley had none. On Kentucky Lake, the average bass caught in a tournament weighed 2.56 pounds. On Barren River Lake, the average bass caught was 1.75 pounds, and the average bass caught on Barkley was 1.69 pounds.
With no creel or limit regulation changes on the table, fishermen can expect the same again this year in relation to keepers. On Kentucky and Barkley, there is a 15-inch minimum size limit, and the daily creel is six black bass. On Barren River Lake, there is a 15-inch minimum size limit and the daily creel limit is six black bass, but one of the fish may be less than 15 inches long.
KENTUCKY LAKE Anglers travel for miles from several states to fish the waters of Kentucky Lake. There is a reason. The lake that draws crowds of fishermen may have its up and down years, but it always bounces back again as it has recently, based on its quality largemouth bass fishing.
Tournament angler Ronnie Evans says Kentucky Lake has stayed consistent over the years because it has everything you look for in a big bass lake. Before it was impounded, it was a major river and still has those characteristics. There are large flats that help create successful spawns and deep-water havens off the river channel for bass to seek cover and food. The lake water level doesn't fluctuate due to the barge traffic, so it isn't as up and down and unpredictable as some other waters. Add a healthy shad population, current and structure, and you've got all the ingredients of a great bass fishery.
From late May through June, the largemouth fishing may be as good as it gets all year. Evans says a good day can mean anywhere from 50 to 60 bass in the boat in an early summer pattern. The overall average fish will be between 2 to 3 pounds, but the big bass will run 4 to 5 pounds.
Evans' early-summer bass pattern means imitating the lake's shad population with spinnerbaits and tube baits. Buzzbaits also share equal time with spinnerbaits when largemouths are found in late May and June in 2 to 3 feet of water on flats next to creek channels.
Evans likes to target these shallow-water haunts early in June and works buzzbaits along weedlines and right over yellow-topped weeds on flats. These weeds grow about 3 feet tall and will normally be sticking just out of the water or just under the surface. That's about as pure of a spinnerbait and buzzbait setup as you'll find. The largemouths will get in the weeds chasing baitfish and will nail most softly placed casts in and around the weeds. Windy days can provide some excellent spinnerbait action.
Later in the month, Evans will change to a 4-inch tube lure. He prefers a smoke-colored tube lure that's impregnated with salt and scent. In the deeper 5- to 10-foot channel drops, this lure makes a difference for the tournament angler. He also likes to Texas-rig a tube in as much as 20-foot levels off some creek banks.
Johnson Creek is one area he targets with its 20- to 25-foot depths and plenty of riprap and structure on the west side of the lake. The Blood River also features good solid depths around riprap about one-quarter of a mile back into it. There are also good flats for working the pre-summer patterns with tubes and spinnerbaits.
Evans finds good summer access for these Bluegrass waters at the Kenlake State Resort Park off state Route (SR) 94, and at the boat ramp at Fenton.
BARREN RIVER LAKE Todd Logsdon makes his home on Barren River Lake and with good reason. The quality bass fishing there drew him to purchase a home close to its shoreline. What Logsdon says makes the lake produce good largemouth bass is that it's a relatively young bass lake.
Barren River Lake gets the full winter drawdown but remains fertile from year to year. When the river was dammed, Logsdon says, instead of leaving any standing timber, the trees were all cut to stumps. This left a vast amount of cover for bass. Largemouth bass do receive a lot of fishing pressure, and that's evident when Logsdon boats a bass that's been caught before. The catch-and-release ethic is strong among bass fishermen.
Another factor that's helping to produce big, healthy largemouths is the lake's forage base. Logsdon notes the forage that makes up the largemouth's main diet is gizzard shad and crawfish; but threadfin shad are coming on strong in the lake and are helping in that aspect as well. In late May and through June, largemouth bass fishing is topnotch. Any bass you catch will be extremely healthy. Logsdon says a good day with a standard six-fish limit can weigh over 20 pounds. A limit like that will usually include a 4- to 5-pound kicker bass. A 21-inch fish will weigh between 4.5 to 5 pounds.
Logsdon's late-May and June fishing is dominated by casting creature baits (soft plastics) and plastic lizards. Early on, he'll Texas-rig the baits when fish are in more shallow areas from 2 to 10 feet. He gets a better hookset and lands more fish with a Texas rig as well. As largemouths back off with the growing summer heat, it's time to switch to a Carolina-rigged lizard or creature bait.
In the deeper 15- to 17-foot range of water, the successful largemouth angler says the Carolina rig is more effective than a Texas-rigged bait. Logsdon says he always alters his baits to add a little more attraction with scented dye attractants.
Logsdon finds some of the best plastic baits action on main-lake points in June. Without a doubt, the main channel points below the U.S. Route 31-E bridge deserve your attention. He also puts the main channel points from the bridge to Grass Island high on his list. As a second and third option, Logsdon recommends fishing the primary points heading back into Skaggs Creek and other creek arms as viable fishing spots.
One of the best summer accesses on the lake is found at the Barren River State Park off U.S. Route 31-E. A four-mile differential will put you at Logsdon's second put-in choice at the Narrows access ramp on down Route 31-E. He says this ramp will put you on the northwest side of the lake, which tends to be a more active place to fish for bass early in the day because it gets the morning's first sun.
LAKE BARKLEY "Lake Barkley is probably the most fertile lake in the Kentucky," said guide Dave Stewart (270-354-5039). And to top that off, he says the latest reports from the KDFWR puts Barkley as the top producer of largemouths when it comes to numbers. Stewart credits the lake's immense cover for helping to keep quality largemouth fishing available year after year. The trees weren't clear cut when the lake was filled, so there's cover everywhere. Throw in what Stewart calls more threadfin shad than you need, and you have the combination for good largemouth bass fishing. Plenty of crawfish also help to keep the bass healthy and fat.
When it comes to Barkley's numbers, Stewart says it is not unusual to catch somewhere from 15 to 20 largemouths on an average day. On the proverbial good day's fishing, the seasoned guide says 50 to 100 or even more largemouths are very possible. It can happen and does.
When the numbers of bass caught are large, Stewart expects to boat 5-pound largemouths and probably a 6-pounder in the mix, too, in late May and June. He says the 10-pounders come in March during the spawn. But in May of last year, he caught five largemouths over 8 pounds. Not a bad number combination any way you look at it, and Stewart says Barkley is just a good place to catch bass in the 8-pound range.
Stewart's early-summer pattern involves chasing transition bass. Old roadbeds, creek channels and travel routes are good target areas. In late May, he says, the biggest number of largemouths are still back in creeks, a few are still even in a late spawn pattern; however, the bigger fish have already moved out of the creeks to channel ledges.
Stewart knows where to find the big boys as they're transitioning back to ledges while coming out of the creeks. With bass on the move, but with good numbers of fish still back in creeks, the f
ishing is still good around docks and on points found inside of creek mouths. But for Stewart, the best fishing action is found on creek channel ledges in 5- to 6-foot depths that drop into 10 to 20 feet.
The guide's primary lure for targeting these bigger largemouths already on the drops is a big plastic worm at least 10 inches in length. He says the bigger worm is overlooked and is a deadly largemouth catcher in June. Other lures he counts on when the worm isn't putting them in the boat like it should include Carolina-rigged tubes, Carolina-rigged lizards, and the old pig-and-jig.
For anglers looking to take on Barkley's lunker largemouths, good summer access can be found on the north end of the lake at Lake Barkley State Resort Park, Eddy Creek Marina, and the Kuttawa Access.
Discover even more in our monthly magazine,
and have it delivered to your door!
Subscribe to Kentucky Game & Fish