Bassin' on the Big Lake
October 04, 2010
Some lakes have a little bit for every style of bass fishing.
Kentucky Lake has a lot of everything. Our experts help you sort the good spots and tactics from the bad.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
By Jeff Samsel
Everything hinges on the weather, said Garry Mason, talking about February bass fishing on Kentucky Lake. Mason, a long-time guide on this huge Tennessee River impoundment, said that casting for bass during February can bring fast action or very tough going.
February weather can be amazingly springlike or harshly bitter in Tennessee, and fishing can be equally volatile. Beyond huge differences in the quality of the fishing from one week to the next, fishermen will find major variances in the character of the bass fishing according to weather patterns. The fish might be shallow and somewhat aggressive or they might be locked down in channels and demanding s-l-o-w presentations, according to Mason. And those patterns can completely change in just a matter of days or, in extreme cases, hours.
However, whether the fish are way up on flats, deep in the river channel or somewhere in between, Kentucky Lake clearly supports one of the best bass populations in Tennessee. A massive body of water, which covers 160,000 acres and is 184 miles long, Kentucky Lake is the last of nine major impoundments on the Tennessee River. It is highly fertile, supports virtually every type of forage fish imaginable for bass and offers a great variety of high-quality bass habitat.
Kentucky Lake officially forms at the Pickwick tailwater, near the Alabama/Mississippi/Tennessee border. From there it cuts a south-to-north swath all the way across the state and across the western tip of Kentucky. The upper (southern) half of Kentucky Lake is extremely riverine in character. It begins to broaden and become more lakelike just south of Camden, where the Duck River adds its flow. Roughly 51,000 acres of Kentucky Lake lie within Kentucky, but that still leaves Tennessee anglers 109,000 acres to explore without crossing the border.
Largemouths traditionally have been the main attraction to bass fishermen at Kentucky Lake. However, the lake also supports spotted and smallmouth bass, and smallmouth numbers have been on the increase in recent years. Like any reservoir, Kentucky Lake is somewhat cyclical. The bass population is always good relative to most other lakes, however, and there is never a lack of big bass in the mix.
Mason's favorite part of Kentucky Lake for February largemouths is the area around the confluence of the Big Sandy and Tennessee rivers. That's a big area, he noted, with a lot of different types of cover and structure available for the widely varied conditions that occur during February. Deep-water ledges abound in this part of the lake, but there is also a lot of good shallow-water habitat available over points and inside of cuts.
He also recommends Eagle Creek and Little Eagle Creek, which are in the same part of the lake, as favored February areas.
Farther up Kentucky Lake, he likes the area around the New Johnsonville Steam Plant, both in the main river and inside bays in that vicinity.
When it's really cold, Mason may key on the warmwater discharge from the steam plant, taking advantage of baitfish concentrations, which result in bass concentrations. In the steam plant "hotspot," locating bass is easy. Catching them from among thousands of live shad can be difficult.
The actual discharge is a small part of the picture for Mason, though. He has found a lot of bass throughout this part of the lake early in the year.
Anywhere he fishes on Kentucky Lake, Mason cherishes multi-day warm snaps for February bass fishing. "When the sun shines bright for two or three days and we get some of those days in the 50s or occasionally even the low 60s, the fish can get really aggressive. Fishing can be tremendous," he said.
During those snaps, Mason looks for bass on the south sides of bays and along main-lake banks. He keys on shallow cover that is close to much deeper water, often near the tops of points. Even if the fish are in ultra-shallow water, they need deep-water areas to escape to when the weather turns cold again, Mason stressed.
Because Kentucky Lake is usually a few feet below full pool from winter drawdowns during February, a lot of cover that's right on the shores may be high and dry. Many points have stumps on them, though, and some of those stumps will be in only a few feet of water with the lake slightly down. Shallow stakebeds put out by crappie fishermen or the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency also provide good shallow cover.
Whatever the cover type and whether in a bay or on the main lake, Mason always looks for gravel banks. "That gravel is almost a must," he said. "For whatever reason, it always has the most aggressive fish over it."
Mason's favorite baits during these early warm snaps imitate small baitfish. He pointed toward jerkbaits and rattling lipless crankbaits as good picks and emphasized the need to use small sizes. "Most of the baitfish are small, and I try to imitate the size of the baitfish."
Mason often will fish small crankbaits fairly fast when the fish are shallow. If the fish seem slow to bite, however, he will turn to a suspending crankbait or jerkbait and slow down the presentation. He will still cast very shallow, but will mix in pauses where the bait will just hang in the strike zone. Small suspending crankbaits fished the same way may also draw strikes when a quick retrieve won't do the job.
As readily as warm snaps will push bass into shallow water, the cold fronts that inevitably follow throughout February and even into March will drive the fish back into deep water.
"They drop back into their winter patterns," Mason said, explaining that these bass will move down into major channels, often in 15 feet or more of water. "If we have high pressure and really cold temperatures, they might go down to 18 feet of water." He said.
When the bass do drop back into the channels, anglers need to really slow their approach. The fishing can be very good, but the bass won't go out of their way to chase down a lure. Mason turns to a Carolina rig under these conditions, dragging the rig along at a snail's pace, adding no hops or other motion.
Other Kentucky Lake anglers turn almost exclusively to jigging spoons through the heart of winter and for those February cold snaps that cause the bass to act like they did in December and January. Spoon fishermen spend a lot of time searching with their electronics, looking for bass and especially for baitfish along channel edges. They look hard before they
drop the first lure in order to find the best spots possible, because the approach, while very productive, does not lend itself to searching for fish.
Of course, with cold snaps pushing the fish down into the channels and strings of sunny days pulling them into shallow water, the bass inevitably spend a fair amount of time in transition during February.
Even if it's 60 degrees outside and the sun is shining brightly, the bass won't be super shallow if it's the first warm day in a week. They won't be locked down either, though. Instead, they will be gradually moving up points that connect a major channel with nearby flats or setting on top of channel ledges instead of just below.
When the fish are in transition, fishermen sometimes have to do some searching. The travel routes, which often follow points, aren't difficult to identify, but the fish can be anywhere along them. Carolina rigs, dragged across points from the channel all the way to the shallow water, work well for finding transition bass, as do slow-rolled spinnerbaits.
If transition bass are still fairly deep and anglers are able to locate them on a graph, the same jigging spoons that do the job a little deeper work very well. In shallower water, the fish will often be a bit more aggressive, and the same small crankbaits that Mason likes for very shallow fishing offer good prospects.
If the lake comes up during February, which is always a possibility because of the size of the Tennessee River's watershed and the complexity of the system-wide water-level-control equation, bass behavior and strategies can change. A lot of bass will move to very shallow cover, even on cold days, if the lake comes up significantly in short order. Shoreline cover that has not been inundated attracts bass like a magnet when the lake level rises quickly around it.
When Kentucky Lake is full - or even mostly full - endless amounts of buckbrush, stumps, laydowns, rocks and much more, provide tremendous amounts of cover for bass. If the lake has come up in a hurry, most anglers will turn to flippin' or pitchin'. The fish will be very tight to cover, and they may not roam far from it to feed; however, jigs, tubes or creature baits dropped right on their heads are apt to draw quick reaction strikes.
In February, the fish are still apt to be mostly on main-lake areas and in the mouths of big bays, even when the water is high and they move very shallow. On into March, they'll move back into the creeks quite a bit more. Some fish will stay shallow in March, even with weather changes, especially if the water stays up. Then the main question for anglers becomes which types of cover are holding the most fish. With so much stuff to pick from, the bass often will get dialed into a certain type of cover.
During March, Mason also looks for bass on small isolated pieces of cover. He doesn't know why, but a single stick-up will often hold a single bass that time of year, and often it's a good-quality fish.
"It doesn't take much," he said. "Just a single piece of wood sticking up will do, but it should be close to a drop."
Mason typically relies on a spinnerbait for fishing that type of cover, casting just past the stick-up and running the bait right next to it.
Over the past decade or so, Kentucky Lake bass fishermen have watched a dramatic change in the bass population - and it's not one they're complaining about. Smallmouth bass, which were once only occasional catches on this part of the Tennessee River, have become quite abundant.
Making things even more exciting, the smallmouths are good-sized, on average, and really big smallmouths show up with decent frequency. Many Kentucky Lake regulars are confident that there are some world-record-caliber smallies swimming around in the big lake and that it is only a matter of time before someone fools a world-record fish and somehow manages to land it.
Because smallmouths and largemouths use different types of habitat much of the time and because Kentucky Lake is extremely fertile, the increase in smallmouth numbers has not come at the expense of the largemouth population. The largemouths are in great shape right now, according to Mason, and the smallmouth fishing just keeps getting better.
Initially, bigger concentrations of smallmouths were mostly in creeks that flow in from the east, which are generally steeper, cooler and clearer than those across the lake. For the past few years, however, smallmouth fishing has been good in creeks on both sides and in the lake's main body. Increases in smallmouth numbers have correlated with increased overall clarity of Kentucky Lake over the past decade.
Because smallmouths have not always been an important part of the bass population on Kentucky Lake, many long-time local anglers are still figuring out the bronzebacks. Many of these anglers use strategies brought from Pickwick and Wilson lakes, upstream along the Tennessee River.
Rocky points at the mouths of major creeks offer very good areas for targeting pre-spawn smallmouths in February and into March, and a great bait to use is a suspending jerkbait. The best points are close to gravel bars near the mouths of creeks. Anglers throwing jerkbaits work them meticulously slow with big pauses between jerks.
Crankbait fishermen also do well in February, especially if a lot of current is pushing through the lake and the water is stained. Big winter weather systems turn on the crankbait bite. Prime areas for crankbait fishing are well-defined humps that rise to within 5 to 10 feet of the surface and have the Tennessee River channel nearby and current pushing across them.
Garry Mason traveled to Dale Hollow this winter to learn more about cold-weather smallmouth fishing. He spent a few days with Larry Self, who is an expert on "float-and-fly" fishing, and learned everything he could about the tactic that wins most East Tennessee smallmouth tournaments during the cool months.
"I told him that I didn't care whether I caught a fish," Mason said. "I wanted to learn the technique." As it turned out, they caught plenty of fish and Mason got a good lesson in float-and-fly fishing. He is confident that it will work extremely well on Kentucky Lake smallmouths.
"What's really good about that is that it's best when the weather is the coldest and the nastiest," Mason said. Since largemouth fishing is generally toughest on the same types of days, Mason believes that float-and-fly fishing has the potential to add a lot of good fishing days for him and other Kentucky Lake anglers.
Float-and-fly fishing, generally speaking, is best along bluff banks and over rocky points along main-river channels or major creek channels. Shad, which ball up in suspended schools in very cold weather, are the key ingredient and what anglers should be on the lookout for off bluff banks.
If you look around bluff banks on a bitter February day and see Garry Mason staring at
a bobber, chances are good there's a hair jig dangling beneath that float. And if the float goes down, watch out. There may be a 5-pound smallmouth at the end of the line.
BEFORE YOU GO
A 14-inch minimum size applies to largemouth and smallmouth bass on Kentucky Lake. For spotted bass, there is no minimum size. All black bass fall under a five-fish (combined) statewide limit.
No reciprocal agreement exists between Tennessee and Kentucky, so Tennessee anglers must either possess both licenses or stay on this side of the line. Because the border follows the middle of the river channel for several miles, anglers who fish main-lake structure in that part of the lake must either get both licenses or be very careful to know where they are fishing.
More than 125 boat ramps provide good access to the entire Tennessee portion of Kentucky Lake. Buchanan Resort, which is located on Eagle Creek near the confluence of the Tennessee and Big Sandy rivers, provides outstanding access to lots of great fishing and has a full-service marina, restaurant and cabins. For information, call (731) 642-2828 or log onto www.buchananresort.com.
For guided fishing with Garry Mason, give him a call at (731) 593-5429.
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