Lake Cumberland's Trophy Striper Fishery

Lake Cumberland's Trophy Striper Fishery

The repair work on the dam hasn't slowed down the voracious appetites of the big lake's biggest game fish. Here's where you'll find striped bass right now. (May 2009)

Guide Gerald Bates holds up a typical Lake Cumberland striped bass. Striper fishing continues to be hot on this top Kentucky reservoir.
Photo by Paul Moore.

Lake Cumberland has long been known as our state's premier trophy striper lake. Not only did our 58-pound state-record striper come from this water, but also countless anglers have gone there and caught the biggest stripers of their lives. The lake and its striper fishery are legendary, not only in Kentucky, but throughout the country. People travel from all over just to sample the excellent fishing at Cumberland.

Unfortunately, Cumberland has fallen on some hard times lately. Not hard times from a fishing perspective, but hard times from a media perspective. When the lake's water level was dropped recently for repairs to the Wolf Creek Dam, media frenzy followed, predicting doom and gloom for the lake. Some of this was driven by tourism in other states hoping to capitalize on the moment and siphon away some of the millions of dollars spent annually by visitors to Lake Cumberland. Another was just the inherent tendency of some of the media to see only the negative.

Lucky for anglers, most of what has spewed forth from the media is completely unfounded. Sure, the lake level is down some, but the fishing has continued to be excellent. Not only that, but there is a superb year-class of stripers coming on, as well as evidence of some real whoppers — maybe even a new state record!

Just last year in April, striper guide Gerald Bates was fishing out of the Jamestown Marina and had a client who came very close to the record. The client, a 17-year-old young boy, hooked what was immediately obvious to be a monster striper. After getting it on board, Bates knew right away it was going to be close to the record if not above it. After weighing the huge fish, it came up just a little short at 52 pounds. But, wow, what a fish!

Another guide, Larry Rowley, had a huge fish on that never even gave them a chance to see it. "One of the rods off the back of the boat went down and line just started peeling off like crazy. We couldn't even get the fish turned. Obviously, we keep the drag set so the line doesn't break, but usually we can put enough pressure on the fish to get them turned and work them back toward the boat. Not this one. He just kept running until he spooled all the line out and broke off."

The lake has been producing stripers like that for years, and it appears it will continue on into the near future. The dam repair has absolutely nothing to do with the quality of fish being held behind it. Just because the water level is dropped a little doesn't mean the fish went anywhere.

In fact, many people believe the lower water level has actually been helpful to the fishing.

"I haven't really found that the lake level has changed the fishing much. If anything, it's made it more consistent because the lake level has been constant and not fluctuating," guide Bates said.

Additionally, the lake level has facilitated much cleanup around the shoreline, as well as re-growth of plant life, which will make a nice addition to the lake when it gets back to normal pool.

Now don't misunderstand. That's not to say there aren't some changes at the lake. Anglers may have to change some of their tactics depending on where they fish. For instance, Rowley said, "I used to pull shiners at 55 feet at Bugwood. Now there's not even 55 feet of water there. It's probably around 30-something now, so obviously we have had to change some of the things we are doing. But the fish are still there and the fishing is great. You just have to experiment a little more until you find the fish."

The Wolf Creek Dam is a very important structure, as it holds back the second-largest lake in the state and one of the top 10 largest manmade lakes in the country. If there was a breech or worse yet, a catastrophic failure at the dam, millions of lives downstream would be at risk all the way into Nashville, Tennessee, and the financial fallout would be in the billions of dollars.

In January of 2007, it was first announced there was a problem with the dam and that the water level would be lowered immediately to 680 feet. Soon thereafter, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced they would further lower it to 650 feet. This brought immediate concern over the devastating effect that would have on the area above the dam that relied not only on the lake for a water supply, but also for its economic impact. Reducing the lake to that level would completely devastate the area financially.

Luckily, after further review, the lake was maintained at about 680 feet while the work commenced on the dam. The media made a big deal about the lake level and led many people to believe the lake was nearly dry. The truth, though, is that the working lake level is only 10 feet below normal winter pool of 690 feet — hardly rendering the lake anywhere close to dry. It did, however, require some work on many of the boat ramps to make them accessible. To date, there have been extensions or improvements made to 52 boat ramps and six water intakes.

The repair work is scheduled for completion in two phases. The first was grouting and this is already complete. The second phase is the installation of a curtain wall, which is ongoing and is scheduled for completion by 2012. The water level is to be raised incrementally throughout the repair project.

Striper fishing has been terrific for those undaunted by the media. Anglers have been catching good numbers of fish and good sizes as well. Fishing is looking very promising, and right now is one of the best times of the entire year to be on the water.

At this time of year, the stripers are spread out a lot and not in the huge schools present at other times of the year. Stripers will be feeding heavily and may be found anywhere there is forage; however, with warming water and constantly fluctuating baitfish activity, forage fish could be most anywhere. Anglers may find fish in a particular location one day and go back the next and not find a single fish. Thus is the reason most professional guides and hardcore striper anglers opt for using planer boards at this time of year.

Planer boards allow anglers to suspend live baits below at a controlled depth and to spread out the baits away from the boat. This not only keeps the lines from getting tangled, but it also allows trolling through a wider path and at staggered depths. Stripers are extremely skittish and tend to shy away when a boat passes. Planer boards push the baits out away from

the noise of the boat to reach the hideouts of wary fish.

Gerald Bates has been chasing stripers for some 36 years and has been on Lake Cumberland since 1990. He has a long list of satisfied clients through the years, as well as striper tournament victories on Cumberland. Additionally, he won the Kentucky State Championship in 2004 and 2005 and was the National Champion in 2003.

Bates loves fishing in April and May, and said he often catches some of the biggest fish of the year during these months. He said that for much of the spring, forage fish are up close to the shore and so are the stripers. Toward the end of April and into May, things will change as the stripers get ready to spawn.

Live bait choices can be varied and either caught with throw nets or purchased from tackle shops. Bates prefers to catch his own bait and will use both alewives and gizzard shad. The alewives are generally caught in the dark under lights, and the shad are caught back in the creeks in depths 10 feet or less. Bates prefers the alewives to be 4 to 6 inches in length and the shad a little larger at 8 to 12 inches.

He will usually troll six planer boards with three lines out each side of the boat, although he said at this time of year the outside boards are mostly a waste of time. He said a fish will occasionally get picked up on the outside, so it makes it worthwhile to run the extra boards, especially if he has clients on board. During April, he will generally put out about 20 to 30 feet of line behind each board, but will use them as "free lines" with no weight.

Out the back of the boat, Bates will troll an additional two lines. On these, he will add a little weight. Generally, the weight will be either 1/4 or 3/8 ounce. All of his baits will be on 3/0 Daiichi Bleeding Bait circle hooks.

Right now, stripers will usually be tight to the bank and will often relate to either clay or rocky banks. "They will mostly likely be on a sloping bank, but that's not a 100 percent rule," said Bates.

The baitfish will determine most of the stripers' movement and whereabouts. Marking bait and fish on a graph, as is common at other times of the year, may not be viable early on, as the fish are so close to the banks. As the day wears on, though, bait may possibly be marked on the graphs.

"Some days they stay on the bank all day, and other days they may pull off later in the day. If you aren't finding fish on the bank, pull off a bit or try a zigzag pattern."

Larry Rowley fishes very similar to Bates, but he has a few variations. Rowley fishes out of the Indian Hills Alligator II Marina where he also works on the days he's not guiding. Alligator II is a very popular launch ramp with striper anglers.

Rowley runs planer boards and down rods with up to nine lines in the water. He also prefers the Daiichi circle hooks, but downsizes to a 2/0 size because he usually buys his bait. He prefers live shiners in 3- to 4-inch sizes.

"The stripers are usually gorging themselves and getting ready to spawn," said Rowley. "They will be up in the creeks and moving out into the main lake. They will be close to the banks where they stage up and wait to ambush bait."

Rowley's spread is a little more open than Bates. He likes to stagger his line depths from 5 to 25 feet until he finds the fish. Then he will set all his lines to that depth. He generally runs just a little heavier weight on his down rods out the stern and really likes their versatility.

"On the down rods, you can quickly run them up or down in case you see fish on the graph. Many times, I'll mark deeper fish on the graph and I'll just kick the reels open and let 'em drop. We pick up a lot of good fish that way."

Night-fishing is another great option at this time of year, although both of our experts prefer fishing in the daylight. Bates said the five-day period centered on the full moon is usually an excellent time for night-fishing. Both guides caution anglers to slow down and take caution at night to avoid running into any floating logs or other dangers.

At night, the stripers can often be heard feeding on the surface near the banks. Anglers should stay back as far as they can and still cast to reach the bank. Lots of baits will work. Various surface baits, shallow-runners and stick baits are used. Two of the most popular are the Zara Spook and the Cotton Cordell Red Fin.

The fishing changes some as May rolls around. Bates said the fish will still be close to the shore early in the morning, but they will move out on the main-river channel after the first couple hours of daylight. This is when he reverts to the zigzag-trolling pattern.

He will still run the same basic spread and baits, but will spread out wider and go deeper "to cover more of the water table," he said. He will stagger baits from close to the surface to as deep as 30 feet. He will also add on more weight on all lines, except for the boards farthest out from the boat. On those, he will still use free lines.

Rowley stays more consistent on his planer board spread, but often changes his fishing location. He prefers to move up into Indian Creek where he believes the fish move along the bank at a more consistent depth. Of course, the locations preferred by stripers can change from day to day, so it's important to be out there as much as possible to keep up with fluctuations and trends.

This year should yield some excellent fishing opportunities. Anglers were catching a lot of sub-legal fish in 2008. By this time, most of those fish will have moved into the keeper category. These fish, according to fisheries biologist John Williams, are part of the 2006 stocking class, which was ramped up as part of an experiment.

The Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources normally stocks seven stripers per acre at Cumberland. In 2006, they stocked 10 fish per acre. They are experimenting with boosting the stocking rates every three years for both stripers and walleyes on a rotating basis. Williams said they want to be careful not to stock too many fish.

"We want to tweak it where we can, but we don't want to mess it up either."

The stocking number was lower in 2007 and 2008 because of the lower lake level, but may be bumped up again this year.

Williams and crew were out on the lake in December and had an excellent return on sampling efforts. He said they had more stripers per net-night than in recent years. He said they always get between six and eight year-classes each time out. Williams said they netted lots of fish in the 22- to 24-inch range last December.

IF YOU GO
Don't forget that Lake Cumberland has special striper regulations that vary from statewide limits. Anglers may keep only two fish per day and the minimum length must be at least 24 inches.

To reach the fishing grounds of our two guid

es, the Jamestown Marina is found on state Route 92 just outside the town of Jamestown. They may be reached at (270) 343-5253, or found online at www.jamestown-marina. com. Alligator II may be reached at (270) 866-6616, or online at www.indianhillsresort.com. They are located near Russell Springs on Route 1383.

To book a trip with one of our guides, reach Gerald Bates at (270) 866-8703, or online at www.fishlakecumberland.com.

Larry Rowley may be found online at www.larrysguideservice.com or reached by calling (270) 866-4319.

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