Fishtrap Lake Hybrid Striper Bonanza

This Pike County lake has come on strong of late as a hotbed for big hybrid stripers, some exceeding 10 pounds! Here's where you should try right now!

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

By Jeff Samsel

Three out of four isn't bad. In fact, earning an "excellent" assessment in three of the four categories that biologists look at when they survey hybrid populations in Kentucky lakes seems pretty darned good. Having done just that, Fishtrap Lake easily earned an "excellent" rating for hybrids in the 2004 Fishing Forecast, published by the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR).

When the KDFWR conducts annual netting surveys to look at hybrid populations, they evaluate the population density, size distribution, recruitment and growth rates. Fishtrap rated excellent in all categories, except growth rates, and it earned a "good" score in that category. Fishtrap Lake hybrids average 17.3 inches long at 2 1/2 years of age. An average size of 18 inches for the same age fish would have pushed it into the excellent range for that category as well.

In terms of population densities, Fishtrap Lake ranks second in the state only to Barren River Lake, according to Kevin Frey, an eastern Kentucky regional fisheries biologist for the KDFWR. Highly fertile, Barren River Lake has always stood out as Kentucky's premier hybrid striper reservoir.

The lengths of fish captured in samples ranged from 6 to 28 inches, with good representation throughout these sizes, Frey said. He also notes that because the sample takes only a limited number of fish that there almost certainly are fish in the population that are even larger than the biggest fish captured. Anglers should catch occasional fish in the 30- to 32-inch range, according to the biologist.

Adding even more credence to Fishtrap's high rating, fishermen have enjoyed very good success during the past few years. Catch rates have been high, with good quality fish in the mix. The average size of fish caught is more then 3 pounds, based on the reports that Frey regularly hears, and 8- or 9-pound hybrids are not uncommon. The biggest hybrids he has learned about, one of which he actually saw, have been in the 15-pound range.

"I think it took a little while for local anglers to learn how to fish for the hybrids, but now that they have that knowledge, they do very well," Frey said. "Hybrid fishing has gotten very popular and still seems to be growing in popularity."

Frey noted that far more anglers seem to be staying home to fish. Eastern Kentucky anglers used to travel to Tennessee quite a bit to fish for striped bass and hybrid stripers, but now they have a first-rate fishery right in their own back yards.

Fishtrap Lake impounds the Levisa Fork of the Big Sandy River in the coal country of far eastern Kentucky. It is formed by the highest dam in the eastern part of the state. The lake covers 1,130 acres, almost all of which are contained in a very narrow main body. The headwaters contain shallow, rocky shoals broken by deep pools. Most of the lake is steep-sided and fairly deep.

The lake's normal water color is relatively clear, but heavy rains will cause the water to become muddy, especially through its upper reaches. Heavy rains also will cause the lake level to rise rapidly, as it was built for the purpose of flood control to protect the Levisa Fork Valley downstream.

The KDFWR has been stocking Fishtrap Lake with hybrid stripers since 1990. Annually, 1 1/2- to 2-inch fingerlings are released. Stocking totals typically range between 25,000 to 30,000 fish. The target rate is 25 fish per acre, but actual totals vary annually based on hatchery success and the total need for hybrids throughout the state.

Fishtrap's hybrids stay well fed on a thriving population of gizzard shad. The fish probably also eat a few sunfish and various minnow species in the headwaters, but shad clearly dominate the forage base. Gizzard shad grow quickly, and first-year fish fairly rapidly move out of a useful size range for crappie and most bass each year; however, larger hybrids are able to utilize gizzard shad throughout the year.

As open-water fish, hybrids tend to follow shad all over the lake, and they can be caught from one end to the other. Anglers likewise will follow the baitfish, because when they find good numbers of shad, the hybrids typically are not far away. Through midsummer, hybrids also look for slightly cooler water, which can help concentrate them.

Many anglers turn to fishing under the stars during the summer, Frey said. Hybrids will move a bit shallower and feed more aggressively at night. This means better opportunities for good catches. Hybrids move a lot at night, cruising along creek channels in groups, so action often occurs in flurries.

Most nighttime fishermen get out while it's still light and spend a fair amount of time searching for baitfish and hybrids with their electronics. They look for fish over points and humps in the lower third of the lake or follow the edge of the main channel. Ideally, an angler wants to find a big concentration of hybrids atop a point so he can anchor right over the fish. However, an abundance of baitfish in the area around a hump or a point strongly suggests that the hybrids are nearby and will spend some time feeding over that structure.

One of the most popular baits for catching hybrids of Fishtrap might surprise some fishermen, Frey noted. Many local fishermen use chicken livers, which they rig on free lines or with very little weight. They cast the livers out and let them sink slowly. If hybrids are around, one often will be off and running with the bait before it ever gets to the bottom.

Along with chicken livers, many anglers use fresh gizzard shad for nighttime hybrids. Some prefer live bait, which they fish on down lines at whatever depths they are seeing the most baitfish or hybrids on the graph. Others cut big shad into chunks and spread lines around the boat with their baits on the bottom. Many anglers use some combination of livers on free lines, live bait on down lines and cut bait on the bottom and let the hybrids decide.

Along with night-fishing, another interesting and very effective approach that has gained popularity over the last couple summers has been to wade the shoals in the headwaters of the lake and cast bucktails and other artificial offerings. The 15-pound hybrid that Frey saw last year was caught well up the river by a wading angler late in the summer.

The hybrids probably move up the river during late summer because of the cooling influence of the moving waters. Prime areas include rocky runs that offer at least a few feet of water over them with good current and zones where shoals and pools meet.

Fish that don't run up the river tend to concentrate at the opposite end of the lake, in the deep waters near the dam. Daytime anglers who fish by boat often congregate in that part of the lake. Like night-fishermen, these anglers typically spend a fair amount of time searching for baitfish and hybrids with their electronics. However, some of the most popular daytime approaches target suspended fish in open water instead of fish holding on or near the bottom over structural features.

Probably the most popular daytime approach is to put out several live shad on down lines, suspending the baits over those depths where the most baitfish and hybrids are showing on the graph. Depending on conditions and what the graph is showing, anglers might anchor over a specific spot, drift across the lake's main body or use a trolling motor to keep the boat moving very slowly.

An alternative technique, which can be extremely effective, but requires more specialized equipment, is controlled-depth trolling. When most hybrids are holding at a certain depth, but they are spread over a big area, anglers can do very well by trolling spoons or bucktails at that depth through the use of lead-core lines or downriggers.

Whether under the stars, up the river or close to the dam, anglers generally enjoy good hybrid action. Few freshwater fish pull harder, pound for pound, than hybrid stripers. Anglers who haven't taken on Fishtrap Lake hybrids owe themselves a trip to the mountains to tap into this exciting fishery.

BEFORE YOU GO

The combined limit for white bass, yellow bass, striped bass and hybrids on Fishtrap Lake is five fish, with a 15-inch minimum size. Three access areas provide boating access to the lake. Fishtrap Marina, located at the Dam Access Area, offers bait and tackle and other supplies. There is a campground at the Grapevine Access Area.



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