March 15, 2017
By Paul Moore
Every year right on the cusp of spring, excitement starts building in anticipation of Kentucky bass fishing soon to come. That is not to say there is not good bass fishing right now, but it is about to get a whole lot better in the coming weeks.
One of the best things about bass fishing in Kentucky is that anglers do not get hit with too many surprises. Most bass fisheries stay in great shape and there is usually very little change from one year to the next. Fortunately, there really is not anything significant of a negative nature to report. There are always a few ups and downs in certain fisheries, but overall, bass fisheries across the state are in very good shape. There are even three bass fisheries that have been labeled as "up-and-comers" by the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources — Dewey Lake, Carr Creek Lake and McNeely Lake.
Carr Creek Lake totals 710 acres in eastern Kentucky in Knott County. The bass population at this lake typically does not fare as well after the spawn as most other lakes. Fishery biologists use the term recruitment to indicate bass that are spawned and survive long enough to officially enter the bass population at a lake or other water body. Recruitment of largemouth bass is often poor at Carr Creek Lake.
The KDFWR offsets this lack of recruitment to some degree with supplemental stockings. Fingerling bass introduced to the lake help bolster numbers of adult bass within the fishery. However, sampling and angler reports indicate the fishery is a little on the upswing.
Fishing for quality largemouth bass is generally best in March and April and there are some really nice bigmouths taken at the lake every spring. Smallmouths are not doing quite as well, but the spotted bass fishery at Carr Creek Lake is rated good with plenty of spots up to 16 inches and some larger ones up to 18 inches.
McNeely Lake is not very big at only 51 acres, but the largemouth fishery there has seen a bit of improvement. The fishery is rated good by the KDFWR and sampling indicates good numbers of bass above the 12-inch minimum size limit. Best fishing occurs in the spring by targeting cover and structure along the shoreline and in other shallow water areas.
Most all of the large reservoirs have bass fisheries that are doing quite well, save for a few bumps here and there. So no matter where one may choose to fish in Kentucky, there is almost assuredly a great bass fishery nearby.
When anglers think about fishing in Kentucky, the big twins in western Kentucky usually tops most lists, but there are plenty of other superb fisheries scattered throughout the Bluegrass State. Even so, Kentucky and Barkley lakes offer some of the finest bass fishing in both the state and the country.
The Kentucky Lake largemouth population is rated excellent by the KDFWR, with plenty of fish and good size distribution. There have been several years of good spawns with good recruitment, which has resulted in a largemouth fishery ranging from young of the year to trophy-caliber fish.
Likewise, the largemouth fishery at Lake Barkley is also rated excellent with great numbers and size distribution. Barkley has long been known as having more bass than Kentucky Lake, but not as many large bass. Over the past few years, the balance has swung in the favor of Lake Barkley. Fishery biologists believe Barkley may now have more bass than Kentucky, and also be the better option for big fish.
Bass fishing really starts heating up in the spring as the water temperature begins rising. Largemouths start moving shallow and anglers find good success on points and other transition locations. Later, anglers target them by casting at shoreline stumps, downed trees and other visible targets. Flipping and pitching is also good in these shallow areas, around buck brush or buttonball bushes, and fish attractors placed by the KDFWR and individuals.
After the spawn concludes, bass typically move out of these easily fished shallow areas and take up residence in offshore locations. Current pulled by Kentucky and Barkley dams keeps these big lakes from setting up a thermocline most years, which lets bass go much deeper than in some other reservoirs. With bass in deep water, many anglers move on to other fishing pursuits or are content chunking baits to remaining bass in shallower water. However, by overlooking these deeper locations, anglers miss out on some of the best and most consistent bass fishing of the year.
Beginning in early summer, bass begin staging on deep spots known colloquially as ledges. Ledges are basically changes in bottom contour where the bottom depth drops rapidly from shallower to deeper. Some of the best ledges also have deposits of mussel shells, which show up on electronics as a harder bottom.
Bass hang out along these ledges because the water is cooler and there is less sunlight penetration and disturbance from recreational traffic on the lake. Also, shad, crawfish and other forage are in abundance on these ledges in the summer months.
Current oftentimes helps position bass on these ledges. When there is current being pulled at the dams, bass typically are grouped tighter and biting better, although finding these sweet spots takes more effort. However, after locating the particular spot or spots holding bass on a ledge, the action is very good. When there is little or no current, bass are still caught, but are more scattered. Ledge fishing stays good all summer long.
There are also populations of smallmouth bass at both lakes, but numbers are nowhere near as strong as largemouths. Anglers sometimes catch smallies while fishing for largemouths, but generally smallmouths must be specifically targeted in select areas and habitats.
Rough River Lake and Nolin River Lake also have stable populations of largemouth bass, according to Rob Rold, fisheries biologist. Both lakes are rated good with plenty of bass in the range of 15 to 20 inches. Rold says Lake Malone is still the best bet in his district for trophy-size fish.
Kevin Frey, KDFWR fisheries biologist for the Eastern District, says there are several lakes in eastern Kentucky offering great bass fishing. Some are better for numbers while others are better for big bass. Three that offer a little bit of both are Dewey Lake, Fishtrap Lake and Yatesville Lake. All three are rated good and have decent size distribution with high catch rates on keeper fish.
Fishtrap Lake also has a decent population of smallmouths. Some 10 percent of the black bass sampled at Fishtrap are smallmouths, according to Frey, with fish available up to 22 inches. A smaller population of spotted bass is another bonus.
Although the largemouth population is in good shape at Fishtrap, the lake does see some natural recruitment problems. Sampling has shown poor recruitment in some years with good or excellent in other years. The KDFWR bolstered the population with supplemental stockings of largemouth fingerlings in 2012, 2013 and 2014.
There are very good numbers of large fish at Fishtrap, too. Electrofishing and angler creel reports show plenty of fish available in the 20- to 22-inch range, with largemouths up to 26 inches being sampled recently.
Fishing for largemouths is typically successful, but the lake is a flood control reservoir and subject to frequent fluctuations in water level. This sometimes leaves anglers battling muddy water and dealing with clear water other times. Spring fishing involves casting baits at shoreline structure and cover, but this gets frustrating at times due to the up and down water levels. To combat this, many anglers switch over to night fishing by late spring and continue fishing in the dark throughout the summer months.
As the lake begins coming up to summer pool in the spring, smallmouths start showing up around shoreline areas with submerged roadbeds or brush. Later, smallies are often found in the backs of coves with an inflowing creek. The smallmouths and sometimes even some jumbo largemouths are found in the mouths of these creeks where the water temperature is a few degrees cooler and full of shad and other forage. Smallmouth fishing is also very good up into the Levisa Fork River that flows into Fishtrap Lake.
Another eastern spot with some jumbo bass is Fishpond Lake, which is a deep, clear lake of only 32 acres.
"It is tough to fish in daylight hours and is stocked with rainbow trout, but this small lake produces a good number of 9- to 12-pound fish in our electrofishing results," said Frey. "It is worth a look if staying in east Kentucky for a couple days bass fishing. The lake is electric motor only, but the ramp at the dam is good for launching large bass boats and there is a nice large courtesy dock at this ramp."
Laurel River Lake in southeastern Kentucky has long been a great destination for jumbo smallmouths, but the largemouth population is almost a sleeper pick, because it gets somewhat overshadowed by talk of the smallmouths. However, according to Fisheries Biologist John Williams, the largemouth fishery has been improving over the last decade and is in quite good shape right now. Sampling has shown plenty of largemouths up to 18 inches with bigger fish over 20 inches available.
Of course, Laurel remains one of the best bets around for landing a trophy smallmouth, although the lake is very tough to fish at times. However, any cast could land the biggest smallmouth of a lifetime and potentially even a new state record, according to some locals.
"It is hard to beat Cedar Creek Lake for big bass," said Williams. "The numbers there have plateaued, it can't keep getting better forever, but it is still our best lake in terms of quantity of bass over 18 inches."
These are only a few of the top choices in the state and there are numerous others that deserve to make the list. Overall, Kentuckians are blessed with dozens of great bass fisheries from which to choose.
Trophy Bass Program
Anglers already have very good potential for landing a trophy bass in Kentucky waters, but the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources has started a brand new program to increase the odds even more. The Trophy Bass Propagation Program is aimed at upping those odds through genetics.
Through the program, the KDFWR is collecting trophy bass, females over 8 pounds and males over 6 pounds, to be used as brood stock at the state fish hatcheries.
The program web page states, "By pairing male and female largemouth bass, which have already shown the ability to grow to larger-than-average size, we hope to produce offspring with the same genetic growth potential. Stocking these offspring across the state could provide anglers a better chance at catching a memorable-size fish or even a new state record."
The KDFWR is accepting trophy bass caught by anglers from October 1 until May 31. Fish will not be accepted outside those dates due to handling stress during warm water conditions. The fish will be kept in ponds until time to spawn and then trophy males and trophy females will be paired for spawning. Offspring will be raised until they are approximately 5 inches in length and then will be stocked in lakes across the state. Brood stock will be rotated out after a certain time and trophy fish will be returned to the lake from which they came.