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Best Bass Fishing: Think Big Fish, Small Lakes

Best Bass Fishing: Think Big Fish, Small Lakes
May is prime time for largemouth bass in South Carolina. These lakes prove it. (Photo by Scott Bernarde)

While the big lakes and reservoirs get the tournaments and the press, some of the best bass fishing can be found in the smaller public lakes.

By Paul E. Moore

Bass fishing comes in many flavors. From tournament competition to simple fun fishing, there is something for most every angling taste. In Kentucky, anglers fish for bass everywhere from farm ponds to streams to huge reservoirs.

Trophy potential and catch rates in smaller lakes often outshine larger waters. (Photo by Scott Bernarde)

Although the big reservoirs all have great bass fisheries and offer a lot of opportunity, they are far from the only choices in the state. Many of the small- and medium-size lakes have tremendous bass fishing. In fact, trophy potential and catch rates in smaller lakes often outshine larger waters.

Most all of the smaller lakes in the state are actively managed by the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR), which means the department keeps a close eye on the fisheries and manages them to provide the most opportunities. As a result, some smaller waters are great choices for chasing bass.


This small lake of 334 acres offers anglers a unique opportunity in that it is possible to catch four species of bass at this lake. Present in the lake are largemouth, smallmouth, spotted (Kentucky) and Coosa bass. A new state record of 1.21 pounds was set for Coosa in 2013.

The Coosa bass is the smallest of the four bass species found in Kentucky, but for its size, it is a very scrappy fighter. The lower jaw of a male turns a bluish color during the breeding stage and oftentimes a red tint develops on the head and behind the eye. In some areas, Coosa bass are also known as a redeye bass.

The upper end of this Harlan County lake is fed by two main drainages — Cranks Creek Lake and Martins Fork, for which the lake is named. There is one boat launch with a courtesy dock near the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers office at the lake.

This lake is really clear, so beginning in late spring and continuing throughout the summer, most anglers turn to night fishing for the most success. Tuesday nights are the main night for most of the local tournaments and boat traffic sometimes gets a little crowded. However, other nights of the week offer anglers ample opportunity.

Most anglers employ a variety of plastic-worm tactics, though crankbaits and topwaters are successful at times.

The best largemouth fishing in the summer occurs near the dam and a short way into the Cranks Creek and Martins Fork arms. Target shoreline areas with deadfall trees, brush, standing trees or submerged roadbeds. Spotted bass are sometimes found intermixed with largemouths in these areas. To target spotted bass directly, try shoreline areas with abundant rocks. During the summer, smallmouths usually suspend along rock walls in the lower end of the lake near the dam and in the middle section of the lake along deep break lines of submerged roadbeds.

"The largemouth, spotted and smallmouth all out compete Coosa bass for habitat," said Kevin Frey, KDFWR fisheries biologist. "This generally forces the smaller Coosa bass into areas not occupied by other black bass. This produces best numbers of Coosa bass in the Martins Fork tributary entering the lake. The further upstream you go, the better the population of Coosa bass. Some Coosa bass are scattered around the main lake body, usually in very shallow water and right up against the shoreline in rock or gravely locations."

All four bass species are present in numbers large enough to provide reasonable opportunity. Largemouths are present in good numbers up 22 inches, smallmouths to 15 inches, spotted bass to 13 inches and Coosa bass to 10 inches. Although the Coosa bass size is quite small, it is intriguing to have the opportunity to possibly catch all four species on one lake.


There are two lakes up in the northeastern section of the state that fill the bill for small lakes with great bass fisheries. Lake Wilgreen and Greenbo Lake offer anglers some really quality bass, but both come with a couple of downsides.

Lake Wilgreen is in Madison County and totals about 169 acres. The largemouth fishery there is rated excellent by the KDFWR assessment system and there are plenty of quality size fish available.

"It has some of the best numbers of any lake we have in our area," said Tom Timmermann, Northeastern fisheries biologist. "The last sample collected had around 45 percent of our fish over 15 inches. And they are fat fish too. Weights are running at 96 percent of the standard for fish over 15 inches, which is great."

The bass fishery is certainly in great condition, but with that comes the downside to fishing the area. The bass get a tremendous amount of fishing pressure from casual anglers, as well as numerous tournaments, especially through the spring and summer months.

Another smaller lake in Timmermann's district is Greenbo Lake, which is in Greenup County and totals 181 acres. Its largemouth bass fishery is rated good by the KDFWR, with good numbers of fish over 15 inches and chances for trophy-size fish over 20 inches.

"Greenbo has some monsters," said Timmermann. "Some of the biggest fish ever collected in the district, and it has held the state record. Problem is, this deep clear lake is insanely difficult to fish. You'll have to pull out all the stops on being stealthy, sneaking up on the fish and fish using some of the most realistic looking baits you can find. Trout imitating baits would be what I would use, fishing around structures, especially the downed pines near the lodge."

Another highly critical consideration when fishing Greenbo Lake is the presence of hydrilla. This highly invasive and tremendously detrimental aquatic plant has been discovered at Greenbo and anglers must exercise extreme caution not to transport this plant on boats to other lakes. Please take the time to research how to clean a boat after being in a lake with hydrilla and use due diligence to prevent its spread. Even the smallest sprig of this plant can launch an entire colony in a new lake.


Anglers looking for a little bit of everything might want to consider Guist Creek Lake in Shelby County. It is 317 acres and has a tremendous largemouth bass population.

"The Guist Creek Lake bass population is very stable with excellent numbers of keeper bass, over 12 inches, in the lake," said Jeff Crosby, Central District biologist. "It has exceptional numbers of bass over 15 and 20 inches in the lake."

There are several techniques that will catch fish on this lake in June and into summer. Early in the morning or very late in the evening, largemouths are susceptible to topwater offerings, such as buzzbaits or stickbaits. Largemouth bass also love water willow beds, which is a willow-looking grass that grows along the bank out into around 3 to 4 feet of water.

Deep-diving crankbaits are a good option; however, as summertime sets in and the lake begins to stratify — no oxygen at deeper depths — care must be taken not to fish too deep.A shallow-running crankbait, especially a square bill, is often very effective when fished through fallen trees and other shoreline cover. Jigs or creature baits are other great options during these months, especially at night during the summer. Structure locations can be found at

Another nearby option is Kinkaid Lake in Pendleton County. It is 183 acres and has excellent numbers of keeper bass with plenty of fish over 15 inches and the potential to catch a trophy.

Next time the bass fishing bug bites, try one of Kentucky's great smaller waters. (Photo by Scott Bernarde)


Mauzy only totals 81 acres in western Kentucky at the Higginson-Henry Wildlife Management Area in Union County. Despite its size, it is home to some impressive largemouth bass.

The bass fishery once carried an excellent rating, but the most recent assessment has lowered it to a rating of good. The number of bass between 12 and 16 inches has declined some over the past couple of years. However, there are still good numbers of bass between 18 and 21 inches present. Additionally, the KDFWR fishing forecast states: "A good number of smaller fish in the population should bring up the number of mid-sized fish as they grow into this size range in the next few years."

There are plenty of bass in this small lake and some real hawgs in the mix, but catching them takes some skill. This definitely is not the lake to take a beginning angler with a promise of catching lots of fish. These fish get pressured and have seen just about every bait available to anglers. Patience and lots of savvy are the keys to success.

There are numerous downed trees, submerged brush and aquatic weeds at Lake Mauzy. Plastic worms or creature baits are good choices to work around the brush and woody debris, especially in spring and early summer. Spinnerbaits and crankbaits are other options. There are lots of weed beds and mats in the lake, so casting and retrieving baits down the edges of the weed lines sometimes produce good hits. Plastic frogs worked topwater in openings in the weeds are also good to try.

There is a deeper channel in the main body of the lake running perpendicular from the earthen dam. Jigs and other baits fished along the edges of this channel are good bets at times of the year when bass are deep. There is also a fishing pier and 12 jetties with a fish attractor in front of each placed by the KDFWR. Lake Mauzy has one gravel boat ramp that accommodates most trailered boats; however, gas motors may not be used on the lake.

Largemouth bass are the most popular species pursued by anglers in the state, so the KDFWR closely monitors and manages these fisheries across the state to provide the best fishing opportunities possible. Next time the bass fishing bug bites, instead of just heading for the nearest super-sized reservoir, try one of our great smaller waters. It just might result in a very pleasant surprise.

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