It doesn't get much better for largemouth (even smallmouth) fishing than on our state's Kentucky and Barkley lakes. Read on for top picks on both expansive waters! (March 2010)
"One great thing about Kentucky Lake and Barkley is you really can't pick a bad area of either lake," said Mike Auten of Benton. "The creeks have similar configurations up and down the lakes, so what works in one creek will likely work in the next one."
An avid bass angler who has spent time guiding on Kentucky Lake and has fished both lakes extensively both in tournaments and for fun for many years, Auten anticipates good action when he fishes either lake during the spring. Exactly how he approaches the fishing any given day varies according to water levels, but the results tend to be good.
Both Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley earned "excellent" ratings for largemouth bass in the 2009 edition of the state's Fishing Forecast and Tips, which is put together annually by the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR) and is based on extensive sampling done annually by biologists.
Kentucky Lake also earned a good rating for its smallmouth bass offerings, and while Barkley smallmouths notched only a fair rating, the forecast noted that smallmouths are common around certain habitats. The report also indicates that spring is one of the best times of the year to catch Barkley's smallmouths, and that also holds true at Kentucky Lake.
Covering a combined area of nearly 100,000 acres in Kentucky alone, Kentucky and Barkley offer a tremendous amount of opportunity for bass fishermen. Running side-by-side along the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers and being connected by a canal at their lower ends, the lakes are in many ways quite similar. Both are somewhat riverine but wider through their lower reaches, with numerous creeks coming in from both sides. Additionally, both run roughly south to north through Kentucky.
In ways, however, the two big lakes are distinctive. Barkley is shallower overall and offers more buttonbushes, downed trees and other woody, shallow cover. Kentucky Lake is clearer and therefore supports more aquatic vegetation. Built in 1944, Kentucky Lake is more than two decades older than neighboring Lake Barkley, and much more of its woody cover has rotted. However, the KDFWR has planted cypress trees and willows in places to restore shallow cover in Kentucky Lake.
The amount of grass in both lakes varies annually, based largely on water clarity (which varies based on seasonal rainfall). At times, the acreage of grass in the Kentucky portion of Kentucky Lake has dwindled to only a few hundred acres. During the past few years, the amount of grass has been on the increase, and the Kentucky portion now contains more than 5,000 acres of grass when the vegetation is grown out each summer. That has been a boon to the bass population, especially toward the southern end of the lake's Kentucky portion and on into Tennessee. The grass remains somewhat dormant and submerged during the spring and is more difficult to find, but the fishing can be good over the developing grassbeds.
Because Kentucky and Barkley lakes' waters are linked and their water levels go through the same ups and downs, population trends tend to be similar, according to fisheries biologist Paul Rister. They both tend to have good spawns and bad spawns during the same years. A couple of recent excellent year-classes have resulted in very high numbers of small fish in both lakes. However, the populations also contain good numbers of 18- to 20-inch bass, which are the fish that are being brought to the tournament scales on a regular basis and that have drawn national attention to the lakes' bass fisheries.
Largemouth growth rates are excellent in Lake Barkley when compared with other lakes in Kentucky, and there is minimal variance in growth rates from one year to the next. Kentucky Lake bass typically enjoy good growth rates, but for more than a decade that rate has been excellent. Given the very high number of fish in the lake from great recent spawns, biologists believe that might fall back slightly to what they would characterize as a good growth rate once again.
Looking at the most recent data available from bass tournaments on lakes throughout Kentucky, Kentucky Lake and Barkley topped all other waters in a few important categories, all of which point toward the high quality of bass available in these lakes. Anglers fishing tournaments on these two lakes invested the smallest number of tournament hours on average for every 4-pound-plus bass caught. Additionally, Kentucky and Barkley were the top two lakes in the state in terms of the number of 6-pound-plus bass brought to the scales. Finally, Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley placed first and second, respectively, for the largest average winning weight for an eight-hour tournament.
Auten, who moved to Benton in 1990 specifically for the purpose of living close to Kentucky Lake when he was fishing bass tournaments full time, said that he generally catches larger numbers of bass at Lake Barkley, but he catches better quality fish, on average, at Kentucky Lake. "That's not to say that there aren't plenty of big fish in Barkley. There are," he said. "I just seem to catch better quality fish overall at Kentucky."
In recent years, Auten has caught more big bass out of the northern end of Kentucky Lake; however, the numbers in the southern portion have been "through the roof," which he believes may be attributable to the increasing abundance of grass in the southern portion, which has more shallow flats adjacent to the river channel.
Auten also catches more smallmouths from Kentucky Lake than from Barkley, but during early spring, big smallies are apt to be caught around rocky cover in the far lower reaches of both lakes. The riprap along the edges of the canal that links the lakes also produces some good smallmouth fishing at times, especially when a good amount of current is pushing through the canal.
For spring fishing on either lake, Auten's strategy depends largely on water levels. March and April can be major transition months, he noted, and a lot depends on the amount of rain that has fallen in the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers watersheds. The lakes get drawn down 5 feet in a normal year, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers aims to begin bringing the water back up on April 1. The actual timing varies quite a bit with rainfall, but some point during April, the water typically works its way back up to full pool. At the same time, water temperatures are gradually creeping up, so the fish move up into the creeks and spawning pockets as the season progresses.
During March, when the water level normally remains low, Auten expects the fish to be relating to main-lake structural features just outside the mouths of the creek or barely inside the creeks. If the level does come up, he will search farther up the creeks. As spring progre
sses, he looks for the best concentrations of bass to be farther and farther back in the creeks and the pockets.
Early in the season, Auten often focuses on steep rocky main-lake banks, secondary points just inside the creeks and riprap banks, favoring areas where deep water is nearby. If he's fishing Barkley, he'll pay special attention to any wood cover that's in the water in these types of areas. Very little cover will be submerged along main-lake banks at Kentucky Lake, so changes in the rock makeup, outcrops and other hard-structure features become extra important. For this low-water fishing, Auten typically will throw three main baits -- a suspending jerkbait, a lipless, rattling crankbait and a medium-running crankbait.
If the water is clear, Auten's favorite tool for working main-lake banks is a Smithwick Rattlin' Rogue, and he said that under those conditions every bass fisherman will have a suspending jerkbait tied to at least one rod. Fished with a combination of jerks and pauses, a Rogue attracts the attention of largemouths and smallmouths alike and produces some really big fish during early spring.
"Everyone has their favorite colors of Rogue," Auten said. "I especially like Chrome Black Back and Foxy Momma."
Probably the most overlooked variable for jerkbait fishing is the length of the pause. On cold spring days, especially, it's sometimes necessary to leave the baits suspending motionless for several seconds at a time, and on those days the fish will usually take off with the bait during the pause. The length and sharpness of each jerk can make a big difference, as well.
If the water has a bit of color or the fish simply aren't hitting a Rogue as well as Auten would prefer, he will switch to an XCalibur Xr50 or Xr75 Rattle Bait (1/2- and 3/4-ounce, respectively) or a Bomber Fat Free Fingerling, and often he'll have these baits tied on different rods and rotate using them on the same types of banks until the bass reveal a preference. Both are fairly fast-moving lures that he can use to cover a lot of water in search of concentrations of bass.
For Rattle Bait fishing, Auten especially likes secondary points just inside of creeks and gravel bars and flats that are just outside of the pockets. He looks for the places where he expects the fish to move to when it becomes time to spawn and then concentrates on the zone just outside those spawning pockets, where the fish will stage until the water comes up.
Rising water levels often occur concurrently with rising water temperatures, so as the water rises, the bass will begin moving back into the creeks and the coves and relate to shoreline cover. As spring progresses, they'll move farther and farther back, so the challenge of any given day is figuring out how far they have moved.
When the bass do move shallow, Auten's primary tools become jigs, spinnerbaits and Texas-rigged soft-plastic baits, and more often than not he'll have something from all three categories tied to the ends of his rods. "During that time, it becomes pretty basic fishing -- casting and pitching around visible cover," Auten said.
When the water reaches full pool on Kentucky Lake, willows and cypress trees provide some of the most important shallow cover, according to Auten. Barkley has more buttonbushes, stumps and downed trees in the water. "That's gradually changing as Barkley gets older, though, he said.
For spinnerbait fishing, Auten prefers a 1/2- or 1/4-ounce BOOYAH Blade with a traditional Colorado/ willow leaf configuration. His color combination of choice is chartreuse and white. A spinnerbait allows him to imitate baitfish and to cover a lot of water as he tries to figure out how far back in the creeks and pockets the fish have moved. It also appeals to more aggressively feeding bass. When he wants to slow down and work specific pieces of cover more thoroughly, Auten switches to Texas-rigged soft-plastic baits or a jig.
Auten, who has fished all over the nation in tournaments, noted that an important aspect of both of these lakes is that typically there is not a hot creek or area of the lake where an angler has to fish in order to find success. What is much more important, from his observation, is to figure out the specific cover the fish are relating to, how far back they are in the creeks, how deep they are sitting, how aggressive they are and other patterning details, and then try to repeat that in other creeks.
"Often, when you find fish on Kentucky or Barkley, you can look at a lake map and find the similar spots in other creeks and go from one to the next and catch fish the same way."
Although the bass are apt to be shallow or staging to move shallow during the spring, no look at Kentucky and Barkley lakes would be complete without some mention of the astounding ledge fishing that begins soon after the fish move off the beds and continues throughout the summer. The edges of the inundated Tennessee and Cumberland River channels produce the world-class bass fishing during the warm months for anglers who learn to find confluences, channel bends, bottom makeup changes and other features along the river channel ledges that hold concentrations of bass.
Deep-running crankbaits are the most common baits used for working the ledges. Jumbo-sized plastic worms in dark colors are also highly popular and account for a lot of big bass. The ledge fishing definitely is best when plenty of water is flowing through Kentucky and/or Barkley dam, creating current in the main channels of the lakes.
The minimum size for largemouth or smallmouth bass on Barkley and Kentucky lakes is 15 inches, with a combined creel limit of six fish for all black bass.
A reciprocal agreement between Kentucky and Tennessee allows anglers who possess a valid Kentucky license to fish as far south as the Governor Ned McWhorter Bridge (U.S. Highway 79/state Route 76) in Tennessee, including tributaries. No reciprocal agreement covers Tennessee waters on Barkley, but more than two-thirds of the lake's total acreage and most of the best bass fishing is in Kentucky anyway. Boating access to both lakes is outstanding, with numerous public and private ramps providing access to all areas.
For much more on Kentucky fishing, including updated fishing reports, complete regulations and access information, visit the KDFWR's Web site at fw.ky.gov.