This Harlan County impoundment is the only lake in Kentucky where anglers can tangle with four different species of bass! (April 2009)
Imagine fishing a lake where any cast could result in catching any one of our four recognized black bass species in Kentucky. Well, that's just what you'll find at Martins Fork Lake in Harlan County. This small, scenic area tucked away in southeastern Kentucky near the Virginia state line is the only place in the state where anglers have an opportunity to catch largemouth, smallmouth, spotted (Kentucky) and Coosa bass all in one water.
Of course, the first three bass are well known to anglers, but the Coosa bass is seldom discussed, and many anglers are not even familiar with it or know of its presence in Kentucky. Although small, it is a tenacious fighter for its size and also a very attractive fish. The fins of the Coosa bass will be orange to orange-red and the caudal and anal fins will be tipped in white. The lower jaw of a breeding male will get a bluish color around it like a bluegill and the head area and behind the eye may get a red tint during the spawn.
The Coosa bass is native to Alabama and Georgia and is named for the Coosa River, which flows through the two states and is the predominant home range of these Coosa bass. Both Tennessee and Kentucky have populations of Coosa bass, but they are introduced fish and not native species. It is believed that Kentucky's population was introduced sometime in the 1950s.
Martins Fork Lake is approximately 330 acres in size and is formed along the Martins Fork Creek. The Coosa bass inhabit the lake proper as well as the creek above and below the lake. A few will also turn up in some of the small streams entering Martins Fork Creek downstream of the lake, such as Catron Creek. However, the Coosa bass distribution ends once Martins Fork Creek enters the Cumberland River in Harlan.
Although all four species of bass are present in the lake, they are not in equal numbers. Largemouth bass dominate the fishery and amount to about 65 percent of the total bass present. Spotted bass are the second most numerous, making up approximately 28 percent of the fishery. Much smaller numbers of Coosa and smallmouth bass finish out the fishery distribution.
In the past, there was no state record for Coosa bass because they were governed by the statewide black bass size limit of 12 inches and one had never been presented above the minimum size. However, after the 12-inch restriction was lifted on Coosa bass, it wasn't long before a state- record fish was produced. Wayne Howard of Cawood holds the current state record. The fish was caught in July of 2005, and measured 10.8 inches long with a weight of .53 pounds.
Howard is the owner of the Lakeway Market, which is located on Martins Fork Creek approximately a mile from the lake. He caught the record fish in the creek near his store. He believes the bass was actually heavier when first caught, but unfortunately, he had to keep the fish alive in a holding tank for several days before it could be verified by a Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR) fisheries biologist.
Howard is an avid bass angler and loves fishing the lake and creek near his store. He said the bass fishery at the lake is really good, but warns that the area does get a heavy amount of fishing pressure. Nonetheless, anglers are still landing plenty of fish and many are quality size. Howard has a number of these fish on display at his store.
There are some really big largemouths in the lake as well, according to Howard. On the wall at his store, he has a 7-pound, 2-ounce lunker from the fall of 2005 and a huge 9.8-pound bigmouth caught in 2004. Other anglers donated both mounts. Howard knows of another bass in the 9-pound range that was caught just last fall at the lake on a crankbait.
The Martins Fork Bass Anglers holds several bass tournaments in the area, some of which are on Martins Fork Lake. Last year, the first tournament was won with a five-fish limit weighing 15 pounds. The next tournament produced a winning weight of 16 pounds. Later, a night tournament yielded a five-fish winning total of 18 pounds. These tournament results are a good testimony to the quality of the bass fishery at Martins Fork.
Kevin Frey, the Eastern District fisheries biologist for the KDFWR, said, "Bass fishing is good at Martins Fork Lake. However, the lake is clear and oligotrophic (low fertility), so you don't have the numbers of bass as in a western Kentucky lake. The lower numbers of bass allows them to grow at equivalent rates as west Kentucky fish though."
The distribution of the bass species is scattered throughout the lake. Frey said both largemouth and spotted bass are found throughout the lake. "Generally, the Coosa bass will reside downstream of where state Route (SR) 987 crosses the lake. Above SR 987 is just largemouth and spotted bass."
One of the better areas for Coosa and smallmouth bass is near the confluence of Martins Fork Creek into the lake and near the dam. The Coosa bass will often hold near shallow rocky banks, sandy areas or old submerged roadbeds. The smallmouths can also be found near the rocky areas, as well as sometimes in the standing timber.
There are a good number of spotted bass in the lake, too, as is shown in the distribution percentage mentioned earlier. Howard has seen a number of good-sized spots come from the lake. The largest he's seen is a 4-pounder caught in 2004, but he said a fish in the 3-pound range was caught last year. Spotted bass normally don't get really large in Kentucky, so don't expect the average to run close to 3 or 4 pounds. Most fish caught will be in the 10- to 13-inch range.
Frey and his staff sample the lake regularly and find good size distribution among the bass. He said the largemouth fishery is in good shape with fish up to 22 inches. The spotted bass are common up to 14 to 15 inches. Smallmouth bass are rare during sampling efforts, but fish are present up to 18 inches.
Sampling results for the Coosa bass is quite interesting, especially regarding the size of the state-record fish. Frey has sampled Coosa bass up to 11.8 inches, which is actually an inch longer than the state-record fish. He said fish in the 10- to 10.5-inch range are always present.
Howard likes to fish for the Coosa and spotted bass along the lake's deeper walls, little cliffs and dropoffs. He said the smallmouths are generally found on the other side where it is rockier or near the creek.
According to Howard, the best time for largemouth fishing at Martins Fork is during the spring when the bass come up shallow in preparation to spawn. He looks for them along the flats and likes throwing either a crankbait or spinnerbait now. Howard said the fishing gets
tougher after May, though, because the bass will go deeper. This is when he will switch over to plastic worms and lizards or maybe even a crawdad. This summer pattern will usually hold until around September, said Howard. Then in the fall, spinnerbaits and buzzbaits are the ticket for success.
As mentioned, the smallmouth population is nowhere near as strong as the other bass species, but there are a few dandy fish lurking beneath the surface. Anglers who are looking strictly for smallmouths may want to try the months between late fall and early spring when the water is cooler. Gloomy days with cloud cover, some wind, and even rain or spitting snow are excellent days to land a smallie.
Martins Fork Lake may be found off SR 987, which is located south of Harlan off U.S. Route 421. Turn at the U.S. Corps of Engineers office and follow the road to the boat ramp. The ramp is open year 'round, provides free boat launching, is paved and has parking for up to 25 vehicles. Bank access is also available at the lake and at the tailwaters.
Wayne Howard would be glad to assist anglers new to the area. His store also provides terminal tackle and live bait. His Lakeway Market may be found on SR 987 or can be reached by phone at (606) 574-0944.
Statewide regulations apply to size and creel limits for bass fishing at Martins Fork Lake. Gas motors are permitted, but those over 10 horsepower are restricted to idle speed only. More information on fishing at Martins Fork may be obtained by contacting Kevin Frey at the Eastern District Fisheries Office in Prestonsburg at (606) 889-1705. Also, because Martins Fork is a Corps of Engineers lake, the Resource Manager's office is another great source and may be reached at (606) 573-7655 or visited in person while at the lake.