Largemouth and smallmouth bass are on tap on the huge waters of Kentucky and Barkley lakes. Read on for top places to try this month! (May 2006)
When the morning topwater bite has waned, the angler decides to make a move.
In some ways, it's just like the moves that bass anglers regularly make. He'll fire up the engine, run for 15 minutes or so and pull up on a long point at the mouth of a major bay, then start fishing the main lake before working back into the bay.
In other ways, his run is unlike almost all others. This angler will run to a totally different lake in hopes of finding clearer water and more current -- and he'll do so without having had to go through any locks.
Kentucky and Barkley lakes are linked by a canal near the dams that impound the two big reservoirs. And together, these lakes in western Kentucky offer an amazing amount of opportunity for largemouths and smallmouths alike. Kentucky and Barkley both begin in Tennessee and flow roughly south to north through Kentucky. Together, they offer nearly 100,000 acres of fishing waters within the borders of the commonwealth. Largemouths clearly dominate the black bass population in both reservoirs, but smallmouths are well represented in the lakes' lower reaches -- and the smallies sometimes grow to super sizes.
The two lakes, which impound the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers, flow side-by-side from south to north through their Kentucky portions, which make up the lower ends of each lake. In ways the lake are alike, but from looking at a map, you might expect their personalities to be more similar than they actually are.
Kentucky Lake is steeper-sided than its easterly neighbor and has more rocky cover. In addition, it is older and generally has clearer water. The makeup of the black bass population is also distinct and sometimes more varied than anglers would expect. Both lakes tend to offer great bass fishing, however, and both are currently in very good condition. Water conditions also affect fishing dramatically and sometimes, because of power-generation schedules and resulting differences in current flow, one lake will fish completely differently than the other.
Let's take a look at these two lakes, considering they are similar to one another, how they are different and the state of the fishery on both lakes. Most significantly, we'll explore some of the types of areas that promise the best late-spring action and the best approaches for fishing those waters at this time of year.
Kentucky Lake largemouths earned a "good" rating in the most recent fishing forecast put out by the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resource (KDFWR). However, biologists are always quick to point out that even a "poor" year on Kentucky Lake is better than an "excellent" year on many other lakes. This lake's size, fertility and variety of quality habitat allow it to support tremendous largemouth stocks along with a good smallmouth population.
Following a few down years by Kentucky Lake standards, the past couple of years have seen the lake on an upswing, with ever-increasing numbers of legal-sized (15-inch) fish in the catch and more than a few high-quality bass. While smallmouths are far less abundant in Kentucky Lake than their big-mouthed cousins, they tend to grow to large sizes. When the smallmouth bite is on, a tournament is apt to be won by an angler who weighs in five heavyweight smallmouths.
By May, most smallmouths will be using main-lake structure, holding over rocky points and channel-edge features, such as creek confluences and channel swings. Numbers are best, by far, on the Land Between the Lakes (eastern) side of the lake, where the terrain is generally steeper and rock is more prevalent. Key elements for anglers to look for are rocks, defined current breaks and moderately shallow structure with deep water nearby.
The current, which is affected by power-generation patterns through Pickwick and Kentucky dams, plays a huge role in determining how smallmouths will respond. They feed much more aggressively when the water is flowing, and they hold in much more predictable positions.
Smallmouths will often hit topwater early and late in the day. During gray days in May, the surface action may continue throughout the day. A noisy walking bait, like a Heddon Super Spook, is a great choice for calling up smallmouths over main-lake structure. Big smallmouths like big baits, and Kentucky Lake definitely produces big smallies.
During late spring, veteran Kentucky Lake anglers keep a topwater bait rigged at all times. But when the fish stop coming up, good lures for going down after them include medium-running crankbaits and assorted soft-plastic offerings fished both on leadheads and on Carolina rigs. During May, smallies along the main river will feed on crawfish and shad, so colors that suggest those kinds of forage are worth trying.
Most Kentucky Lake largemouths are still apt to be shallow through the first half of May. But as the season progresses, many bass will pull away from the banks and move to structure near the mouths of the creeks and out in the main lake. Some Kentucky Lake largemouths will remain on the banks year 'round. During the summer, however, larger fish generally spend more time on offshore structure, so lake veteran anglers follow the fish through the transition.
The timing of the transitions is affected partly by water temperatures, but mostly by water levels. The lake tends to run high during the spring, and when the water is up, the largemouths like to be shallow, often burying themselves in flooded cover. As the water starts to recede during late spring or early summer, the bass begin straying deeper.
When the water remains high during May, anglers often enjoy some of the easiest fishing of the year on Kentucky Lake. Bass in the backs of the creeks and pockets stack up in flooded buckbrush and other inundated cover and they feed aggressively. Probably the most efficient way to put these fish in the boat is to work a Carolina rig or Texas rig right through the thickest stuff. However, shallow crankbaits, spinnerbaits, soft-plastic jerkbaits and topwater lures also produce a lot of fish. Poppers and prop baits work well for the topwater approach around shallow cover.
When the water goes down and many bass abandon the banks, the best areas to concentrate efforts are humps that top out in the 5-foot range and prominent points that stretch out to the edges of major creek channels or the Tennessee River channel.
Keys to finding bass on offshore structure is finding structure that has shad over it and identifying the "sweet spot" on any given point or hump. Typically, a couple of subtle breaks or pieces of cover will hold the bulk of the bass. Anglers who miss
those spots could just as will miss the structure completely.
Finding those spots requires a lot of searching with electronics to locate subtle breaks and isolated pieces of cover with fish over it. Also necessary are careful use of floating marker buoys and, most significantly, a lot of time spent fishing structure thoroughly.
For fishing offshore structure on Kentucky Lake from late spring all the way to the end of fall, a Carolina rig is tough to beat. With this type of rig, anglers can fish the top of a piece of structure very thoroughly, covering every bit of the top and working the offering down the ledges. Often anglers find "sweet spots" after they begin catching fish on a Carolina rig. Alternative baits are crankbaits that run just deep enough to kick off the bottom and large spinnerbaits, slow-rolled just off the bottom.
Barkley Lake bass fishermen are now enjoying the fruits of big year- classes from 2000 and 2001. Those are now 5- and 6-year-old largemouths, and there are lots of them, creating a good potential for catching a lot of bass in the 3- to 6-pound range. And on this fertile impoundment of the Cumberland River, the possibility of hooking a genuine lunker is ever present.
Barkley Lake also produces some good smallmouth fishing, but opportunities are more limited than on Kentucky Lake. Barkley has less quality smallmouth habitat than does its sister lake, and most of it is found in the far lower end of the lake. While this limits the prospects somewhat, it also narrows your search, making the smallies a little easier to target.
Any steep rocky bank along the main river channel or main-lake point in the lake's lower reaches is apt to hold smallmouths. The smallie population in Lake Barkley does appear to be on the increase, according to KDFWR reports.
The same lures that work well on Kentucky Lake are well suited for targeting Barkley's smallmouths. Because Barkley's waters tend to be stained, anglers use a lot of chartreuse, often cranking firetiger plugs, swimming chartreuse grubs or burning big spinnerbaits with painted chartreuse blades. Topwaters can also be important on Barkley, so wise smallmouth anglers always keep a topwater rod close at hand.
Largemouths, however, make up the lion's share of Barkley Lake's black bass population. During May, the largemouth fishing is apt to be about as good as it will get. Fish have finished spawning and most will be past those days of being finicky, which often follows the spawn. Yet most of these bass haven't yet moved deep. They'll be in the many coves, creeks and pockets that border both sides of Barkley, holding in and around shallow cover and feeding aggressively.
The beauty of May fishing on Barkley is that the bass tend to be in all the places that look like they should hold fish. An angler doesn't need a lot of special knowledge. He simply needs to work from bay to bay, moving along the banks and casting at everything that looks "bassy."
Keep several rods handy and switch often, paying close attention to where the hits come from and what kinds of baits and presentations attract the most strikes. By day's end, veteran anglers are zipping past a lot of good-looking stuff to key on certain types of cover that produce the bulk of the bites.
FOLLOW THE FOOD
Part of what makes Kentucky and Barkley outstanding lakes for bass year after year is a super-abundance of shad. No matter which lake you're fishing, which species you're targeting and whether you're fishing shallow, deep or in between, locating concentrations of shad is always a good move.
Shad locations actually tell anglers a couple of things. Most obviously, they reveal potentially productive areas. If a hump has shad all over it, bass are almost certainly nearby. If a creek is loaded with baitfish, the bass are probably holding around nearby cover.
Along with specific spots, baitfish reveal information about depths. Any time a baitfish school shows up on the graph 8 to 10 feet beneath the surface, an angler can count on there being plenty of bass in the same depth range. When that occurs, your next step is to search for points, humps and other structure that offer good bass habitat in those depth ranges. Likewise, if baitfish are flipping on the surface of a creek and are visible to fishermen, there's no reason to fish more than a few feet deep.
THE NIGHT BITE
Many anglers on Kentucky and Barkley lakes begin abandoning daytime fishing and looking for the night bite beginning some time in May each year. The biggest surge of night-fishermen begin showing up on Memorial Day weekend, when crowds of pleasure boaters begin increasing for the summer. However, night bass fishing heats up before then and can be very good for the few anglers who opt to go out at night during early May.
Smallmouth specialists are especially fond of the after-hours approach. But fishing under the stars can produce very good action for both major species. The upper ends of major points, the tops of humps that rise fairly close to the surface, and ditches close to main channel breaks offer good nighttime prospects. Most night-fishermen concentrate on the Tennessee and Cumberland River channels, but structural features that front channels of significant creeks also can be very productive.
Probably the most popular -- and arguably the most effective -- style of bait for night-fishing on Kentucky Lake is a big, dark-colored "thumper" spinnerbait with a single, oversized Colorado blade. Anglers will slow-roll big blades over structural features and hold on tight.
Soft-plastics also get the nod from many nighttime fishermen. Dark colors are again the norm, with red and black ranking among the most popular colors. Oversized worms on Texas rigs, lizards on Carolina rigs and big grubs on leadheads all get their share of use by night-fishermen.
Anglers shouldn't overlook jigs. Hair jigs, especially, account for a lot of night bass. Jig presentations range from straight dragging retrieves to "stroking," which entails making high rips of the rod and then letting the bait fall again. Many jig hits come on the fall, and the stroking tactic kind of recreates the fall several times during each retrieve.
BETWEEN THE LAKES
And finally, anglers shouldn't overlook the "water between the lakes," especially if they have smallmouth bass in mind. The canal linking Kentucky and Barkley lakes holds smallmouths year 'round and serves up extra-good action any time there's current flowing through the canal. Current -- which can flow in either direction -- occurs whenever one dam is running more water than the other. Generally speaking, the more significant the current in the canal, the better the smallmouth fishing.
Actually, the canal has several things in its favor as a smallmouth spot. In addition to having current commonly pushing through it, the canal has extensive riprap along its banks. The rocks hide crawfish and other forage while offering fine smallmouth habitat. Plus the canal is close to some of the best smallmouth habitat in both lakes.
Topwater action is a terrific bet during most mornings and evenings. Throughout most of the day, however, anglers commonly throw crankbaits to the canal's rocky banks, holding their boat fairly close to the edge and casting parallel or at a 45-degree angle so that the lure kicks the rocks during the retrieve. Another outstanding option is to cast a weightless YUM Houdini shad just out from the bank and let it fall freely through the water column.
Anglers also catch some largemouths from the canal, including occasional good ones. Smallmouths are the main attraction, however, and most bass fishermen who work the canal do so with bronzebacks in mind.
BEFORE YOU GO
A reciprocal agreement between Kentucky and Tennessee allows Kentucky-licensed anglers to fish as far south as the U.S. Highway 79 bridge in Tennessee. There is no reciprocal agreement concerning Barkley, so anglers must remain north of the border.
A 15-inch minimum size applies to Kentucky and Barkley lakes and the canal that connects the two. The statewide limit of six black bass applies.