Two big lakes and three lesser-known waters round out our early-summer bass choices. Is one near you?
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
Late-spring bass fishing throughout Kentucky is one of the best periods of the year to connect with largemouth and smallmouth bass. It's a time when most of the Commonwealth's waters are sufficiently warmed to increase bass activity levels, and a time when the spring floods and weather ups and downs have finally planed out enough to pattern bass effectively.
Kentucky has a lot of opportunities, some quite good this year, to catch bass in just about every region. We're going to highlight several waters for you to consider this month, as the spring spawn closes and in most instances, bass haven't all together left the shallows trying to escape the full brunt of the summer heat just yet.
To find out the most up-to-date information, tapping district fishery biologists with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR) is a pretty good way to get a pulse on what anglers can expect in terms of the health and availability of largemouths and smallmouths at various reservoirs. Many on-water studies are conducted throughout the year that help biologists keep tabs on how fish are doing, reproduction, food supply, and if there are any apparent problems that may slow fishing from what usually occurs.
Let's see what the experts have to say about some of our top choices for late May and through June for 2005.
In the western end of the state, the two powerhouse bass fisheries of Kentucky and Barkley lakes often have similarities as far as each lake's bass fisheries are doing. I've selected Barkley to focus on in this article, the shallower and less talked about water to perhaps increase your success on this particular 50,000-acre impoundment this summer.
According to Paul Rister, the KDFWR's lead fisheries biologist for the western region, while sometimes the developments and trends on Barkley tend to mirror what is happening on Kentucky Lake, these two lakes have quite a few differences, as well.
"Bass fishermen on Barkley will find themselves in an environment where shallow-water technique tactics are going to be more productive," Rister began.
"The lake does have dropoffs and some deeper points along the main-lake channel, but back in the creeks and embayments the bass don't have the really deep-water retreats and cover you find on Kentucky Lake.
"Even when water temperatures began warming up, I think many bass can still be taken pretty close to the banks. The fact that the water stays colored, or gets stained more readily in Barkley, keeps the largemouths especially keyed on shallow cover longer into June after nesting activities conclude," Rister said.
The health of the largemouth fishery on Barkley should get a little boost this spring, based on what Rister has observed the last year or so, and heard from fishermen. Drought years tend to play havoc with bass production, and Barkley has experienced a down cycle a couple of times during the last decade; but Rister believes anglers are going to be catching better fish in the heart of the fishing season this year.
"We had a pretty long valley, if you want to call it that, for largemouths on Barkley in the mid- to late '90s when our largemouth spawns just weren't what we been used to getting," Rister said.
"Poor spawn years tend to leave a noticeable hole in the quality of fishing a few years afterward, when fish that should be reaching harvestable size just aren't there in normal numbers. We took a pretty hard knock from 1995 to 1999, but saw the upswing return in 2001 and 2002, which means last fall and this summer is going to improve for fish over 15 inches within the population."
As Rister alluded to earlier, he recommends anglers don't abandon working the woody cover along Barkley's banks too soon. Several approaches will yield bass in shoreline cover and along shallow ledges in 8 to 15 feet of water. Terry Yarborough, who has fished both Barkley and Kentucky for many years, concurs with Rister on looking closer to the water's edge for visible structure that still will hold early-summer largemouths.
"One of the big keys to success is locating water that has some color," Yarborough said. "Barkley tends to stay more murky than Kentucky, and when the lake is at summer pool or a little above, bass will tolerate a few extra degrees of warmth to get in the bushes and treetops up on the bank."
Yarborough uses the same approach many anglers do for earlier spring fishing, like pitching a jig-and-pig combination into heavier cover up into June, when water is up on the shoreline vegetation.
"I have a lot of success with the standard black-and-brown, or black-and-blue colored jig combinations, and recently a pumpkin color has also been good," recommended Yarborough.
"A pretty good number of bass are caught on big crankbaits along the creek drops and ledges, too, where some fish stay on warmer days when the water is a little clearer. That's when you need a lure that gets down a bit deeper," the angler said.
"The fishing began picking up last year, and I think it should continue to improve this summer. I like working some of the bigger creeks and I'll move from spot to spot looking for the right water color.
"If the bite is slow, I may go to a 4-inch tube jig, maybe in a watermelon green, or use a plastic lizard, and try to pick up fish that are around some kind of submerged cover at the edge of a shelf that has some deep water access," Yarborough said.
"On those clear-water, bright days, you won't find many bass in the bushes and brush up close. They'll slip out and hang on the drops, at least until the sun goes down," he noted.
Before we leave Barkley, anglers should also note that Rister's tabs on this reservoir are starting to show an increase in smallmouth bass numbers, primarily in the canal between Barkley and Kentucky, and the northern end of Barkley.
"The boom that developed some time ago for smallies on Kentucky has slowly spread some fish over into Barkley, and now the brown fish are becoming a more common part of the creel than they used to be," Rister said.
While Barkley is no means overrun with smallmouths, Yarborough said some tournaments are now being decided by the catch of 3- to 4-pound smallies. Sometimes the entire string of what some tournament anglers weigh in is smallmouths. That's a significant bit of information
for the avid smallmouth man who is looking for some new water to ply. And the best times to connect are early March through mid-June, along gravel and rocky banks with a jig that resembles a crawfish (the bronzeback's favorite food).
Lake Beshear, at 760 acres, has long been touted as a lake where the chance of catching a truly big largemouth is a solid reality. Not far from Barkley, Beshear is loaded with good largemouths. According to electro-shocking boat searches for fish during research studies, they routinely yield about 40 keeper bass per hour, compared to 20 at Kentucky Lake and around 30 at Barkley. Biologists know this lake has bass.
"Beshear is more of what I think of when I think about a typical eastern Kentucky lake," Rister said, "when you look at the habitat and its characteristics. It's more of a clear, deeper lake that has some rocky bluffs, and it serves as a water-supply lake on top of providing a place for public fishing.
"Sometimes a less fertile body of water has the tendency to produce more really large bass, and Beshear has given up a good number of really high-quality largemouths for several years. I'd say that can be attributed to it being a little harder to fish because it's clear much of the time, and that these fish may elude the hook longer, so it lets more of them grow bigger," the biologist said.
Though Beshear recently has "slumped" a bit, to use Rister's description, he expects things to perk up this spring and summer as far as the availability of bigger bass. Beshear remains under the statewide 12-inch size limit vs. the relatively common 15-inch limit on black bass elsewhere. Beshear anglers typically practice catch-and-release, which helps keep the bass quality high, and the opportunity to catch some nicer bass a sustained possibility. To bump the size limit up to 15 inches wouldn't really achieve anything that isn't already the case now.
If you like fishing a smaller lake, in May and June, Beshear is a good choice if you work the deep-water points and look for submerged cover along dropoffs and channel cuts. Bass may come up a little more shallow at night, making them susceptible to plastic worms and larger curlytail grubs fished on a leadhead. The potential to catch bigger bass is better here than many places, and Beshear is one of just a handful of waters where biologists consistently believe could produce a 10-pound or better largemouth.
WOOD CREEK LAKE
Down in Laurel County in south-central Kentucky, a small lake (672 acres) called Wood Creek remains home to the current state-record largemouth bass. No place else has topped the 13-pound, 10-ounce bucketmouth that sits atop Kentucky's "best of the Bluegrass" fish list. Dale Wilson caught the big bass back in 1984. And still today, the threat that Wood Creek could top itself remains.
May and June are the prime bass fishing months on Wood Creek, because after that, the largemouths go deep in this gin-clear reservoir with steep banks and in some spots a seemingly bottomless depth. But in late spring and early summer, fishermen can do well on this out-of-the way, scenic little hole of water.
"Our information shows we have a good bunch of 12- to 16-inch largemouths present in Wood Creek, and every so often we know of bass over 4 pounds coming out of there," said John Williams, the KDFWR's southeastern district fishery biologist.
There's a fair amount of wood and stickup tree cover in the backs of bays and along the shoreline, which anglers can work in late spring and early summer. Summer patterns include fishing points with stumps or other structure with crankbaits and worms. These areas will yield bass that have not yet gone deep to escape the heat and light penetration.
At night, don't be timid to try a topwater plug or twitch bait around the bank at first light, in the late evening or after dark. Bass that try to avoid the light of the shallow water during the day will move up and cruise banks for food in low-light or no-light conditions, and are often not too shy about smacking a topwater lure.
"Fishing Wood Creek requires some patience and some knowledge of how to use some deep-water fishing techniques," Williams said.
"It does have the potential for some big bass along some of the vertical walls where ledges and outcroppings are located, and off the points that are close to the lake channel and have some submerged cover on them.
"I think anglers can probably still find fish in the back bays around debris and woody cover. Here they should use smaller jig combinations up close to standing timber or fallen trees, if they'll work those spots early and late," the biologist suggested.
DALE HOLLOW LAKE
A second reservoir in our batch of picks that includes good fishing for largemouths and smallmouths is the highly revered Dale Hollow Lake. While Kentucky biologists spend relatively little time working on this waterway that mostly lies in Tennessee, they do know from anglers that bass fishing here is very good pre- and post-spawn in early summer.
"We did some fish collection on Dale Hollow this past year for a research project at one of the nearby universities and we saw evidence of a stable, good quality fishery for both species," John Williams said. Kentucky's portion of Dale Hollow also lies within the south-central fishery district.
"In the number of fish we picked up in Illwill Creek, we found some high-quality largemouths and many good smallmouths, so we know this lake is still producing great opportunities to catch good bass. We expect what we found would hold true throughout the lake," Williams said.
Williams believes one reason why Dale Hollow sustains a superb smallmouth fishery, and why anglers are successful hooking up with smallies on this lake, is because it has more gently sloping rock and gravel banks. This type of structure holds bronzebacks better than the more steeply inclined banks like on Lake Cumberland, for instance.
Banks that have more contours and don't fall off into oblivion so drastically give smallmouths more room to feed. These banks also attract more food fish and crawfish. Gently sloping banks simply have more areas to fish -- more gravel and shelf flats -- so bumping a jig along the bottom, or drifting a big minnow down a bank may be more productive.
"Dale Hollow is a place that you don't want to forget about at the onset of the summer," Williams said.
"It has both warm- and cool-water habitat, lots of cover and creek channels, good forage and a well-earned reputation for good, solid bass."
Spinnerbaits with trailers pumped along the edges of downed trees, crankbaits run along the contours of points and plastic worms seeped into the seams of limbs on standing timber or through a row of old stumps are prime targets for early-summer largemouths. A simple jig-and-pig eased down a pea gravel slide like a swimming crawfish fluttering along the bottom ought to work well in smallie spots. Even smaller, flashy spinnerbaits will attract atten
tion on a slow retrieve and momentary fall around chunk rock off main-lake points.
Biologist Kevin Frey said Dewey Lake anglers can find good distribution and high numbers of largemouths this season in the 1,100 acres this lake covers in Floyd County in far eastern Kentucky.
"We had a pretty rough fishing season last year, thanks to repeated flooding and rainy conditions week after week," Frey reports, "but our data shows even though angler success was down some last year, there are still a lot of quality bass in the system right now. That should make for good fishing this year."
Indeed, central and eastern Kentucky took a tremendous pounding with rainfall in 2004 -- one of the wettest years ever in those regions. However, while it hurts fishing, it doesn't necessarily hurt the fish population, or reproduction, depending on when it falls.
To find the better largemouths, Frey suggests anglers concentrate on the main breaks in the bigger arms of the lake for best success, and look for structure on the dropoffs in early summer.
"I think one thing fishermen will quickly notice is that there's a lot of newly created shoreline habitat, thanks to the storms and rains of 2004," Frey said.
"There are new slides and fallen trees on many banks, some deeper areas filled in from the heavy inflow of water last year, and places bass will definitely use for cover and to find food that weren't there in the past.
Frey said anglers are frequently catching largemouths on crankbaits in fire tiger patterns with yellow and orange coloring, along with using plastic worms fished to shoreline cover. Early-summer bass are active mornings and afternoons and will hit topwaters around blowdowns and stickups, before the retreat to deeper water when the sun is high.
Late May and June is a great period to connect with largemouths and smallmouths on many of the state's waterways. Those noted here are some of the best, and in a case or two, least pursued, in the Commonwealth.
Be sure to kick off your summer bass-fishing excursions with a trip to one of these hotspots for 2005. And for complete regulatory and boating access information, either visit the KDFWR's Web site at
www.fw.ky.gov, or call toll-free (800) 858-1549 for the Kentucky Sport Fishing and Boating Guide publication, which is available free upon request.