Sure, Dale Hollow and Cumberland lakes are top producers of winter smallmouth action, but so are the overlooked waters of Fishtrap, Laurel River and Green River lakes.
Lake Cumberland, Dale Hollow and Kentucky Lake are topnotch spots for bronzebacks for many Kentucky anglers, offering standby opportunities in the colder months for some high-quality smallmouth action.
The Bluegrass State, however, has some additional waters cold enough to support smallmouth populations, but they don't necessarily carry the same reputation as the "household" lakes most of us are familiar with. Out of the "best of the rest," we've culled a few and selected three lakes where smallmouths are doing just fine, thank you, and in some cases even sport some good-sized fish. Maybe anglers won't want to overlook these lakes this winter.
When you chat with fishery biologists with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR), you find that the topic of smallmouths in major lakes is a rather elusive subject. Smallmouths, elusive themselves by nature, are hard to sample and get a handle on, especially in the deeper, clearer reservoirs. Biologists like Kevin Frey, who heads up the Eastern Fishery District out of Prestonsburg, though, can rely on what they know about smallmouth behavior, and the tangible results anglers report when fishing, to give us some picture of the welfare of this species in certain waters.
"One thing anglers might want to note is that just because a lake looks deep and clear, doesn't necessarily mean there are smallmouths there and that smallmouths will flourish there," said Frey.
In some cases, Frey notes that the native smallmouth population in a given river that was impounded to form a lake can sometimes be negatively impacted when a dam is built. He uses Paintsville Lake as an example. He believes creating the lake resulted in a loss of smallmouth spawning habitat, and though it looks like a classic bronzeback spot, it hasn't developed as such. Smallies are there, but likely make up less than 5 percent of the bass population.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
FISHTRAP LAKE "One of those lakes where we have what anglers tell us is improving smallmouth fishing is Fishtrap Lake in Pike County. The locals know smallmouths are taking hold, but since the lake is off the beaten path, not too many other people probably realize it," Frey said.
Fishtrap, at 1,130 acres, is one of the smaller Corps of Engineers impoundments. It isn't generally ranked at the top of the list for smallmouths with the big boys like Cumberland and Dale Hollow. But that doesn't mean you can't catch some smallmouths, though, and often the late-December through February period is a good time to give it a try.
"Most of the time you're not going to find fish in the heads of the creeks or right on the banks at this time of year," said Frey.
"I think more productive areas would be near the dam, off points where a creek channel cuts pretty deep and close, or suspended along the main river channel in the mid to lower end of the lake," recommends the biologist.
Anglers are reporting smallmouths being taken in spots where hybrid striped bass are found along channels in open water. Frey says the larger smallmouths are feeding on larger gizzard shad. Fish up to 4 and 5 pounds have been caught by anglers and collected by biologists. Over recent years, it seems spawning up in the Levisa Fork River has been pretty good, and the percentage of smallmouths in the lake is increasing.
LAUREL RIVER LAKE In the south-central part of the state, a second decent smallmouth producer that flies just under the radar of most anglers is Laurel River Lake. Walleye fishermen or anglers primarily targeting largemouths or Kentucky bass, according to biologist John Williams, take most smallmouths here. About 20 percent of the black bass in Laurel are smallmouths, and they have carved out a niche for themselves and are able to sustain their numbers.
"We get fairly frequent reports of anglers boating 5-pound fish, and those we are able to collect in our sampling studies show the health and size distribution of smallmouths looks good on Laurel," said Williams.
Williams has had some success catching smallmouths, mostly on big, deep-diving crankbaits. In colder weather situations, presentations must be slowed decisively, and generally smaller lures on lighter lines produce more strikes.
Williams suggests the Craigs Creek arm of the lake is better habitat for smallies, and some habitat is available in the lower end of the lake. From the midpoint of the Laurel River arm on up, he's found few smallmouths to speak of.
"I would imagine anglers can pick up some fish using a jig-and-pig combination off the deeper points and over any submerged structure they locate during the winter period," said Williams.
"You have to work it slow and deliberate, and try to fish days toward the end of a warming period.
"Even though smallmouths are a coldwater species and active in a wider range of water temperatures than largemouths, if a little warmer water results from the outside air temperature moderating a bit, the fish should become more active and perhaps feed better," Williams noted.
GREEN RIVER LAKE A final spot to consider this winter is Green River Lake in south-central Kentucky. The lake has a reputation for quality-sized fish. Anglers do well spring through fall on smallmouths, picking up fish around rocky points and deeper banks, and sometimes around pockets of vegetation when it shows up.
Kentucky's trophy fish recognition program indicates several 5- and 6-pound smallies have been caught in this reservoir. This suggests fishing in the colder months shouldn't be bad either.
Unlike the other two lakes we've mentioned, biologist Bonny Laflin recommends anglers concentrate upstream for bronzebacks. Green River Lake is fed by several natural springs, and Laflin believes smallmouths can be taken in upstream areas where an influx of warmer water comes in. Finding water that is more in the comfort zone for smallmouths is a key to fishing success any time of year.
Laflin believes the best way to fish smallmouths in cold weather is by using light lines, smaller lures and perhaps going with drifting live minnows. Although they will remain active in cold water, a smallmouth's metabolism will still slow down as water temperatures drop to the 40s. This means using lures and presentations that don't make the
fish work hard.
Green River bass anglers may be sharing the lake with muskie fishermen in colder weather, but might find muskie guys a good source of information. They catch smallmouths sometimes, too, and may be able to provide some tips. Anglers should concentrate on rocky habitat and deeper cover. Avoid the clear, bluebird days for best chances at fishing success.
Remember that regardless of where you fish, smallmouths rarely leave the comfort of deeper water access. They sometimes will feed shallow for a while, but won't travel too far from a channel or good drop, except maybe during spawning. Any lure you can work slowly, whether a jig combination, a spoon worked vertically along a ledge, or live bait eased along a bottom contour feature, can potentially catch fish.
Smallmouths will also tend to bunch together in colder weather, so fish slowly and thoroughly on those banks where you get strikes or boat a bronzeback.
One final tip for winter fishing is to check ahead if you plan to use marina facilities at any lake. Usually state marinas are open year-round, but some privately run operations close in winter. You might want to procure gas, tackle and other supplies prior to arriving 'cause you might find nobody is home at the dock.
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