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3 Winter Hotspots for Kentucky Smallmouths

3 Winter Hotspots for Kentucky Smallmouths

Laurel River, Cumberland and Dale Hollow lakes are the places to be for great wintertime action with bruiser bronzebacks right now!

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

By Travis Faulkner

January can potentially generate bone-chilling temperatures, icy treacherous roads, sleet and even heavy snow. With that in mind, why would anyone be crazy enough to venture onto the lake during such miserable winter conditions? The answer can be summed up with one simple word: smallmouths. There is just something special about these unique freshwater warriors that touches bass anglers' hearts.

The spirited nature and acrobatic fighting skills of bronzebacks is definitely enough to pull me away from the comforts of a warm home to face the extreme challenges posed by winter weather on the lake. I can't help it; I just love the sound of a drag slipping and singing from the energetic runs that smallmouths are known to make. And it's hard to beat the feeling you get from a rod tip that is bent over double from the overwhelming strength of these magnificent fish.

Kentucky residents are very fortunate to be living at a close drive from several lakes that hold awesome numbers of smallmouth bass. Bass anglers across the nation make pilgrimages every year to our state just to get the chance to fish for smallmouths on the lakes that some of us take for granted. We're talking jumbo-sized smallies, too.

We have been blessed with large lakes like Cumberland, Dale Hollow (the renowned smallmouth capital) and small bodies of water like Laurel River Lake, which hold solid numbers of smallmouth bass. With lakes like these, now's the time to formulate a game plan that will enable you to take advantage of the world-class smallmouth bass fishing that is available across the Commonwealth.


I grew up bass fishing on Laurel River Lake and have spent countless hours on this small reservoir. In fact, I worked my way through college as an employee of Grove Marina, which is one of only two marinas on the entire lake. There are close to 192 miles of shoreline located within the Daniel Boone National Forest that is virtually undisturbed and untouched by development. The lake has approximately 5,600 acres of surface water and an average depth of 72 feet. Although the lake is small in stature when compared to Cumberland and Dale Hollow, it still provides some awesome wintertime smallmouth bass fishing and should not be overlooked by anglers this January.

Laurel River Lake is located in Laurel and Whitley counties. It is an ultra-clear lake that encompasses deep water and a variety of structures, which are very suitable for bass in general. In fact, bass anglers can easily find key structure consisting of bluffs, long rocky points, and hollows that have huge sections of standing timber. Smallmouth bass feed heavily upon forage like gizzard and threadfin shad. In addition, crayfish, minnows and juvenile panfish are also abundant throughout the lake.

Laurel River Lake is primarily known for holding good numbers of rainbow trout, walleyes, largemouth and spotted bass. However, with a current 18-inch size limit, the smallmouth bass population seems to also be doing well. "The new size limit has helped to improve the size structure of the smallmouth bass population on Laurel," said John Williams, southeastern Kentucky fisheries biologist for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR).

Laurel River Lake is small in size, but has the potential to produce some trophy-class smallmouth bass. In fact, about six years ago, Coolie Williams landed an 8-pound, 7-ounce smallmouth from Laurel that stands as the current state record. During the time that I worked at Grove Marina, I personally weighed numerous 5- to 6-pound smallmouth bass at the dock, which were caught by other anglers. In addition, my father and I have caught a number of smallmouths that weighed well over the 4-pound mark as well. With the right tactics in place, right now can be the prime time to catch brawling bronzebacks on Laurel.

Key Areas To Fish

Smallmouth bass can be found throughout most of Laurel River Lake; however, the most suitable habitat is in the lake's lower section. Areas like Craig Creek and Marsh Branch can be wintertime hotspots. Here the main body of the lake has banks that consist of bluffs and long rocky points. These key areas offer quick access to deep water that seems to attract smallmouths during the late winter months. In addition, there are several river bend banks and points located on the upper end of the lake (just past the High Top Boat Ramp) that have produced some fine bronzebacks over the years.

Winter Lures & Presentations

The most essential part of wintertime fishing is being able to dramatically slow down your lure presentation. Many anglers experience minimal success during January simply because they fish too fast. Generally, icy-cold water temperatures have a way of turning active fish like smallmouths into sluggish predators. Fast presentations that produced in the summer and fall are now less effective. However, a slow and subtle presentation can generate strikes among bass that are seemingly inactive on extremely cold winter days.

One of my favorite tactics on Laurel during the month of January is to tie on a 1/4-ounce hair jig rigged with a No. 11 pork chunk and prepare for battle. Color combinations such as black/blue, brown/orange and green/ orange seem to drive smallmouths crazy. However, I have experienced some trips where light colors, such as yellow and white, have produced the best. When fished slowly, these baits can absolutely fill the boat on a cold January day. In fact, some of my best trips have come on overcast days where the temperature is steadily falling and it is spitting snow.

You want to cast the bait toward the bank and let the lure fall to the bottom while carefully watching your line. This presentation is very similar to fishing a Texas-rigged worm, except you are fishing much slower. Next, gently lift your rod tip and raise the bait off of the bottom. Repeat this process until you have covered various depths and have worked the lure all the way back to the boat. In many cases, the strike will occur on the fall and you can detect a sudden jump of your line, or you may feel a light tap as you raise your rod tip. A sensitive rod and patience are all you really need to make this tactic work this winter on Laurel River Lake.

Smallmouth anglers can find several boat ramps that offer quick and easy access to Laurel Lake. However, Grove Marina and Holly Bay are the only two marinas on the lake that have fully stocked stores, which offer gas, groceries, fishing supplies and docking all year long. For additional information, you can contact the helpful staff of Grove Marina at (606) 523-2323 or Holly Bay at (606) 864-6542.


The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Tennessee Valley Authority made Lake Cumberland by constructing the Wolf Creek Dam. In 1952, the lake was opened to the public to provide recreational opportunities, hydroelectric power and flood control on the lower Ohio and Mississippi rivers. This magnificent lake stretches across 50,250 acres of surface water and includes 1,255 miles of shoreline. It is fed primarily by the Cumberland River with supplemental inflows from the Big South Fork River along with Wolf, Beaver, Otter, Indian and Fishing creeks.

Most of the Cumberland consists of a limestone bottom, and rocky structure makes up the majority of cover across the lake. Anglers can easily find rocky banks and points that drop off quickly to deeper water. The sheer size of the lake, coupled with deep clear water and rocky structure, provides an ideal home for smallmouth bass. Not to mention the lake is full of alewives, threadfin and gizzard shad, which offer a strong forage base for hungry bronzebacks. Smallmouths can also feed on crayfish and other minnow species that populate the lake. Cumberland's 18-inch size limit on smallmouth bass should provide anglers with solid numbers of good fish every year.

Ironically, the smallmouth bass fishing on Cumberland is often overshadowed by its reputation as being a premier lake for trophy striped bass. For the lake's size, there is simply not a whole lot of fishing pressure placed on the smallmouths, especially during January. Threadfin shad are also known to form huge schools during the winter months and can potentially attract large numbers of feeding smallmouths. This is a perfect time for die-hard bass anglers to dress warm and be on the water.

Key Areas To Fish

Without question, river channel banks that include steep bluffs or long, rocky points on the lower end of the lake are prime areas to concentrate your fishing efforts this winter. In addition, the mouths of major creeks and secondary points will also hold good numbers of winter smallmouths. These areas typically offer immediate access to deep water and will often attract schools of suspending shad. An integral step in catching smallmouths under these conditions is finding the baitfish. You can bet your bottom dollar that the smallmouths will be close by.

Over the years, my father and I have also experienced a great deal of success fishing the banks around the Fall Creek and Conley Bottom sections. Once again, the key is finding bluffs, points and rocky banks located near deep water in these areas that are holding baitfish. You can save an enormous amount of time by utilizing your depthfinder to pinpoint suspending schools of shad before you begin fishing. Paying close attention to your fish-finder can be the difference between a hot action-packed trip or a bone-numbingly cold, fruitless January outing.

Winter Lures & Presentations

When smallmouth bass are suspended below schooling baitfish, it is hard to beat blade baits, tail spinners and spoons. These simplistic metal lures can very effective during the cold winter months on Cumberland. There are several key advantages that metal baits offer bass anglers who are pursuing smallmouths in January. For example, they can easily be fished in deep water and directly mimic a wounded or falling baitfish. Secondly, the small and compact profile of metal baits is tailor-made for finicky bass in coldwater conditions. These lures also sink quickly to reach the bass. They can be kept in the strike zone for extended periods of time when fished vertically like a jig in deep water. Don't be afraid to give these tactics a try this winter on Lake Cumberland.


In the world of bass fishing, it's hard to mention the word smallmouth without talking about Dale Hollow Lake. Over the years, Dale Hollow has built a solid reputation as being the hotspot for smallmouth bass angling and the lake itself is crammed full of these spirited brown warriors. Numerous trophy-class fish exceeding the 6-pound mark have been boated from these renowned waters. Oh yeah, it's hard to forget the 11-pound, 15-ounce bruiser smallmouth that was caught by David Hayes on Dale Hollow in 1955. This extraordinary fish has been reinstated as the all-tackle world record and many anglers feel that Dale has the potential of accomplishing this feat once again.

In addition, the slot limit on Dale Hollow smallmouths seems to be increasing the overall number of trophy-class bass in the lake. The slot limit was implemented back in 2000 and requires anglers to release any smallmouths caught in the 16- to 21- inch slot. Furthermore, anglers can only keep one fish above or below the slot limit, allowing more smallmouths to survive and mature. During the past couple of years, I personally have caught more and bigger smallmouths on Dale Hollow. I strongly feel that the strict slot limit will continue to have a profound impact on the lake in years to come.

Dale Hollow is a super-clear, deep lake that covers well over 20,000 acres at normal pool in the states of Kentucky and Tennessee and offers 620 miles of beautiful shoreline. The bottom consists of gravel, boulders and broken rock. Submerged vegetation such as coontail and several types of pondweed can also be found on sections of the lake. There are miles of prime smallmouth banks that include river bend bluffs, rocky points and slides made up of broken boulders, clay and timber. It's almost as though the lake was customized specifically to meet the needs of smallmouth bass.

Key Areas To Fish

Dale Hollow has close to 4,300 acres that are located within the Bluegrass State and anglers have plenty of room to pursue jumbo bronzebacks. Sulphur and Illwill creeks along with sections of the Wolf River are located in Kentucky. These areas offer fantastic wintertime smallmouth fishing. Once again, key banks that generally hold numbers of smallmouths in January include rocky bluffs and long points close to the river channel. However, anglers should not overlook the mouths of hollows on the main lake near the old river channel, cuts and creek arms. A general rule for winter smallies is to search these areas with a fish-finder first to locate schools of baitfish before making a single cast.

Winter Lures & Presentations

Without question, one of the most popular ways to catch smallmouth bass in icy-cold water is the float-and-fly technique that was made famous on Dale Hollow. Basically, this setup consists of a tiny leadhead jig or fly constructed of craft hair, a small bobber and a long spinning rod with clear line. This lightweight setup is ideal for smallmouths suspending beneath baitfish in cold water that is at or below the 45-degree mark. The float-and-fly presentation will produce when traditional winter lures like blade baits and jigging spoons are ignored by finicky smallmouths.

The craft hair on the jig will puff out and pulsate when suspended below a fixed float, directly mimicking the action of small baitfish. Generally, you want a stationary float that is fixed around 8 feet or more above the fly. This will enable the jig to suspend at the desired depth and the bobbing float will move and add a lifelike action that will drive the smallmouths crazy. This simple technique can potentially heat up

the fishing on a cold January day on Dale Hollow.

Without a doubt, Dale Hollow, Cumberland and Laurel River lakes can generate some rod-bending, drag- slipping action for smallmouth bass during the winter months. Consequently, all of the tactics and strategies mentioned in this text will work on all three of these lakes. So what are you waiting for? January is definitely the time to throw on some extra clothes, break out the hand warmers and give these tactics a try in order to tangle with some bronzeback bruisers right now.

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